Expanding your Vision is a bold move. It’s not for everyone but right now organizations are changing the world by making bold choices. Nonprofits that have successfully provided programs and services – meals, housing, education – are facing the fact that it often isn’t enough.
To become a High-Impact or Social Change organzation you have to adust your thinking. Let’s say you’re providing shelter when you really believe there shouldn’t be homeless families. Or you offer food when the very idea of children going hungry seems wrong. Are you ready to take on the bigger challenge and make change?
Maurice Lim Miller did. For 22 years he led Asian Neighborhood Design, a San Francisco noprofit that offered affordable housing, job training and counseling. It was successful by everyone’s measure but his own; President Clinton invited him to sit in his box at the 1999 State of the Union address. But Miller rarely saw anyone leave poverty behind; they had begun to provide services to the adult children of former clients.
Maurice knew immigrant families, like his own, had left poverty for good. His new Vision was to provide a similar path out of poverty for all poor families in San Francisco and beyond. In creating Family Independence Initiative, he turned the whole model upside down and is now measuring (and rewarding) long term independence instead of number of families served.
You can’t take on these issues alone. To be an advocate for the people you serve and to impact real change you need the cooperation of your organization, your board, your community and your funders.
Making the leap from service provider to changemaker requires an adjustment in your approach. As a service provider you get to brag about the 1000 people you sheltered (even is the number of homeless families is increaing). As a changemaker you measure success by a decrease in homelessness. We’re talking about forever changing our world!
What the Changemakers have in Common
Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High Impact Nonprofits (updated in 2012) outlines what organizations like Teach for America, Habitat for Humanity and Share Our Strength have in common. These are nonprofits working for long term societal change. Some started with big bold plans; others have identified the larger need and changed the way they work to address it.
The Six Practices these organizations share are:
- A combination of programs and advocacy. Just providing programs is not enough; you need to be an agent of change by advocating for it.
- Strong partnerships with corporations and others who have a self-interest in the outcome.
- The ability to create evangelists. Take on the role of movement builders by emotionally inspiring others to care and act.
- Nonprofits networks that freely share information so that they all gain.
- Nimble enough to adapt, both creatively and systematically, to allow for innovation.
- No egomaniacs. Leadership is shared, inside and outside the organization, for the greatest impact.
I’ve worked with homeless families for many years. Services to support the homeless grew rapidly in the 1980s when it seemed like a growing, but solvable, social problem. Twenty five years later there are many more services and billions being spent but poverty and homelessness have only increased.
You might make a similar case for urban blight, low wages, failing students or any number of other problems that so many of us have addressed but not solved. This, for me, and as I am seeing, for many funders, is the problem. We need to look for solutions.
Where Do You Start?
Make that bold statement. Setting a long-term bold goal is the most important step. When an organization, including staff, board and partners, are aligned on a BIG goal, anything is possible. The article, When Good is Not Enough, refers to this as “the North Star by which an organization makes decisions and allocates resources and the bottom line against which the organization measures its progress. Everything else flows from it.”
Your Vision should be so bold that the result is the end of homelessness in your community, the cure for a disease or a new system for educating pre-schoolers.
Donald Berwick the CEO of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, declared a bold goal, issuing a challenge to hospital administrators: “Here is what I think we should do. I think we should save 100,000 lives. And I think we should do that by June 14, 2006—18 months from today. Some is not a number; soon is not a time. Here’s the number: 100,000. Here’s the time: June 14, 2006—9 a.m.” And they made it work. Hospitals that participated in the challenge saved an estimated 122,300 more lives than were projected during this time frame.
Act on Your Goal
When you have decided to act on a problem at the magnitude it exists, you have to explore: Who has a role to play in solving this problem? Identify them and you have a Network. With your ever-growing Network you can take on the challenge.
Next, you have to change the way people think, talk and act related to the need. You’re going to change the conversation. You create the “Designated Driver” language that is picked up by TV shows. You begin the litter campaign that engages people and, eventually, leads to crime reduction.
When a new employee asked his difficult boss, Thomas Edison, about the rules in his lab, Edison answered, “There ain’t no rules around here. We’re trying to accomplish something!” Everyone needs to feel like a pioneer, erasing the boundaries and raising expectations will produce results.
And one last thought that could have come from Edison too:
Everything is impossible until it isn’t.
Some articles well worth reading:
A Note on Thomas Edison: I live a couple miles from the Thomas Edison National Park in West Orange NJ, which includes his home and his labs. It’s a great place to visit and be inspired.