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“Our survival is on the line.” – Mario Morino’s Cleveland Keynote

Mario_new_bioWhether it was sold out weeks in advance due to civic pride and respect for a successful son of Cleveland, or because nonprofits are desperate to find ways to do their work more powerfully, the City Club in Cleveland was packed on Friday for Mario Morino’s speech titled “RELENTLESS: Investing in Leaders Who Stop at Nothing in Pursuit of Greater Social Impact”. It can be read here.

Summarizing the main points from his book, Leap of Reason, Morino challenged the nonprofit community “to take a hard look in the mirror” and focus on performance. He cited the need for nonprofits to respond to continued and even deeper constraints in funding, the need for building high performing institutions and a performance culture, and the need to leverage a network of community support for nonprofit leaders.

“The whole system sets up nonprofits for struggle and starvation, not for solving social challenges” Mario asserted.  As a result their work is “incremental, month-to-month, hand-to-mouth.”

Predicting that competition for grants will skyrocket when the inevitable cuts in government funding occur, he warned nonprofits “Your survival is on the line.”

And in response to a question, Mario put his finger on a central flaw in current philanthropic funding decisions: “We give to the best story, not the best result.”

Because Mario was one of the earliest and most significant investors, in Community Wealth Partners, and because he was a client for many years, using Community Wealth Partners for much of the original conceptual and design work on Venture Philanthropy Partners, it’s not surprising that much of Mario’s diagnosis and prescription, and our work, align.

Characteristically, Mario had concrete recommendations for what can be done to address these issues, including the need for funders to do more than programmatic funding, to break their fixation on overhead ratios, and invest in great leaders.  Most memorable of all though was his sense of urgency.  As someone who “grew up poor, but just didn’t know it” every word of his speech was imbued with the conviction that the lives of children are at stake in our willingness to rethink the work of the nonprofit and the public sector. “The challenge for all of us is to determine whether our hard work is adding up to the kind of opportunities that I had … that you had …that every parent here wants for his or her own children.”

Sustained applause greeted the speech. Mario is listened to not only because of what he says, but because of who he is: someone who made a fortune in business, but unlike so many others didn’t think that it entitled him to tell nonprofits how to go about their work. Instead, he worked around the clock for more than two decades to learn about the sector first-hand, and about what works and what doesn’t, while investing as much or more sweat equity as cash, and always with consistent generosity.  If he’d written an autobiography he could have titled that RELENTLESS also because it captures his own approach to making the world a better place.

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About Billy Shore

Billy Shore is the founder and executive director of Share Our Strength, a national nonprofit that is ending childhood hunger in America. Shore is also the chairman of Community Wealth Partners, a Share Our Strength organization that helps change agents solve social problems at the magnitude they exist.