The Shame of NGOs Unwilling to Risk

09/26/2014 04:08 pm ET Updated Nov 26, 2014

In the world of nonprofits, we all have big dreams.

We want to cure ALS, cancer and Alzheimer's disease.

We want to save endangered animals, the rain forest and our national parks.

We want to put an end to homelessness, waterborne diseases and refugee camps.

And in the case of Feed the Children, we want no child to go to bed hungry.

Big lofty ideals. Big world problems. Big solutions needed. Yet, the way so many nonprofits organize their day-to-day operations has limited alignment to the vast missions behind their names. We avoid the risks of innovation because:

1. Our donors are very interested in our overhead costs.

Donors want to give to programs, not administration. They obsess over web pages like this one to see how their charity of choice ranks among others in the program-to-administration ratio. They give accordingly.

2. We want our donors and governing boards to be happy with us.

And so we appease them. We cut from our yearly budgets forward thinking projects and revenue streams that may have big rewards in the future, but not in the short term. Our donors are happy with our overhead percentage. Our boards are presented with balanced budgets.

3. Our administrative structures are a hindrance to our work.

The larger we get as organizations with layers of management and approval processes, the more innovative ideas often get squelched. The most innovative people in the organization do not get the face time they need with leadership or the encouragement they need from their supervisors to share ideas. Maintaining the bureaucracy is cherished, rather than flattening the infrastructure to allow more innovative thinking.

In the leadership book The Innovator's Dilemma, Clayton M. Christenson writes about just these frustrations. He wants his readers to consider the difference between the risk and the rewards of trying new things - even when they aren't popular with the general public. And Christenson's solution is not to crush large organizations but to create silos within an organization for the most creative people to do their work. Christenson writes: "Disruptive technologies typically enable new markets to emerge." In other words, we as nonprofit leaders shouldn't be afraid of change, technology or otherwise. Without the new, BIG causes we hope to inspire the public to support become irrelevant.

Who wants to become irrelevant? I know I don't want Feed the Children to become out of touch!

As poet T.S. Eliot once said, "Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go." Such are words I think more nonprofits need to live by.

For this reason, over the next fiscal year we plan to try some new things - with the support of our board of directors.

  • Helping donors engage in child sponsorship in the United States, not just in Africa or Asia. We are so excited that the Newsboys have recently joined with our artist program and are going on tour this fall to raise awareness of the needs of kids right here in the US.
  • Bringing child-based community development work to our domestic programs. It makes no sense that such well-researched and successful international program models would not work in the US. Soon we will launch a new domestic strategy in a major US city that will change everything about how we feed kids who are hungry.
  • Sure, we might fail. We might even fail big. But, we might just do some amazing things together as a Feed the Children family. And, I want to know that I did everything I could to try to get us there!

    I close with the words of John F. Kennedy that always inspire me when making a decision of "Do I take a risk or play it safe?"

    "Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly."

    And those who know me well know that I want to achieve greatly. Our cause is too BIG not to!