Tag Archives: nonprofit organizations

Taking innovations to scale


I spend a fair amount of time thinking about scale.

As in, how can we bring enough good to enough people to really make a difference?

How can we build delivery mechanisms that can make great ideas accessible to all who need and deserve them?

And how can we accomplish scale without completely losing agility and responsiveness and locality, and the empowerment that should accompany them?

There is a really thoughtful article on the Stanford Social Innovation Review about the paradoxes of innovation, and all of it is worth reading. It raises concerns about the dangers of ‘cultification’ as people follow the latest innovation to the detriment of established approaches (without necessarily attending to impact), as well as the difficulty of compromising enough–but not too much–to cross boundaries in pursuit of workable innovations.

But the piece that jumped out at me most is around the different processes needed to spark innovation and, then, to build the systems capable of scaling that innovation.

This third paradox is, itself, the subject of a SSIR article on the balance between innovation and scale.

The breakthrough for me in this analysis is the model of the organization’s capacity for continuous innovation (OCCI), which positions innovation and scale not as diametrically opposed but, instead, as both part of the organization’s evolution–in essence, innovating new approaches and then innovating the systems necessarily to scale those innovations. There is tension, clearly, as one seeks to increase variance in search of the best approach while the other decreases variance in order to standardize a system.

But tension can be creative, and, importantly, some of the same internal and external characteristics are associated with high levels of capacity in both functions, knitted together as OCCI. This is so critical, because I think that we often fall into a trap of reifying nonprofit organizations and, then, assuming that they are like people–either really good at divergent thinking or more convergent types, but fundamentally incapable of both coming up with good ideas and then figuring out how to tweak them into stability.

That can lead to dangerous type-casting, where some organizations do the scaling (often losing something valuable about the nature of the intervention) while others perpetually experiment, yielding tremendous outcomes but never able to really ‘move the needle’ on our greatest social problems.

The article includes a fairly lengthy case study of an organization innovating and scaling, but I’m interested in other examples from your own work, of how you create and sustain organizational cultures that simultaneously seek new solutions and figure out how to get those solutions to a scope and size where they can wield maximum potency.

Where do you see organizations ‘stuck’ in ceaseless innovation or, conversely, preoccupied with scaling approaches that may not deserve it? And where do you see bright spots of organizations with OCCI that helps them make it all look easy?

Asking the right questions

Building Movement Project’s second report in the 5% shift series was “Asking Powerful Questions”, and this one featured reStart, Inc., one of my advocacy technical assistance clients and an organization doing tremendous work to engage volunteers more deeply as cause ambassadors, using questions to provoke their thinking about what causes social problems and how we can combat them together.

I have always championed asking many, many more questions–maybe because I spend so much time with young children, who never let concern about how others might view them (or who might get tired of answering) stand in the way of asking all of the questions that come into their minds.

Their most frequent question, and the one that is most important for social justice advocates, I think, is “why?” (followed, of course, by “why not?”)

And reStart, Inc. asks ‘why’ a lot.

Why are people homeless? Why do we fail to fund programs that work? Why are so many people with mental illnesses on the streets? Why has homelessness among families worsened?

But, critically, they ask these questions not just among themselves, bemoaning their challenges or even analyzing data–they ask these questions as a form of engagement, a way to bring volunteers over to the ‘we’ side of the equation, part of the team that, together, will end homelessness, while they also serve those experiencing it.

This shift, befitting the series, didn’t require massive infusion of new resources, or new staff people, or even much more time.

It’s just that, now, instead of seeing volunteers primarily as a task to manage or a resource to exploit, reStart approaches them as co-creators of social change, and asks the questions that, collectively, invite volunteers to build that world together.

What questions do you ask? To whom? And what are you not asking that you think you should?

Making a difference with what you have

I facilitated a workshop on nonprofit advocacy last spring, and the School videotaped it, so that practitioners who couldn’t be there with us for the 1.5 hours could use the conversation as a resource to figure out how to integrate social change strategies into their organizations and their work.

I really try to focus on leveraging the existing assets and capacities of nonprofit social service agencies for social change, and giving social workers tools to help them make small shifts that can yield big dividends. It’s the main area of my practice now, so it was fun to get to try out some of what I use with my consulting clients, among an all-social work crowd.

Here is the link.

I’d love to hear your comments; we had great engagement during the session, but nothing is more rewarding and challenging for me than the discussions we have here.

Oh, SNAP! (I couldn’t help myself.)

In lieu of a guest post, I am sharing this ‘advocacy from the trenches’ example from two of the stellar organizations with which I have the distinct honor and pleasure to work on advocacy: Harvesters and Kansas Action for Children.

