Are Nonprofits Designed to Fail?

Originally published at The Huffington Post. There’s a story often told in nonprofit circles to inspire hope. It’s the one about the starfish, which in one version goes like this:

A man is walking on a beach and comes across a little girl tossing stranded starfish back into the water. Seeing the multitudes of other starfish, he asks, “Does that really make a difference?”

“It does to this one,” says the little girl, and another starfish sails over the waves.

I hate that story.

Yes, I know that it’s meant to encourage individuals to act, and of course that’s good.

But here’s what gets me: it also masks failure as success.

Too often, the starfish story is told to justify a charitable effort that’s not making real change. When our starfish rescuer shows up for work tomorrow, there’s going to be a whole new batch of starfish. Time spent saving a few is time spent not solving the underlying problem.

There are some who think that describes much of the nonprofit sector.

Peter Buffett, the philanthropist son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett, recently wrote a New York Times op-ed called “The Charitable-Industrial Complex”. In it, he suggests that many nonprofits actually enable the suffering they’re intended to reduce:

Inside any important philanthropy meeting, you witness heads of state meeting with investment managers and corporate leaders. All are searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left…

It’s what I would call “conscience laundering” — feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.

But this just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place.

To the Buffett family’s credit, they put their money where their mouths are. In 2006, as Peter Buffett relates, his father “made good on his commitment to give nearly all of his accumulated wealth back to society.”

But as Peter also recognizes, it may end up being futile, unless the donated billions are used to change systems, not symptoms.

The nonprofit sector is growing rapidly — faster by some measures than the business and government sectors, according to the Urban Institute. And yet many of the challenges it addresses remain — poverty, violence, hunger, poor health, and on and on — and often appear to be intractable.

It’s a dilemma that many of the people who work in nonprofits know all too well — and some are working hard to solve it. Nonprofit executives Bill Shore, Darrell Hammond and Amy Celep address it in an article called “When Good Isn’t Good Enough” in the Fall 2013 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review:

Many of the fastest-growing nonprofit organizations begin with well-intentioned interventions and relatively naive ideas about the magnitude and complexity of the problems they aim to solve. Share Our Strength and KaBOOM! are no exception. By some measures our organizations were successful US nonprofits — growing rapidly, engaging numerous partners, and improving the lives of tens of millions of children.

Yet all the while, the problems we were tackling — hunger and the lack of opportunities to play — were getting worse and even accelerating in recent years as the economy took a downturn.

Shore, Hammond and Celep realized that they were in effect saving starfish:

The foundation on which many nonprofits are built is flawed and simplistic, focused on a symptom rather than the underlying set of problems, developed in isolation rather than as part of an integrated system, and organized to administer a narrowly tailored program or benefit rather than generate sustained, significant change for a person or community. As a result, change is incremental, not big or bold enough to make a lasting and transformative impact.

What to do?

If you truly believe that starfish shouldn’t die on the beach, you don’t just throw a few of them back.

You mobilize a response powerful enough to save all the starfish. Or, even better, you stop them from being stranded in the first place.

How to do it?

More on that next time.

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