The Nonprofit Sector Lacks the Urgency Needed to make Meaningful Impact

September 19, 2017 •  4 minute read • by Saeed


“People like to chop wood because they see immediate results.” ~ Albert Einstein

I have been in the social sector for the entire 30 years of my career. As part of that career, I have sat in endless meetings where planners and self-appointed ‘leaders’ discuss and process information in steering committees, action teams, work groups, and task forces. The results are always disappointingly similar. The ratio of talk to action is disproportionate. One could argue that the reasons for this are multi-faceted and complex. They are not. The reason is simple. There is a lack of urgency in the social sector. If a particular program isn’t launched on time, no heads will roll in the same way that heads will roll if Apple misses its next iPhone launch date. The for-profit sector is driven by shareholder demands and the pressure is intense. The nonprofit sector is driven by its commitment to quality and service.

In the nonprofit sector, the pressure for raising funds to meet demand can be intense and this is where I have seen urgency take hold.

I once worked on a crowdfunding campaign for a suicide hotline. The hotline was losing vital state sponsored support that essentially decimated its entire operation within a few short months. Without a clear path to donors to fill the gap, we turned to the crowd. The entire organization pulled together, leveraged photography, film and story to make a compelling case and reached the campaign goal of $100,000 beating the time and money goal we had set for ourselves.

Urgency moves people to action. Many of the issues that we deal with in the nonprofit sector are chronic and lack such urgency. Homelessness, education, criminal justice reform, and so on. We simply accept that such change and reform ‘takes time.’

Urgency breeds innovation. When we are resolute that the issues we are working on ‘take time,’ we are less likely to innovate. Innovation often results from an urge to solve an immediate problem at hand. When we don’t see the problems as immediate, we fail to innovate on their behalf.

Urgency breeds true collaboration. So many collaborative efforts suffer from talk and no action. When we infuse urgency into the scenario, partnerships and collaborations take on new meaning. They become a need rather than a nice-to-have. Oh, it would be nice to have so and so at the table vs. we must have this person’s skills because without it we won’t make our timeline.

Urgency necessitates a structured plan. And this is where I see most initiatives, campaigns, projects, and programs fail. Because there is no urgency, there is also no structure. By this I mean:

  • No clear goals are articulated
  • No clear outcomes are articulated
  • No clear pathway to change is articulated
  • No clear work plan for change is articulated
  • No clear metrics for measuring change are articulated
  • No clear accountability mechanism is articulated to maintain and measure progress

For the sector to be successful at scale, it has to change its mindset and approach. It has to adopt an urgency to its approach that is calibrated to the urgency of issues we face in communities. Unless we do so, change will continue to be painstakingly slow.

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