There are some excellent nonprofits out there. People who are using innovative, groundbreaking strategies to create long-lasting social change. Organizations that are market-directed and make data-driven strategic decisions. Community Wealth Partners has worked with some of these organizations that are creating transformational change, including the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Miriam’s Kitchen, Share Our Strength, and the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. They, and others in the sector, are demonstrating that there really are proven solutions to social problems like hunger, homelessness, and illiteracy.
So then why are there still so many mediocre nonprofits out there?
Why are there so many organizations that year after year raise money, hire staff, pay rent, hold meetings, and run programs and events without any clear evidence that they are getting real results?
People in the social sector often give lip service to wanting to put themselves out of business, but how many of their organizations are genuinely designed to solve the social problems that their programs are meant to address? How many of them actually believe that the programs they are currently running will put them out of business?
It’s not to say that these programs are bad. They may very well be doing good things, but are they good enough?
When each month that goes by means more children who can’t focus on their schoolwork because they haven’t had anything to eat and more families living in shelters because there isn’t enough affordable housing, how is it possible that we, as a sector, are not devoting all of our limited resources to those strategies that we know work, or those organizations that are pushing themselves to get real, long-lasting results?
A couple of key reasons:
- Lack of accountability. It is incumbent upon funders and boards to ensure that the organizations they support and oversee are setting measurable goals, tracking progress, and demonstrating results (or reassessing their strategies if they aren’t getting the desired results). Too often, funders and boards either fail to ask the hard questions or, perhaps more commonly, ask the hard questions but then don’t follow up to demand strong answers.
- Insufficient management training. Nonprofits’ leaders bear some of the responsibility, too. They must hold themselves and their staff accountable, and this is no easy task. Too many nonprofits are being led by people with incredible passion and programmatic expertise, but who lack management skills or training. Getting the kinds of results that excellent nonprofits need requires deft navigation of finances, interpersonal dynamics and change management.
Part of the mental shift that must happen to turn mediocre nonprofits into great ones is to stop seeing data as something that will be used to award a “good” or “bad” grade, and instead see it as something they can use to assess and improve strategies. We say we want to improve the lives of children in our communities. Are we really doing that? We say we want to reduce the spread of HIV in our city. Are our programs really showing a decrease in the numbers?
Inspiring and managing this kind of change is hard. But it can be easier if we do it collectively. If we work together to combat the culture in the social sector that “good is good enough.” If we push ourselves and each other to ask the hard questions, use data to find not just satisfactory but compelling answers, and then ensure that our money is going where our mouths are, so that we really are creating the kind of change that will put us out of business.