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Debate Snapshot | Are Nonprofits Lacking the Courage to Tackle Big Problems?

Debate Snapshot | Are Nonprofits Lacking the Courage to Tackle Big Problems?

What does it take to create lasting social change? While many nonprofits start by asking this question and wanting to tackle a big issue, some argue that too many are focusing on short, safe goals instead of getting to the root of many of our social ills.

Bill Shore, Darell Hammond, and Amy Celep, CEOs of Share Our Strength, KaBOOM!, and Community Wealth Partners respectively, co-wrote an article entitled “When Good Is Not Good Enough,” arguing that the sector needs to transition from safe goals that offer short term solutions to bold, difficult goals that will provide long term solutions by attacking the root of social problems. The trio of social entrepreneurs acknowledge the difficulty nonprofits have answering the question, “what does success look like?”

"The foundation on which many nonprofits are built is flawed and simplistic, focused on a symptom rather than the underlying set of problems, developed in isolation rather than as part of an integrated system, and organized to administer a narrowly tailored program or benefit rather than generate sustained, significant change for a person or community. As a result, change is incremental, not big or bold enough to make a lasting and transformative impact."

Shore and Hammond go on to talk about the process their organizations went through to be able to begin having a deeper impact. They cite writer Jonathan Kozol’s advice to pick battles big enough to matter, but small enough to win as a defining moment in redefining their goals. The ensuing changes to their organizations led them to have a greater impact on the causes they work for. Aside from having a bold goal, Shore, Hammond, and Celep offer three lessons they learned that will help nonprofits end social ills: mobilize the less engaged, change the conversation, and disrupt the norms.

In response to “When Good Is Not Good Enough,” Cynthia M. Gibson, a nonprofit consultant, Katya F. Smith, CEO of the Full Frame Initiative, Gail B. Nayowith, executive of SCO Family of Services, and Jonathan F. Zaff, senior vice president at America’s Promise Alliance, wrote an article called “To Get Good, You Gotta Dance With The Wicked.” While the group agrees with Shore, et. al’s conclusion, they believe that solving social problems requires a more fluid approach that needs to revolve around communities, not organizations:

"We're not criticizing model-centric nonprofits or romanticizing “people power” as the sole factor in making change. But we’ve learned the hard way that the more an organization positions itself—or its model—at the center of a resolution, the less sustainable the progress it creates."

Among the six “to-dos,” they recommend the importance of considering all stakeholders and their different perspectives, paying special attention to the history of the issue and communities it affects, and that wins may not even be possible.

The writers of both articles agree on crucial point: Nonprofits need to develop the courage to determine what their end goal is and acknowledge the multi-faceted issues they face. Approaching work for the social good with a “business as usual” mode of thinking doesn’t cut it. Bold questions and big solutions to the biggest social problems of the day require an approach that is sustainable and that truly seeks to eradicate the problem. In order to accomplish this, nonprofits need to change just like the problems they face do.


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by Aaron McCoy

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