Building More Powerful Organizations

Every day, we get to work with nonprofits that are dedicated to creating a more just, prosperous, and sustainable world. Many of these organizations were born out of the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, and have grown up together with their founders, leaders, and managers. It would not be much of a stretch to say that a number of the nonprofits born of movements are reaching a kind of midlife crisis, or at least an inflection point at which the old rules seem to no longer apply. That prompts us to reflect on where we have been and what comes next.

It’s a cruel irony that some of the nonprofits that have been most successful over the past 40 years in building a following, achieving victories, and carving a space in the mainstream now find they are being passed over by funders seeking fresher approaches and nimbler execution in which to invest. At the same time, there are still many small, stalwart nonprofits that never achieved great scale but continue to soldier on, much in the same scrappy way they did at their inception (to the chagrin of funders that may have expected greater self-sufficiency by now). In both cases, what these organizations are struggling with is relevance — not of their mission, for there will always be the need to redress wrongs and stand up for the most vulnerable, but of their approach to (or power in) delivering on those aspirations.

Fighting for funding, visibility, and mindshare in today’s rapidly changing and highly competitive nonprofit environment isn’t just about creating a slick new social media campaign. That would be the organizational equivalent of dating younger people and buying a red sports car. Instead, established nonprofits and their leaders need to be ready to push outside their comfort zone, to be willing to question everything, and to take risks.

Declining membership speaks to the new organizational agnosticism of donors and supporters, and to the need to engage people very differently than ever before. Meanwhile, many leaders and managers struggle with the passion vs. professionalism dilemma, negotiating the tension between dedication to a cause and investment in the skills and business savvy to support it. In some organizations, there is an outsider/insider tension that can play out as an uneasy balancing act between direct services to individuals (in spite of the system) and policy advocacy in a broader arena (working with and across systems) — even those that recognize the complementarity of the two approaches are faced with the question of how to allocate limited resources to both.

At this critical moment for so many organizations and individuals working for social justice, how many will take up the challenge to reinvent themselves for a new stage in their life cycle through new leadership, fundamentally different takes on strategy, or business model innovations? The answer may just tell us a bit about which nonprofits will be with us for the next 40 years.

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