Both organizations are taking on the ridiculously (and senselessly) controversial issue of funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and both are framing the issue perfectly: are you pro-feeding hungry kids? Or not?

I watched this alongside Joanna Sebelien from Harvesters, featured prominently in the video, this week, and we debriefed the piece and the experience. One of the greatest triumphs, in my assessment, is the quietly devastating representation of the complexity of the SNAP application process by Shelly, the outreach worker.

And KAC CEO Shannon Costoradis’ final comments are absolutely spot-on.

I would never be so presumptuous as to assert any responsibility for their fabulous fearlessness and astute analysis.

Just watch the video. And you’ll know why I am so, so glad to be on the same team.

It’s here! Report from Advocacy Capacity Tool Users

I’ve never camped out for a new record release, or a new iPhone, or, well, anything.

I’m not really much for sleeping under the stars.

But I have been eagerly awaiting the release of some aggregate data about the organizations that have taken the Bolder Advocacy (Alliance for Justice) Advocacy Capacity tool, especially since these data were one of the major impetuses for moving the ACT to a free format. It’s sort of a trade, really; in exchange for access to the assessment at no charge, organizations agree to let AFJ learn from their responses (anonymously).

Since organizations can then compare themselves to other organizations within their sectors, or of their same sizes, I think examining these results can spark some critical conversations within nonprofit Board rooms.

But I’m even more interested in what looking at these findings can do for grantmakers, capacity builders, and others interested in catalyzing advocacy fields. And that’s how AFJ has framed this first analysis of the initial Advocacy Capacity Tool users: what do organizations need, to move forward?

The Executive Summary is only five pages long and well worth your time, but in the interest of even speedier access, here are the most important pieces, from where I sit (as one training future professionals and providing technical assistance today):

  • Yes, organizations want more advocacy funding, but better planning is perceived as even more important, to advance their advocacy. I do quite a bit of campaign planning with advocating organizations, and I definitely see this need, too. To me, it also relates to their adaptive capacity, because it’s hard to quickly pivot your strategies–and, so, to develop better plans–without having engaged in an intentional reflective process from the beginning.
  • The areas that nonprofit organizations most want to improve, in their advocacy, did not necessarily correspond to their weakest areas. AFJ theorizes that this is because organizations are prioritizing the areas that are most important to their advocacy, but I think it could also reflect that adage that it takes capacity to build capacity, so maybe some of the other elements are places where organizations feel overwhelmed, or, possibly, that organizations feel that they have complementary relationships with other sectors/providers that fill these needs, which, for thinking about field capacity, would be a very promising thing.
  • Legislative advocacy is the best developed, an unsurprising finding that, nonetheless, deserves some of our attention, particularly as elected officials around the country evidence considerable resistance to social work policy priorities, emphasizing the importance of using the entire spectrum of tools with which to induce change. At the same time, a large number of organizations indicating that they are not taking the 501(h) election suggests that there may be room to enhance this legislative advocacy, too.

There is so much about which to be excited here–the availability of a strong tool, for free; organizations’ willingness to share their data, including intimate data about governance and funding; AFJ’s commitment to making this information available in a transparent way.

I look forward to future cohorts’ findings and to the ongoing conversation about what we’re learning.

I’m not pulling out the lawn chairs to camp out on the sidewalk yet, but I’m eager.

Why be an organization when you could build a movement?

As I have posted before, the definition of advocacy that I use when talking with direct service organizations about how they can ease into it comes from the Latin root word, advocare, which means “to call to aid”.

It’s about how you build a constituency around your cause, even more broadly than around your organization.

It’s how we make our issue really our issue, so that others feel that they own the concerns that motivate our work, too.

It’s how we build a movement.

In Creating Room to Read, the founder’s way of talking about their work resonates with this inclusive definition of advocacy.

He says that he doesn’t want to be the one leader of an organization but, instead, one of many leaders of a global movement (p. 269).

Because it’s going to take movements to end the social problems that plague us.

But what does this mean, in terms of how we have to change what we do, in order to build this kind of cause identification and mobilize the latent constituencies around our issues so that they coalesce into a movement?

I certainly don’t have all of the answers to that question, but I spend quite a bit of time talking about this with nonprofits, and thinking about it besides, and I do have some ideas.

