Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Where’s the love?

The nonprofit sector is a strange world. I would like to take this moment to reflect on my experience this year working for a nonprofit among 30 other recent graduates doing public interest work in Chicago. For the record, I am not against nonprofits, but I do think good ones are the exception, not the rule.

Nonprofits are typically built in the following way:
1) Someone has a “new idea” that will solve the “most pressing issue” of our time
2) The founder uses their charm, close networks, and good luck in raising money
3) They operationalize their idea by developing programs and filling an office
4) They find ways to show how well their programs are doing without actually addressing whether the world really looks any different because of their programs
5) The cycle continues: restate the vision, get more funding, run programs, overstate impact...

The following are a few of my high-level critiques and observations:

1) There is no rational process that incentivizes real impact

Every nonprofit has a “unique approach” that validates their existence ad infinitum (though they all claim to be working to put themselves out of business). This leads them to have entirely different and thus uncomparable metrics of success, which also undermines the prospects of real partnership and collaboration. If everyone can define success differently, then there cannot be a mechanism that consistently rewards more impactful organizations. This means that funders do not maximize dollar for dollar impact, but instead rely on their gut, being wooed by emotional appeals, or personal pet interests and friendships.

2) “At least we’re doing something” usually means rationalized mediocrity

Nonprofits often have unbelievably audacious visions and rarely hold themselves accountable to audacious impact goals. One example is Teach for America (TFA). TFA is often discussed as a best-in-class nonprofit, and I would agree; they definitely attract top-talent (read John Boumgarden). However, I think they too fall into this category of huge vision with dissonant impact. Wendy Kopp’s vision is “One day, all children...” The average impact of a Corps Member is one tenth of one grade level better than the average (see study). Are we really to believe that this is the strategy that will lead to “One day, all children?” But hey, at least they’re doing something.

Did Gandhi start a nonprofit? Did King? The two most impressive civic leaders of the 20th century impacted world structures without the nonprofit apparatus. There are obviously many great nonprofits out there (see Harlem Children’s Zone), but I think we have become too quick to channel our desire to do good into the segmented, weakly accountable, and largely unimpressive nonprofit sector.

Vaclav Havel, the great Czech dissident and politician, offers us an alternative to the typical nonprofit approach. He says:

We are looking for new scientific recipes, new ideologies, and new institutions to eliminate the dreadful consequences of our previous recipes, ideologies, and institutions [...] We cannot discover a law or theory whose application will eliminate the disastrous consequences of the application of earlier laws and theories.

What we need is something different, something larger. Man’s attitude toward the world must be radically changed. We have to abandon the arrogant belief that the world is merely a puzzle to be solved, a machine with instructions for use waiting to be discovered.

We have to release from the sphere of private whim and rejuvenate such forces as a natural, unique, and unrepeatable experience of the world, an elementary sense of justice, the ability to see things as others do, a sense of transcendental responsibility, archetypal wisdom, good taste, courage, compassion, and faith in the importance of particular measures that do not aspire to be universal [...] The way forward is not in the mere construction of universal systemic solutions. Instead, human uniqueness, human action, and the human spirit must be rehabilitated.

How do we implement Havel’s call for a transformed human consciousness based on justice, compassion, and responsibility? I don’t know, maybe I’ll start a nonprofit.


Dan said...

I agree with the main points you make, but I think you're describing a fairly narrow segment of the nonprofit sector and making an overly broad generalization. I would argue that in fact only a small percentage of nonprofits are started by someone with a "new idea" seeking to solve the "most pressing issue" of our time. Those nonprofits may make up a disproportionate number of the "name" nonprofits that we hear about all the time as beacons for the sector, but there are a far greater number of nonprofits and nonprofit leaders who recognize that their mission is not to bring about a broad systems change but rather to provide services that would otherwise not be available to those in need. For example, think of all the Goodwill affiliates throughout the country. Goodwill's mission is to "[enhance] the dignity and quality of life of individuals, families, and communities by eliminating barriers to opportunity and helping people in need reach their fullest potential through the power of work." Year after year, local Goodwills and other similar social service organizations provide a social safety net and have tangible impact on the lives of thousands of the most vulnerable members of our society.

Earlier today, I was at a workshop in Wichita with 50 local nonprofit leaders, and I'd wager none of them would claim that their organizations are solving the most pressing issue of our time, but each of them provide services to hundreds or thousands of individuals who would not otherwise have their needs met for employment, mentorship, etc. Could they be more successful and serve people if there were a rational process to incentivize their their impact? Certainly. But it is not true that they don't achieve "real" impact without those incentives in place, and their corner of the world is measurably (and immeasurably) different because of their programs.

Dave said...


On the whole, I agree with you. There ARE good nonprofits out there making a big difference (again, Harlem Children's Zone). However, I'll stand by my initial point that excellent, high-impact nonprofits are the exception, not the rule, and the "at least we're doing something" logic needs to be challenged.

More and more, I think I am an advocate for small, local, direct service nonprofits that are specific in their goals, sound in approach, and not interested in "scaling programs around the world."

Thanks for your thoughts Dan. As usual, you bring a healthy dose of optimism to my hyper-critical lens :)

AC said...


Dan hits most of my initial reaction to your post. One question I have hits at the mediocrity factor you mention, because I'm unclear as to whether you're making an assumption with which I would disagree.

So, are you saying then, that large-scale nonprofits that attempt to address broader issues, or rather, issues broadly inherently strive for mediocrity when they "settle" for less than great gains? I don't know if I can agree with that, because I would think that the larger the nonprofit's scale, the greater the chance that the impact won't be vertically as deep as it is horizontally wide; this doesn't imply mediocrity, just a different impact method.

Obviously local, vertically-associated nonprofits will have a greater impact on a specific cause or community, but I don't think it's fair to interpret this as success or exceptional work while seemingly dismissing organizations like the American Cancer Society, because it hasn't reached it's massive goal of "eradicating cancer." The size of the goal will affect the size of the impact; smaller impacts from larger goal-seekers don't imply mediocrity.

Yes? No?

xdnation said...

Interesting! I work for a non-profit so my initial gutteral reaction is "what is he talking about?!" But I can certainly see your point in terms of some groups - they are bad at ID'ing the problem enough to strategize towards a measurable goal, and thus their actions are hard to gauge.

Some funders, as you point out, don't require specific deliverables for their funds and as a result these groups continue to exist. But I would argue that this is actually NOT the norm. Most funders are quite careful at assessing numbers that represent a specific goal and most non-profits do the same. They wouldn't get citizen support with out.

Even TFA, which I personally am not a fan of because of it claims systemic change when really they provide temporary relief, achieves teaching at least on par with existing programs AND breeds generations of "do-gooders," who I would argue have a greater sense of civic duty than if they had gone corporate.

Justin Edward Ellis said...

hey Dave, on the whole I agree with at least part of what your saying I think. It's a sad condition when the flow path for people who care is as follows:

1) Hey, I don't like that, I should change it.
2) I should start a non-profit to actualize my vision legitimately.
3) I put 90% of my time and money into sustaining the non-profit I just started
4) I'm not even doing what I originally wanted to do anymore because I have to change my mission statement every year to be relevant to my funders funding guidelines.

we need a better system than this.