Thursday, December 11, 2008

Nonprofit Impact

"...[T]he dynamics driving the nonprofit sector actually undermine its organizations'ability to focus on results, despite the mounting pressure to do just that."

Jeffrey L. Bradach, Thomas J Tierney, and Nan Stone, "Delivering on the Promise of Nonprofits," Harvard Business Review, December 2008.

Unfortunately, this article doesn't fulfill the promise of saying much that is new about the nonprofit sectors' struggle to improve impact. After identifying an array of factors that constrain a "high impact" focus, the authors offer the remedies of mission statements, theory of change, good management as well as passionate leadership, and investment in infrastructure. These are good recommendations. Most nonprofits would benefit from adopting them.

I prefer the recent Forces for Good that grapples with the strategies a set of nonprofits evolved to achieve high impact. These cases say a bit more about how to build market share and impact.

A part of my discomfort with these discussions is that we need to be more precise about which nonprofits we are talking about. We simultaneously have too many nonprofits, too few high impact nonprofits, and a lot of nonprofits that are good but not great. Should we apply these nostrums across the field or should we make choices? Which nonprofits have the most potential for moving up? What are the nonprofit characteristics and behaviors that need to be present. And, when is "good" good enough.

Oddly, the article pivots on the story of the Harlem Children Zone and how it changed its theory of change. No mention of results, except for raising lots of money and inspiring replication envy.

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