Our Core Principles: High Impact at Scale, Yes, But Serve Others Always

In our last column, we described to you the essential roles that Ashoka founder Bill Drayton and Landesa founder Roy Prosterman played in shaping our core principles for nonprofit and philanthropic leadership. We also encouraged you to take stock of the sources of the thinking, motivations, and ideals that you bring to nonprofit and philanthropic leadership. And we challenged you to articulate your core principles — and pledged to do the same ourselves.

So now it’s time to fulfill our promise.

Whatever your role in the nonprofit world — executive, staffer, board member, or philanthropist — identifying your core principles is foundational to choosing your own focus and role. This was brought home to us through a dialogue we had with our friend Jim Collins during the course of writing our recent book, Engine of Impact: Essentials of Strategic Leadership in the Nonprofit Sector. We had asked Jim — the author of Good to Great and Good to Great and the Social Sectors — to write our Foreword. When he returned our manuscript with the suggestion that we further hone our thinking about the essentials of strategic leadership, we listened. His basic suggestion — well, to be honest, demand — was that we be even bolder in our core message to all nonprofit and philanthropic leaders about how challenging and exceptional it is to build and sustain a high-performing nonprofit organization.

Fair enough, we thought. Perhaps we were succumbing unknowingly to the nonprofit sector’s pervasive virus of over-valuing self-identified good intentions by being less evaluative, analytical, meritocratic and performance-oriented. So we honed our thinking. And here, the fruit of our long and rich experience, are our foundational principles as active observers, advisors and leaders in the sector.

Our primus inter pares core principle is “high impact at scale.” Even as we place this principle first among equals, we are always careful to point out that we find, and honor, deep human dignity in any authentic effort to support, serve or simply be present with another person in need. This life principle to “serve others” is an essential idea in virtually every faith and wisdom tradition. It represents our fundamental obligation to each other, the foundational element in any community — our only true hope in our increasingly borderless, diverse world.

We suggest — or, if we want to heed Jim’s call to be bold, then we demand — that those of us with the time, money, and leadership skills go beyond this life principle (of serving others in everyday ways) to actively engage with nonprofit organizations to achieve high impact at scale. But, as with everything difficult and important, there is a right way and many wrong ways. In Engine of Impact, we distill the core principles for high impact at scale into a set of seven essential elements:

– A clear and focused mission

– A sound strategy, beginning with a theory of change that articulates the logic of how that strategy will achieve that mission

– Impact evaluation that demonstrates your progress toward the mission

– Insight and courage that enables you to bring heart and soul to the making and executing of difficult decisions

– Organization and talent that embody the principles of high performance

– Funding that is sufficient, sustained, and directed toward serving the mission

– A board that is built and nurtured to pursue exceptional governance

These seven essentials are, in Jim’s words, “crucial pillars” of nonprofit performance, and therefore “you simply cannot have a single weakness, not one.” The reason, he explained, is that “it is substantially more difficult to build a great social sector organization than to build a great business corporation of the same scale.” Those of you who have tried to do just that will undoubtedly agree — and if you are having difficulties, it is likely because your organization is weak in one, or more, of these essentials. You are not alone in the struggle; only 11 percent of nonprofit organizations excel at all seven essentials. More than 80 percent of nonprofits struggle with at least one essential — a condition that can significantly hamper an organization’s ability to achieve its goals.

While scale can increase impact, small can be beautiful. A single free medical clinic, a local chamber music festival, a fine independent school, a caring homeless shelter — all of these can be locally impactful without having the business model, aspirations or resources needed to scale.

In recent years, we have seen some pernicious viruses spreading in the nonprofit sector. We agree with Kevin Starr, executive director of the Mulago Foundation, that social innovation, sexy though it may be, is not the most important path to impact. That honor goes to what he calls, in a recent Stanford Social Innovation Review article co-authored with Greg Coussa, “high-fidelity replication” by numerous organizations, which then leads to impact at scale. A bias toward the new and the seemingly innovative grew out of ideas like venture philanthropy, an attempt to apply the practices that have supported our era-shaping technology revolution to social change. But one thing (the Silicon Valley model of venture capital, in which start-ups are spurred by new technologies and experience hypergrowth through the creative destruction of slow-to-adapt, mature, and more costly existing businesses) was, in the end, just not like the other (the work of social change). The nonprofit sector still lacks the measurement, transparency, incentives, and capital sources to support such creative destruction.

We have also noticed lingering vestiges of Great Society, top-down, expert-driven liberalism; just see the May 12 New York Times op-ed by Gerard Alexander, “Liberals, You’re Not as Smart as You Think.” Our social sector must adopt this as its Prime Directive: help people on their own terms, meet them where they are, practice empathy, and forever eschew condescending, neo-colonialist, “we know better than you” attitudes. 

We advocate strongly for sector-wide, rigorous impact evaluation but also agree with the statement (popularly attributed to Einstein) “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” The process of seeking to measure and evaluate impact will always be fruitful. While we are, firstly, fact-based, we are also “analytics who love Yeats.”

And so we leave Yeats, the Irish poet and playwright, to offer our closing core principle:

I have believed the best of every man,

And find that to believe it is enough

To make a bad man show him at his best,

Or even a good man swing his lantern higher.

(Deirdre, W.B. Yeats)

Originally published in Forbes

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