Greatness = working outside organizational boundaries + advocacy

I’ve just started reading Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits (thank you, Leigha Kinnear) by Leslie R. Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant. Among other things I am struck by the methodical approach the authors took to understanding what really makes a difference (impact-wise) in the nonprofit world. Anyone who writes as transparently as Crutchfield and McLeod Grant about methodology is ok by me.

Normally I just tune out of any book/article with “the # practices of high-impact [fill in the blank]” because it’s someone just spewing opinion. But in this case, the research approach appeals to my geeky side. There was some serious thought put behind how (and why) to look deeply at success cases.

What prompts me to write so early in my reading was this item:

Greatness has more to do with how nonprofits work outside the boundaries of their organizations than how they manage their own internal operations. – From Forces for Good, p. 19

First, this resonates with other themes that have struck me (see this post, for example). But it also strikes me because the authors clearly spell out in the warmup to their book that they were underwhelmed by the state of existing research on how social entrepreneurs and successful nonprofits really operate and deliver impact in our current environment (e.g., let’s exclude nonprofits that are working off the momentum initiated by some philanthropic visionary 80-100 years ago). The general approach to looking at nonprofit operations is via the lens of successful commercial enterprises — and really, how satisfying (or applicable) is that?

Basically, the authors say: Successful nonprofits are a different species. We need to look at how they survive within the environment with open eyes, and learn by observing. What I say is, yep. And how about we turn things around: Rather than try to see nonprofits through the lens of “best” commercial enterprise “practices,” how about we look at successful nonprofits and say — this is where all organizations should be headed?

And that brings me back to the “working outside their boundaries” as a focus vs. “internal operations.” Truthfully, there is a shift there that is worth contemplating for any type of  organization. I suspect that the organizational capability to truly collaborate broadly produces residual benefits related to effectively engaging stakeholders and society in general. Just a thought.

The second bit that inspired me to write this is the notion of advocacy. The authors write about successful nonprofits being able to both advocate and serve (in the sense of providing programs and services). What strikes me here is that the key point is about advocating with authenticity. If I am providing programs and services that truly help me understand issues at the ground (user, consumer) level, then who better to advocate for addressing the policy issues that stand in the way of progress?

It’s the difference between spewing opinion and having a thoughtful point of view. We need more of the latter.