On the morning of January 25, 2011, NPR interviewed a number of small business owners about what they hoped to hear President Obama say that night during his State of the Union speech. The overall tone of their discussion was how little the President understood about small businesses as the engines of economic growth in the United States. One businesswoman went so far as to give him an F for his performance from a business perspective.
This got me thinking about small organizations in general. How well do we understand any small organization and the role that many of them play together in fulfilling a bigger mission? In the case of business, this translates into a country’s economic growth. Within the social change sector, this means the total impact of a whole lot of small initiatives on the big challenge of changing the circumstances around the world that allow so much poverty to persist.
Indeed, communities all over the world work to address their challenges and better their quality of life. Local individuals are improving schools, providing healthcare, and addressing social issues, whether through “development” efforts, government public policy, community organizing, or advocacy. They are standing tall and drawing on whatever connections and resources they have to defend their civil and human rights. Economist William Easterly calls leaders of these movements “searchers” because they nimbly adapt local knowledge to find solutions that will stick within their society and culture. Given that only people living within a society can effectively change that society in the long term, supporting these “searchers” sits at the heart of global poverty alleviation.
There is no shortage of organizations trying to do exactly that. The National Center for Charitable Statistics, for example, cited over 20,830 non-profits in the United States at work in 2010 serving some international interest, and if the trend from the past two years continues, another one thousand or so U.S. organizations will join the global effort to address critical global issues in the next year. These organizations hold over $30 billion in assets, a staggering amount given that the U.S. government spends $37 billion on foreign aid and diplomacy. These organizations, along with others around the world, raise money, send volunteers, or consult on a range of issues from trade to technology. Foreign resources typically make or break local organizations, alternately bringing in much needed money or moving on and leaving that organization struggling to sustain programs past the next funding cycle.
Those of us who follow “development” discussions hear regularly about the large players and their impact around the world. They have media specialists and government affairs staff who further their message on the airways and within corridors of power. How well do we understand small NGOs as the engines driving significant social change work?
Some ideas for improving what we understand about small non-profits within the social change sector:
1. Invest in a collaboratory network of small NGOs and their international partners to allow information sharing and learning. Too many small NGOs are working without a road map and in some level of isolation.
2. Integrate funders—foundations, giving circles, school groups, and civic organizations—into this learning circle so that power and risk are shared across culture and class. At the end of the day, working together will ensure that resources go where we most need them.
3. Develop more holistic ways of measuring success beyond big numbers and short time lines. It took hundreds of years to create societies in which poverty and other social ills are so firmly imbedded in daily life. It will take time and nuanced shifts in local culture and institutions in order to make poverty less welcome in those societies.
As the business people wanted to remind President Obama, a lot of small makes something big. This is true in social change as much as it is in business.