In this final post on The Future of Nonprofits, I want to focus on a key point from early in the book, about how many (perhaps most) nonprofit organizations and their leaders are far better at coming up with creative approaches to solving problems (and accomplishing their core missions) than executing those ideas consistently and effectively.
It’s not meant to be a total bash on nonprofits and their employees; really, given how under-resourced most nonprofits are (related to our pathological aversion to investing in “overhead”–those important functions that, in fact, enable our programs and services to succeed) and how much of our working hours we spend trying to sort of keep our heads above water and look effective (whether or not we really know what “effective” would look like in our specific context), it’s not surprising that we seldom have the chance to step back and think about the kinds of processes and structures within our organizations (and our own workdays) that would raise our execution ability to a standard of excellence.
Instead, we’re always trying to do more with less (except when we’re admittedly doing less with our less, and busy making excuses for that). We stop doing some of what we should be doing, and close ourselves off to the possibilities of what we could be doing, in ways that mean, somewhat paradoxically, that we have to keep coming up with new inventions to increase our creativity, in order to compensate for how poorly we’re managing to pull off what it is that we do.
In the advocacy context specifically, I see this when we develop campaigns that drift towards a new gimmick, or rely excessively on a particular technology, as though those are the tricks that will deliver the outcome we seek. We’re continually trying to one-up ourselves in terms of a slogan or a media event or a high-profile endorser, when what we should really focus on is hiring really good organizers, or investing in our relationships with our constituents, or personally connecting with every target policymaker (or all of the above). Or, we jump from issue to issue, diluting our potency and confusing our targets, lulling ourselves with the truth that “there are so many important causes out there.”
The Future of Nonprofits has a chart that shows how we can increase our aggregate impact either by raising our execution ability, even rather modestly, or by dramatically expanding our pool of creative ideas. There’s arguably a need for both. Given limited resources, though, it’s much more efficient to focus on marginally improving our delivery, especially because it can ripple into other areas of our organizational functioning, in terms of relationships built and skills enhanced.
And, so, what would it take to improve our execution in the advocacy arena?
First, we have to rigorously evaluate what it is that we’re doing: what isn’t working, and what is, and what really tips the balance. We have to identify our organizational and individual advocacy capacities, build up the areas where we are weakest, and develop benchmarks for what we should be delivering. We need to fully investigate where our own efforts have fallen short before assuming that our advocacy failures are to be blamed on adverse political or economic conditions. We need transparency and accountability for what our campaigns set out to do, just as we do in the fundraising and direct services arenas.
And we need organizational cultures committed not just to innovation, and not just to advocacy, but to excellence, and to intellectual honesty about how well we’re executing our most core programmatic functions, too.
A few weeks ago, I was reading an article about advocacy evaluation when a Board member for one of the organizations for which I do consulting (we were volunteering at the same event, and I’m never without reading material) looked over my shoulder. She shook her head at the article’s premise that the field of advocac evaluation is far behind that of traditional programmatic assessment, and I think that her critique is largely valid: too often, our obvious good works, in the nonprofit sector, excuse the fact that they’re not always done well.
In advocacy as in the rest of our endeavors, that’s an oversight we cannot afford.
In the new year, we may find that we don’t need to continually come up with as many new strategies or “innovative” approaches, if we are consistently doing what we do very, very well. And implementing evaluation systems that allow us–no, require us–to know when that is the case.
We won’t have to take as many shots, in other words, if we can hit them when we need to.