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Nonprofits

How the Nonprofit Sector Is Misusing Its Greatest Asset

Two ways that nonprofits can take more control of the narrative surrounding the poor in the US.

Combing through my attic a couple of weeks ago, I noticed a box of books from my undergraduate days lying in the corner. Going through the box, I was instantly taken back to some of my favorite classes, where new worlds opened up to me through books like the Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, and 20 Years at Hull-House by Jane Addams. As I reread them, I was again amazed at how vividly some of these books outlined the class struggles of their day. They not only explore issues around poverty in American society, but also changed the face of the social service sector and the government’s response to the poor.

I realized that no one is telling stories like these today. Documentaries by Michael Moore, and other films such as Inside Job and Waiting for Superman outline related struggles, but they have yet to rival the game-changing books in my attic. The poverty rate in the United States is the highest it has been in nearly two decades; the need to convey the lives of nearly one-fifth of our population is increasingly important. The books I mention were written before 1950, when the nonprofit sector was a much less dominant force in American society. Today, our more robust nonprofit sector could be one of our nation’s best vehicles for expressing the struggles of those in crisis. The challenge is getting nonprofits to tell these important stories.

Unfortunately the nonprofit sector sometimes forgets one of its greatest attributes: its closeness to our nation’s most pressing needs and its ability to describe that closeness publically. While most of America hears about the economic news each week or month through government-released unemployment or housing figures, the nonprofit sector already has the inside scoop on these numbers. And because it works directly with the most vulnerable, it also has an infinite number of narratives on hand that tell the story of our nation’s economy. Here are two immediate ways nonprofits can take more control of the narrative surrounding the poor in our country:

Encourage Storytelling

I recently attended a conference on social impact. Most of the conversation revolved around the important topics of scaling, evaluation, and, of course, impact—all very important, but it was a different conversation that engaged me most.

At a lunch one day, I joined an animated and inspired discussion about some of the great stories nonprofits were telling. Discussion centered on amazing client successes or tales of how their organizations overcoming the economic crisis. To me, the passionate discussion reflected the essence what makes the nonprofit sector so great and what needs to occur more in our conversations. A good first start would be building in significant open space at conferences and get-togethers for dialogue around storytelling. (For more on storytelling, read this post Thelar Pekar.)

Philanthropic Information Sharing

New York City has been called the financial capital of the world, and recent reports show that there are more than 1,600 bank branches and more than 2,700 regulated financial institutions associated with the city. All of these financial entities pale in comparison to the number of registered grant makers in the same vicinity—more than 12,000 in the NYC area alone, per a Foundation Center database search I conducted. The extent to which these philanthropic efforts are involved in their mission areas varies, but it goes without saying that at least a quarter of these institutions are requesting information from current or prospective grantees. Where does this information go? Imagine the possibilities if organizations could share grantee information to better understand community needs.

Let’s just take the largest 600 grant makers, which is 5% of the 12,000 located in the New York area. Imagine if all of these groups logged the statistics and data gleaned from their current or prospective grantees’ statements of need from their grant applications or progress reports. Even if you could access information collected only from grant makers that gave in NYC specifically, you still would have a treasure chest of data that would rival any university or government research office.

Unfortunately, this information is closely guarded and for unclear reasons. Several years ago, in helping a poverty-fighting organization through a merger, I visited several leading NYC poverty-fighting foundations. I stated that I did not want any funding at that time, only the chance to understand what the needs were in several NYC neighborhoods that they funded heavily. I wondered what the foundations were seeing in the information-rich funding requests and grantee reports they received. I got two responses. The first response—a more excusable one—was that they had a singular reason in collecting grantee information, and that was to ensure grantees were fulfilling their grant requirements. The second answer, somewhat less excusable, was that grant makers knew the value of this information, collected it, but ultimately did not want to reveal it. One of the leading groups stated, “We own this data, why would we release it?”(For more on data sharing, read this post by Lucy Bernholz.)

There are other ways the nonprofit sector could better tell the stories of people suffering from poverty too. The hope is that the two I’ve described, combined with other ideas, creates a ripple effect that might inform or help create this generation’s The Jungle or 20 Years at Hull-House. In today’s world, the nonprofit sector is well-positioned to tell these stories. Here’s hoping we do.

Read more stories by John Brothers.

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COMMENTS

  • BY james summers

    ON July 8, 2011 05:41 AM

    I found your blog on this inspiring.  I’m going down to the basement and pull out some of those books and re-read them as well.  Our challenge is that funders only value the great success stories.  They want to know only about those who got the great job, got the industry recognized certification… went on to college… crossed the finish line.  They are unwilling to value, applaud and fund the many steps before that.  Under greater and greater presssure to demonstrate a return on thier philanthropy the behavior they are driving is single focus on those most likely to succeed.  Perhaps through stories we can change that paradigm.  Perhaps we can help them see that 30 years of poverty and struggle isn’t fixed in 12 weeks of life skills and job readiness training.  We’re working on shifting focus to include the least likely to succeed and move them up the continuum.  More stories will be one of the tools we use.  Thank you for the inspiration.

  • BY Howard Adam Levy

    ON August 11, 2011 08:24 PM

    John, you are dead on the nonprofits need to step up their game when it comes to getting the word out. The model of government funding has engendered a culture that has traditionally been publicity shy and media averse with the mentality of “when someone needs help they will find us” and “people should support charities.”

    While story telling is a powerful mechanism that nonprofits should embrace more wholeheartedly, it is not sufficient - more impactful media strategies and called for. The world was a different place in the first half of the 20th century. America had 3 TV networks and newspapers had credibility for breaking and investigating news. And there were substantially less nonprofits in the United States.  In short, the outlets for storytelling were limited, as was the competition. A today’s media landscape of dispersed media outlets and influencers requires that nonprofits adopt a vigorous embrace of brand strategies that differentiate themselves and demonstrate their value, galvanize people online, and take advantage of market forces. Fortunately, nonprofits are realizing this and taking advantage of the these these business marketing strategies to capture people’s attention.

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