The Nonprofit Disconnect

Earlier this week, Ryan wrote about the difference between providing technical assistance to a one-dimensional problem and making a change that has a more sustainable impact. Digging a well in an area without access to clean water, for example, is a great solution to the simple problem of not having clean water. However, that one problem is rarely independent of other deep-rooted issues, such as poverty, malnutrition, and poor education. So when the issue has so many factors, how can a nonprofit be sure they’re really addressing the right problem?

I’ve written a lot of praise for charity: water on their truly impressive progress. However, charity: water is a prime example of a nonprofit that combats one particular issue (lack of safe drinking water) and perhaps disregards many other issues present in communities. Additionally, these problems may in fact be a contributing cause to the lack of clean water. Is drilling a well, then, simply a band-aid approach? Does it even address the root cause? If not, how is it sustainable?

This is not to knock charity: water or any other organization with a similar simple strategy – they’re obviously extremely good at what they do. In fact, I don’t think the answer to this very complex problem is to widen the focus of individual nonprofits to address bigger and more challenging root issues. I think individual nonprofits should remain focused on one particular goal – like drilling a well – but they should partner with other nonprofits that have an equally specific focus.

For example, lets say there’s a small village in Africa that is without clean water, enough nutritious food, and a thriving economy. Simply put, this community suffers from many aspects of poverty. If charity: water built a well, only one “symptom” of the greater problem would be addressed – the community would still struggle to prosper afterward. What if, instead of a single nonprofit addressing a single problem, a team of organizations, each with a specific strategy for a particular aspect of the problem, came to the village? Each nonprofit would have specialization in an area of the community that needs to be addressed. One could drill a water well, another could teach the local community how to utilize that water (plumbing, irrigation, sanitation, etc.), and another could teach them how to use an irrigation system to specifically grow food. With all areas working together, the economy could improve and the community could thrive.

Among thousands of nonprofit organizations, there lies a disconnect that can prevent sustainable change. Personally, I think the solution is to connect them. Many times, the issue is never simple, so the solution shouldn’t be either. For a multi-dimensional problem, there needs to be a group of specialized organizations to address each part. Then, perhaps there can be real – and sustainable – change.

Rebecca Birnbaum is a Program and Research Intern for the SISGI Group focusing on nonviolent conflict resolution, nonprofit management, and sustainable development. She is a senior at the University of Michigan, where she studies Anthropology, Political Science, and Peace and Social Justice. To learn more about the SISGI Group, visit

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