Leaders of two of the most successful nonprofit organizations argue that the sector needs to shift its attention from modest goals that provide short-term relief to bold goals that, while harder to achieve, provide long-term solutions by tackling the root of social problems.
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. More than 16 million kids in America now live in poverty, up from 11.6 million in 2000. For Share Our Strength, we knew the grants we were providing to feed hungry people were benefiting the recipients, but we confronted the hard truth that one in five American children struggles with hunger. Similarly, for KaBOOM!, we witnessed how children who played on our playgrounds benefited physically, cognitively, socially, and emotionally, but we faced the fact that one in three children is obese or overweight, and one in five suffers from a mental illness, with rates of depression higher than ever before. The list goes on.1
Share Our Strength and KaBOOM! realized that to make significant progress, we had to move beyond simple solutions to complex problems, and we had to answer anew, in a much bolder way, the most critical question of all: “What does success look like?”
A variety of factors combine to make this dynamic so pronounced. Some are external and macro, such as the challenges inherent in solving problems that affect people who are politically voiceless and the value our culture places on the immediate over the long term. Some are internal, like the failure of imagination or the fear of failure that leads us to the easier, less expensive solution rather than the solution that addresses the underlying problems. Some are both, like public pressure to keep nonprofit salaries and overhead low, and internal acquiescence that can constrain necessary and catalytic investments in people, technology, and systems. The result is often like filling a glass of water one drop at a time. Impact dissipates and evaporates, and the glass seems never to be more than half full. To solve big problems we need strategies sufficient to fill the whole glass.
Collective impact is one approach for solving problems, but one can use it to tackle a problem at a large or a small scale. If solving social problems is what we aspire to achieve, we need to set long-term, bold goals that acknowledge the magnitude of an issue. Defining a bold goal changes the game, leading to different decisions that set us on a new trajectory, which ultimately leads to greater impact, faster.
We recognize the pathology we describe because we once practiced it, making many of the same mistakes we now bring to the fore. We unintentionally shortchanged ourselves and those we meant to serve until time, experience, and perhaps some wisdom taught us to use a more strategic—and potentially effective—approach. Now we have embarked on a new course, one that focuses less on the transactions involved in the delivery of direct services and more on exerting the influence necessary to solve problems at the magnitude they exist. By ensuring lasting and significant change for all those affected by an issue, we are aiming for transformational change.
Share Our Strength and KaBOOM! aren’t the only organizations focused on transformational change. In 1996, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids embarked on a mission to reduce tobacco use among kids. The smoking rate among US youth dropped from 36.4 percent in 1997 to 18.1 percent in 2011.2 Malaria No More adopted the ambitious goal to end deaths from malaria in Africa by 2015. Since its work began, malaria deaths have decreased 33 percent in Africa.3 And from 1988 through the early 1990s, the Harvard Alcohol Project sought to introduce a new social norm in the United States: the “designated driver.” By 1991, 52 percent of Americans younger than 30 had served as a designated driver. In the three years prior to the start of the campaign there had been no change in the annual number of alcohol-related traffic fatalities; from 1988 to 1992 the nation saw a four-year decline of 24 percent, from 23,626 to 17,858.4
Though it may seem counterintuitive for a sector already struggling to support, sustain, and scale up its impact—our approach calls for nonprofits to embrace a much heavier lift. We must look beyond short-term achievements that please funders, staff, and stakeholders but yield only incremental change, and instead hold ourselves accountable for the harder-to-achieve long-term outcomes that will ultimately solve social problems.