Shhh… We may be talking about social change

In my work as a consultant, I often encounter non-profits that seem surprised when I start talking about social change. Social change suggests revolution, taking a blunt knife to a societal problem when all we really need is a scalpel.

Yet more non-profits than we think are working for a permanent solution to some problem rather than a short term fix.  Finding the will to end cancer, making the arts an integrated element in our lives, alleviating poverty, creating sustainable ways to educate our children about the world, and protecting the environment all involve making a permanent change in how our society currently operates.  They all involve some level of social change, or changing the balance of power and money to allow a different way of doing business.

One way to think about the relevance of social change to any non-profit organization is whether that organization’s mission is about changing behavior or about providing something simply nice to have.  On one extreme, you have an organization like Out2Play mentioned in the New York Times story about nonprofits going out of business upon meeting their mission.  Out2Play set out to create 40 playgrounds near housing projects, “nice to have” spaces for children, and then closed shop when they reached that goal.  They weren’t out to change the circumstances that cause children to live in housing projects in the first place.

On the other extreme are poverty alleviation projects that bore down into root causes of hopelessness and address the capacity building that needs to take place so that local people can address their own most pressing problems.  They look at the interwoven complexity of economics, power, and culture and try pull at the threads of education, social support, and fair wage work in order to shift the context in which poor people live.

Between playgrounds and poverty, however, lie a whole lot of other non-profits that are doing important work.  Arts organizations, public affairs institutions, disease awareness and research funds, etc. address aspects of our society that are important for our collective well-being.  Looking at them through a lens of social change challenges us to think deeply about their purpose and whether or not they are about changing long term behavior or simply about adding something nice to have if resources allow.  While few of these non-profits talk in terms of social change, their ability to think in terms of social change may make the difference between surviving and thriving.

Three reasons why more non-profits should think in terms of social change:

1. If you know where you are going, you are more likely to get there.  Buried deep within strategic plans and staff agendas is some notion that begins: “What we really want to happen is….”  A local symphony isn’t just about performing symphonic music for people who buy tickets.  It really wants to expand the role that music plays in the lives of diverse audiences, including those who never otherwise would have been exposed to a symphony.  A public affairs organization isn’t about lectures and meetings.  It really wants to make knowledge about the world a critical aspect of every citizen’s decision-making, thereby building the foundation for a more respectful and peaceful world.  By closing our eyes and thinking big, and we achieve a level of focus that makes more happen.

2. Focusing on society as a whole forces you to expand your community.  Many of these middle ground nonprofits have a certain following that cares about its programs.  Arts organizations have subscribers or patrons; public affairs organizations have people who come to them because they care about world affairs or public policy; disease funds attract individuals with family members affected by that disease.  Once you focus on society as a whole, however, you have unique opportunities to get creative in drawing in sectors of society who never would have bought tickets or seen themselves in your cause.

3. Expanding your view gives you a better case for raising money.  Times are tough, and each and every organization is up against each other for charitable dollars.  As more and more donors direct their dollars to human service organizations both locally and internationally, non-profits outside of human services need to tell their stories in ways that demonstrate how their work builds a foundation for a better world in the long term.  “Nice to have” activities rely on continual charity to keep them running.  “Must haves” must be funded in ways that are sustainable over the long run.

Non-profit leaders are used to living in two worlds, one defined by the reality of raising money from generous donors who have benefited from society as it is, and the other constructed within our imagination, exploring the kind of society or world required in order for our non-profit to declare mission accomplished and need not exist.  Thinking in terms of social change—or deciding not to—allows for critical conversations at all levels of an organization.

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