  • Movement building has to be our goal: We too seldom set our sights on this kind of deep engagement around a cause; sometimes we can’t really even articulate the root causes that motivate our work. Of course, we won’t get there if we don’t set out in that direction.
  • Similarly, we need visions, not just missions: The other day, I asked a group of hard-working nonprofit staff what change they would make if they had a magic wand to make one thing different in the lives of the families they serve. I got mostly blank looks, with some very concrete suggestions about how their organization needs to improve its communication channels. I find that stunning. If someone is giving me a magic wand, things are going to change. We need to know what we want the world to look like, because that’s a vision compelling enough to convince people to come along with us.
  • We have to share the credit: Movements are never animated by one person, even the ones you are picturing in your head that you think were driven by one person. Really, they aren’t. An organization can be run unilaterally by one strong person (although, honestly, probably not very well), but a movement? That will take a crowd.
  • We will have to risk to build: Organizations can plod. Movements have to be nimble and adaptive and daring. Movements have major setbacks. They wander in the wilderness for decades before reaching the promised land. They have to find ways to sustain themselves through periods of great darkness, and they have to fail. A lot.

Where and when are you movement-building? What does it look like? And where does our organization fit in?

Scaling for impact, beyond our walls

Yesterday’s post was about questions of scale, and whether we’re really asking the right question when we ask whether large or small nonprofit organizations are best-situated to deliver the impact we seek.

Today, I’m thinking about another piece of Creating Room to Read, questioning whether–if real scale is what we’re after–the nonprofit sector is even the right place to be looking.

It’s a sort of stunning disparity, really:

90% of nonprofits in the US have budgets of less than $300,000/year.

I mean, yes, there are a lot of them, but think about $300,000/year compared to the challenges we face–enormous, complex, entrenched, interconnected.

Can we ever expect nonprofit organizations to attract enough resources and build enough momentum (as individual organizations or even as fields) to meet the huge and urgently pressing problems against which we are arrayed, given that as our starting point?

I doubt it.

And, so, instead, how might we scale for impact beyond our own organizational capacity?

How, in particular, might advocacy be part of how organizations expand their reach?

How might we invest in government capacity–as in Room to Read’s efforts to work with education ministries, sharing best practices and highlighting their strides forward–or, in our own context, focusing government attention to promising approaches or particular aspects of critical issues and developing collaborations–in order to expand our reach?

How might we even direct, in some cases, some of our hard-fought funds, so obviously in short supply, to advocacy, in the recognition that no nongovernmental organization activity can replace the capacity of, in particular, the federal government?

When and how might advocacy yield the greatest dividends, for taking efforts to scale?

Philanthropy, in large part, is recognizing this, encouraging grantees to prioritize efforts to ‘institutionalize’ their approaches through advocacy with governmental actors.

Some nonprofits are considering factors of public capacity in their own program planning, as in Room to Read’s inclusion of provincial government functioning as a criterion for their investment decisions in a particular country, out of recognition that how well a government does in training teachers and paving roads will matter in determining the likelihood that the organization’s own investments encounter a climate conditioned for success.

All of this is not to say that I think that advocacy is best directed at getting government resources for a particular organization; indeed, I think that that more narrow frame of ‘advocacy’ can compromise some of nonprofits’ most valuable assets in the policy arena, including our issue expertise and perception of public interest.

Instead, I’m thinking about sort of ‘borrowing’ government capacity, by figuring out how advocacy can direct government resources and attention to the same problems we’re focused on, or, at least, stop creating additional barriers to which our organizations have to respond, such that we are working in tandem or on parallel tracks, with the end result of greater impact.

So, again, the most important questions for going to scale may not be “How big does our organization need to be?” or “How can we get bigger?” but, instead, “How can we use our capacity as leverage to get the elephant in the room–the government–on our side?”

Context matters: In defense of ‘wraparound’

One of the tensions in the nonprofit world today, especially around questions of scaling, relates to whether our needs are best served through the creation and maintenance of ‘niche’ nonprofits that provide a few core services and do so very well, versus the development of a smaller number of large institutions that are each capable of delivering holistic services in their respective fields.

Do we want many Davids or a few (well-intentioned, of course) Goliaths?

Do we get to scale more effectively by fostering many nimble, ’boutique’ nonprofits, or by directing resources to organizations more equal in size to the problems they confront?

I have thought, though, for awhile, that this might really be the wrong question. That maybe we should be spending more time thinking about whether our services–our response to the problems–are scaled correctly, not whether the particular vehicles through which we’re delivering them–our organizations–are.

Because, when it comes to tackling the big challenges plaguing our society–illiteracy, poverty, gender discrimination, racial injustice, obesity and ill health, growing educational disparities, pervasive underemployment, rampant incarceration–context really matters.

It’s not just that smaller nonprofits with a more narrow profile of services may be ‘outgunned’ in these battles, but that even the service models of bigger organizations, the way that they structure and understand their missions, may be missing some links, too.

