As I travel the country meeting with nonprofit organizations seeking to move from incremental impact to transformational change so that they can solve problems on the scale that they exist, a common obstacle appears almost without exception. Whether they are working on hunger, health, education, community development, or a myriad of other challenges, nonprofit organizations are failing to grapple with the threshold questions on which all else depends: what specific objective are they trying to achieve and how will they measure whether they have or have not done so. This is true for organizations large and small, well funded and financially struggling, prominent or virtually unknown.
I am quick to recognize the symptoms because for many years they afflicted Share Our Strength. It was only when we made the choice to focus in on the specific goal of ending childhood hunger, and established a common definition and metric for what that meant, that we reversed our slowing growth rate and began attracting the resources sufficient to achieve such a bold goal. In fact our revenues doubled in less than two years to $43 million annually, and we were able to add dozens of new staff bringing the additional talent and energy we needed.
Community Wealth Partners, the consulting subsidiary of Share Our Strength, is often retained to help nonprofits with strategic planning, revenue generation, and efforts to achieve sustainability or scale. But until organizations address the more fundamental questions noted above, they won’t find lasting success in any of the other tasks, nor achieve lasting progress.
Many papers about outcomes and metrics have been written, and complicated data measurement formula’s devised. But as Paul Brest, the widely respected former head of the Hewlett Packard Foundation told me, “it really all comes down to answering the question: ‘What does success look like?’ If you know the answer to that, everything else falls into place.” Accordingly, the mission of Community Wealth Partners has evolved beyond social enterprise so that helping leaders define what success looks like with precision and clarity has become a cornerstone of our work.
I keep coming back to Paul Brest’s wisdom, and to the well articulated experience of Mario Morino, founder of Venture Philanthropy Partners. In a recent speech to the City Club in Cleveland, he urged nonprofits “to take a hard look in the mirror and ask themselves whether they are having the impact they say they are having.” His remarks can be read here.
With our political system virtually paralyzed and our economy guaranteeing severe constraints on government services in the years ahead, the stakes are higher than ever for the nonprofit sector’s ability to help solve pressing social problems. But before it solves those problems it must solve its own, and that begins with focusing on outcomes, and always asking whether they are having the impact they say they are having. It’s hard work but the good news is that it does not take money or policy changes, just discipline, rigor, thoughtfulness, and candor about what you really want to achieve.