Are Nonprofits Getting in the Way of Social Change?

According to the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, business as usual isn’t enough to deliver the results we need. “The nature of our times is such that the magnitude and degree of complexity of our challenges exceed the capacity of any one sector to resolve,” said Stephen Huddart, McConnell’s president and CEO. To support transformation of the nonprofit sector, McConnell created Innoweave to help leaders of community organizations learn about, select, and implement new tools and approaches to generate greater impact and advance their missions.


However, at a time when we need change more than ever, too many nonprofits are constrained by a slow-moving, institutional, and self-interested model. “One of the reasons that I left being a nonprofit executive director was that I realized that I was consistently putting the needs of my organization above the interests and the needs of the clients we were serving,” said David Wertheimer, deputy director for the Pacific Northwest Initiative at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The most progressive funders want charities to recognize that philanthropic support should be allocated to the most risky new social programs—game-changing initiatives that are getting better results. “We believe here at the Gates Foundation, and I believe in my work in family homelessness, that the philanthropic sector dollar should be the most risk-tolerant, highest-risk dollar in the game of making systems change happen,” said Wertheimer. “Private philanthropic sector dollars should be the catalytic agent that promotes change in the system.”

Many charities are mired in an old approach to social change that is also reflected in how they raise funds. Competition for funding with “no strings attached” is fierce at a time when donors are expecting more collaboration. When asked recently about how the nonprofit model needs to change, Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group said categorically, “More collaborative efforts. We need the collective efforts of countries and companies to step up and play their part—setting strong goals, having clear plans, and openly demonstrating progress.“

Today’s funders want social change organizations to do whatever it takes to get the biggest results at the lowest cost in the shortest period of time. Some are also walking the talk: “We are a time-limited charity—we will spend our last dollar 30 years after the death of the last of our original three trustees,” said Wertheimer. “The goal for the Gates Foundation is to have the impacts that we’re seeking to have in the context of the 21st century.”

Source: Stanford Social Innovation Review

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