But when organizations expand beyond their boundaries–regardless of their size–I often sense considerable pushback, around the idea of ‘mission drift’ or concerns about others’ turf or fear that ‘core’ services (however those are understood) will suffer as the service scope grows.

In Creating Room to Read, the founder describes a very different approach, one where the organization fairly quickly saw that achieving its goals of literacy, especially for girls around the world, would require far more than the initial objective of building schools and libraries. In order to succeed, Room to Read would have to look at the skills that girls need and the contexts in which they often fail to develop, the social supports that can help girls overcome cultural taboos against advanced education for females, and the tangible obstacles they face (including transportation, meals at school, and childcare for siblings).

Importantly, attending to this context doesn’t always mean adjusting the scale and size of the organization itself, since there are other ways to ‘scale up’, and it isn’t perceived as ‘Christmas-treeing’, tacking on anything that seems appealing, without thought as to the distraction that additional services may pose.

Instead, it’s about boxing in our problems in order to attack them.

It’s about wrapping those we’re concerned about in the mantle of all of the essential supports they say they need, and figuring out how to do that through a combination of service expansion internally, strategic partnerships, and advocacy with public institutions.

In essence, then, I guess that I’m more interested in the ‘what’, when it comes to scaling to match our challenges, than I am the ‘how’.

I don’t know that I care, all that much, if we pursue models of many small organizations, working collaboratively, or investments in large and robust responses.

What matters is that we go wide, with our lens, looking at the context in which problems flourish.

After all, it’s only mission drift if you’re moving away from what really matters, or if you’re focused more on the narrow provision of services than a compelling vision of the world as it should be.

Otherwise, it’s just approaching our challenges from different angles.

Until we have them surrounded.

Talking failure and risk and advocacy


I was honored to be part of this conversation, with civic leaders in Kansas, about failure and risk, particularly (in my case) among nonprofit advocates.

It’s a critically important reflection, for us, about not only why we’re failing but, really, why we’re not failing more, and whether we are really striving as much as we should, given what’s at stake if we fail by default.

I’d love for you to chime in with your actual advocacy failures, and what you’ve learned, your thoughts on the extent of our failures–collectively–and your advice for leaders contemplating the risks of failure.

How do you talk about failure, at your organization or in your community? Where have you learned about failure, and when and where do you have ‘permission’ to reach and to fall short?

Thank you to the Kansas Leadership Center for sparking this.

And tell me what you think of the picture on page 39, too!

Advocacy principles and core priorities

Photo credit, Michal Dubrawski, via Flickr, Creative Commons license

Photo credit, Michal Dubrawski, via Flickr, Creative Commons license

One of the first items of business, when I’m working with a new nonprofit organization around advocacy capacity-building, is to talk through their advocacy principles.

In our work, principles come before the development of an advocacy agenda. In some cases, they replace an agenda altogether, providing the general guideposts that organizations need to navigate decisions in an advocacy context, without pretending that we can predict today the circumstances we’ll face tomorrow, or how we’ll make those trade-offs once we get there.

We talk through how the organization’s core values translate into an advocacy context. We discuss their preferences in public policy development. We discuss how having advocacy principles not only helps the organization stay true to its greatest goods in the event of conflict, but also serves as protection against the intrusive interests of others, by providing some parameters about the types of issues the organization does not take on, in addition to those that it does.

In my experience, organizational mission statements are often too broad to serve this purpose; they tend to be statements that absolutely no one could disagree with, but also that fail to really distinguish one organization from another (aren’t we all interested in ‘strengthening families’, really?).

What we need are guides that help us decide between two goods (Do we prioritize money for prevention or for rapid response? Do we emphasize children’s services or community-level interventions?) or, more often in a policy world, two rather poor compromises (Are we going to put more energy into fighting the repeal of the Earned Income Tax Credit or drug-testing in TANF?).

Done correctly, these advocacy principles also help nonprofits to articulate why they have ‘ranked’ particular policy outcomes as they have, which is incredibly important as we endeavor to preserve relationships in the conflictual climate of policymaking.

They are navigational tools, important symbols of organizational culture and decision-making, and guideposts–not prescriptions–for helping leaders maneuver through difficult choices.

I particularly appreciated this description of core priorities, a similar context somewhat removed from the advocacy context, in Decisive: “guardrails that are wide enough to empower but narrow enough to guide” (185).

That’s what we’re aiming for, when we work through the often-laborious process of settling on advocacy principles as the starting point for our advocacy work.

And, like so many other exercises in ‘centering’ ourselves and clarifying our deepest purpose, once we get that right, the rest of our decisions are, while not ‘easy’, at least easier.