Forces for Good

A note on terminology: The term ‘non-profit’ is familiar to us, but as someone who is curious about the impact of language, I wonder what the impact is of our field being defined in the negative? Terms such as ‘non-governmental organization’ (NGO) and ‘non-profit’ don’t tell people what our organizations stand for and what impact they have; they just define us as something that is ‘less than’ a for profit enterprise or government.  What is your reaction if we refer to such organizations as ‘social purpose’ or ‘citizen-centred’? While most of the relevant literature continues to use the term ‘non-profit’ I will use the term ‘social purpose’ where appropriate.

The literature that is specific to the non-profit/social purpose sector is extremely limited compared to the bounty of books, articles, journals and resources specific to the business sector. Nonetheless, there are some valuable references out there, one of which is: Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High Impact Nonprofits  (2007) by Leslie Critchfield and Heather McLeod Grant. The authors have strong pedigrees in the social purpose field, and their 4 years of research was supported by the Ashoka Foundation and the Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University, which speaks to the integrity of the work. The limitations are that it is very US-centric, focuses more on larger-scale agencies, and of course the world has changed significantly since 2007. I cringed at some of the references made to collaborative partnerships between the featured organizations and businesses (e.g. with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac offering sub-prime mortgages to low income families). Nonetheless, there are some useful concepts embedded in the text.

They analyzed thousands of social purpose organizations, interviewed the leaders in hundreds and did in-depth investigations into 12.  They debunked a number of myths and discovered six recurring patterns in high impact organizations, including that they:    

  1. Both serve people and advocate for better public policies. Most started doing one or the other but realized that these 2 roles are interdependent. As providers of direct service they learned more intimately what was needed and why, and they built grassroots support, a strong evidence base, and credibility, such that when they went to advocate for public policy or funding shifts they brought strategic expertise to the decision-makers.
  2. Leverage market forces to achieve social change on a larger scale – including influencing business practices, building partnerships with business, and developing social enterprises to generate new revenue streams.
  3. Use volunteers well – not just as free labour but as advisors, story-tellers and ‘evangelists’ that advance the cause.
  4. Nurture nonprofit networks and help other social purpose groups succeed.  In so doing they advance the field – which also serves their interests. They don’t just pay lip service to collaboration, they ‘live it’. They freely share resources, knowledge and expertise to build alliances and connections that raise everyone involved – and the quality of their services – up.
  5. Master the art of adaptation by being attentive to the constantly shifting context, and being willing to try new approaches – and fail and learn. “They have mastered the ability to listen, learn and modify their approach based on external cues – allowing them to sustain their impact and stay relevant” (p 22). They are constantly moving and sensing the need for new directions. They are willing to stop doing things to make room for new approaches.
  6. Share leadership – there is no room for ‘outsize egos’ in the senior leadership roles in high impact organizations. Leadership is distributed throughout the organization and networks. “They cultivate strong second-in-command, build enduring executive teams with long tenure, and develop highly engaged boards in order to have more impact” (p. 22).

The authors note that these practices are interdependent and mutually reinforcing. For example, in fostering strong social purpose networks, connecting well with volunteers, and sharing leadership with Boards, they build a foundation for greater influence on public policies, and are thus more effective advocates.
All of these patterns are relevant to leaders in contemporary social purpose organizations, but two were of particular interest to our work in Leadership 2020: nurturing networks, and mastering the art of adaptation. High-impact nonprofits – and leaders – nurture a “network mindset”. They don’t see others as competitors for scarce resources but rather as potential allies. “They understand that only by working collaboratively with like-minded allies can they have more impact” (p. 126). They aim to build the larger field by freely sharing knowledge and ‘growing the pie’ by advocating for enhanced public policies and investments in the social sector whether or not their organization will directly benefit. This is messy work when we bring together different personalities, mandates, histories and priorities, but when we do find common ground and a platform for working strongly together we can become a force that can’t be ignored.
With respect to mastering the art of adaptation, much has been written recently about social innovation and impact. However the patterns noted by the authors are still relevant. They suggest that great nonprofits:

  • Constantly adapt and modify their approaches
  • Find the balance between stifling bureaucracy and unbridled creativity
  • Master each step of the cycle of adaptation including: listening, experimenting and innovating, evaluating and learning, modifying and enhancing
  • Pay close attention to the tough and tedious tasks of implementation

What is interesting to me about this enduring pattern is that over the past decade we have talked a lot about the need for innovation in government and the social purpose sector, while simultaneously experiencing an increasingly ‘risk adverse’ and stifling climate that is reluctant to change. Many of the featured social purpose organizations have chosen to develop creative solutions outside of their primary, government-funded contracts and then brought them forward to their funders. But what would it take for us to work differently and collaboratively in the ‘spaces between’ our social purpose and government ministries to develop and test new ideas and solutions for those issues that continue to challenge us? In the next communiqué I will share insights from Al Etmanski’s wonderful new book on Social Impact.