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: The Business Case For 21st Century Charities

Changing the Game

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  • Posted: 09/22/2013 12:19 PM

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Attempting to get one sector to play by the rules of another is one way to win the game. But what if we could change the game altogether? As Dan Pallotta points out in his provocative TEDTalk, the nonprofit sector plays by a different set of rules than the for-profit sector. As a result, he posits, the nonprofit sector is limited in its ability to tackle massive social problems in scalable ways.

As an organization that pushes the rules and boundaries of the nonprofit sector, our strategy at Opportunity Nation to win is based on changing the game. What that really means is changing the definition of success. Unlike for-profit organizations and many nonprofits, we aren't driven by a narrow slice of the social issues pie, but rather by changing entire systems -- and by embracing other sectors -- as part of the answer, rather than assuming that the nonprofit sector has all the answers.

Pallotta misses two critical points. First, he fails to reference an important third sector -- government -- that has an impact on both the for-profit and nonprofit sector. Second, the responsibility for solving social issues doesn't belong to the nonprofit sector alone, it belongs to all three -- government, nonprofit, and for-profit.

Our view is that social change will not happen more quickly when one sector is more like the other. Instead it is about building better bridges and relationships between sectors, including government. Each sector brings a different set of strengths and opportunities to addressing the key challenges we face as a community and society, and those complementary differences are critical to real success.

While higher compensation, heavier investment in marketing, and less focus on overhead costs might pave the way for nonprofit organizations to do more, these changes are not a permanent solution. Collaboration, meanwhile, is -- both between sectors and also among silos like education, workforce development and civic engagement. Nonprofits can't outdo for-profit methods and approaches any more than for-profits can trump what nonprofits set out to do. Both operate in the context of government, and both can learn from each other without trying to duplicate their missions.

Collaborating to solve social challenges is, of course, incredibly hard. When the urgent -- raising money, checking your 990, justifying overhead costs in preparation for your next board meeting -- gets in the way of the important, collaboration falls by the wayside. That's why driving social change requires organizations that are focused on the ecosystem of organizations and sectors, not just on direct service work itself. This cooperative approach makes it easy for individuals, organizations and sectors to connect to a larger social issue - and create opportunities for conversation and interaction with a diverse network.

Embracing collaboration means letting go of ownership over the solution, and this, unfortunately, is counter to the current philanthropic model. Take, for example, the laudable goal of improving third grade reading, which we know is just one piece of successful educational outcomes. Getting a child to read by third grade might require a principal deciding to invest in training for its teachers, a classroom volunteer who reads to kids once a week, a mentor who takes a child to literacy activities during out-of-school time, a library partnership that provides books to schools, increased federal funding for additional literacy resources, and parent outreach to encourage language and literacy activities at home.

No one owns the solution; no single organization is getting all the credit. -- Mark Edwards and Sarah Beaulieu

But when for-profit and nonprofit organizations were oriented towards marketing themselves and celebrating individual successes rather than systems successes, we didn't see wide-scale progress on this important issue. Corporate sponsors wanted an exclusive partnership with a nonprofit so they could "own" the category. Nonprofit organizations wanted to market the role they played in "solving" third grade literacy, even if they only reached 1 percent of the population or contributed to 10 percent of the solution. When organizations and sectors move beyond this, the result is powerful. A group of funders and nonprofits came together about two years ago to form the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, which reaches beyond a single organizational outcome and toward a vision where all children read by third grade. No one owns the solution; no single organization is getting all the credit. This kind of collaboration doesn't diminish the work of the individual organizations involved, but inspires a greater vision of what the world can be if we all work together.

We are starting to see some other successful examples of collaboration among sectors and silos. Initiatives like the Clinton Global Initiative, the cradle-to-career initiative STRIVE and the government's anti-smoking efforts have brought together players from across sectors to focus on outcomes that will make our world a better place.

Our culture has created a false choice between doing good for ourselves and doing good for others. It's not a choice at all. What is good for others is also good for us. The private sector, government and nonprofit organizations can all play a role in helping us achieve shared goals. If all three sectors don't work together, we will never get there.

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