Rethinking Is Good, Doing Is Better

How To | March 25, 2013

Dan Pallotta’s TED talk has received a lot of attention lately. The talk, like his books, challenge the lens through which we see charity — for the better. He demands we destroy the separate ‘rule book’ we’ve given to the sector responsible for solving the world’s biggest problems and commit to the morality of outcomes over a morality of our methods. Overhead ratios, advertising, investment models and risk are recurring themes here, and while he’s not without his critics, the video is causing those in the industry and those who care about it to challenge assumptions and hopefully re-think some of the ways the ways the sector operates.

How we move from ideals to implementation is likely where most will freeze. There’s a chasm between the ideals Mr. Pallota is suggesting and the cruel reality that is the day to day experience of those operating non-profits. Penalized by the public, paralyzed by their boards, and crippled by a lack of funds, I suspect many non-profit leaders are watching the video, sighing and saying “sure… but I’m barely making payroll, let alone able to invest $50 000 into a venture project that may or may not yield results.” Or, there are those trying innovative approaches to substantial change but running up against the same critiques, roadblocks or don’t have the cash reserves deep enough to see their ideas through.

And as viscerally appealing as it sounds, the solution isn’t just to “dream big” or “take risks.” These may be a part of it, but the reality is, we can’t dream our way into a new playbook. Mass social change requires long term, incremental steps towards a seemingly undefined end.

It may seem like playing darts in the dark, but if we’re willing to make small steps we can hopefully turn on at least a dim light.

I’d suggest that before we can expect the public or government to change perceptions about what we do, the change needs to start with you and the executive leadership at your non profit. I think if you took a half hour you could think of your own set of five ways to challenge the current model, and implement a mode of operating that slowly shifts the conversation. If we do this, we can shift from “wishing” you could operate with the playbook Dan talks about, to picking it up, and starting to turn the pages.

Here are five small commitments I think you can make with your executive leadership team:

Number One: Evaluate every idea based on the individual merits and strength of that idea and not on the weight of precedent or perceptions. If you don’t understand the idea, spend the time necessary to understand its complexities without prejudice. Unpack it and let it stand for itself.

Number Two: Commit to specialization and education in your sector. The non-profit industry in Canada is 110 billion dollars. That’s larger than automotive, tech, manufacturing and more. And yet, who are the experts? If you work in fundraising — you work in finance. Learn the financial models and tools the rest of the finance world uses (yes, even in the for-profit world). Understand risk capital, the banking system and capital markets in and out. Segment by expertise, not by industry.

Number Three: Be honest about the success or lack of success your organization has or has not experienced. Know the metrics you are evaluating your programs on and accept when they just aren’t working. This doesn’t mean you abandon ship or immediately change course, but without an honest inventory of how well you are doing and whether you’re meeting the expectations you have for your cause, how can you be expected to change it?

Number Four: Blue Sky It. While you can’t dream your way into a new playbook, be committed to look at the problems your charity is working to solve, set the ideals as if access to capital and resources wasn’t an issue, and then work back from there.

Number Five: Know your story. Rigorously investigate the origins of your organization, the failures and successes and the legacy of decisions that have brought you to this point. If we don’t understand the past, breaking free from it and setting a new course will be impossible.

Now it’s your turn. Go.

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