Many of us working for social change have used the analogy of trying to teach a man to fish rather than giving him a fish, to explain the work that we are doing. We know and understand that creating long term impact rather than a band-aid solution is the ideal model. So in our efforts for change we look to make a considerable difference for a lifetime. But what about the next lifetime? Are we working for sustainable solutions to the social problems we are trying to address or instead are we creating sustainable solutions for our organization. For if we truly solve the problem, what will we be the need for our existence?
Over the last few years we have seen an incredible increase in the number of new nonprofit organizations ;from less than 170,000 new organizations in each decade before 1980 to almost 400,000 since 2000. Most nonprofits face the challenge to take on Mission Impossible – a social problem so large and serious that it easily tugs on the heart and purse strings of the general and giving population. There are several ways that we seek to address these problems. We might propose to take on this issue by creating a simple solution like building a well or collecting books, or become highly visible advocates by speaking about these issues around the globe, or maybe start another new program or raise money for a new strategy. And we may slowly begin to impact these social problems. But often the solutions that are created take on only the issues on the surface, the things that are readily visible and important, but may not be sustainable for the long run. These solutions get buzz in media, they get organizations thousands of supporters and every year organizations take in donations to address their mission. And year after year you show outcomes from the work that you have done and how strong your organization is in taking on this impossible mission. And every year the problem continues…
At the SISGI Group we believe that to create real social change requires a focus on Sustainable Impacts© rather than Sustainable Organizations. A sustainable impact is the positive and cohesive outcome from the work of a charitable organization, social innovation or venture that can be maintained, upheld and defended until no longer necessary. In the nonprofit world, we often use sustainability as a buzzword for creating a stable organization or program that can last beyond a funding cycle. Even when focused on outcomes, organizations may show change but tend to fall short of finding the solution that creates a lasting impact. When solutions are devised organizations are seldom asked, will this end the social problem? Will your work no longer be needed once you implement your program to address this need? Because to answer this would be to essentially write ourselves out of a job.
If a man is hungry we know not to just give him fish because it only solves the problem today. So instead our strategy is to teach him how to fish. But this idea is based on one specific strategy, one type of food, and a resource that he has little control over. What if there is a drought that impacts the number of fishing areas? What if he doesn’t catch anything?What might be a better solution would be to design and implement a strategy to assist his community to develop a sustainable food system of agriculture, fishing and enterprise. Rather than creating a solution for his lifetime, this strategy creates a sustainable impact for generations, that should last beyond an organization’s interaction with that community. This solution eliminates the need for your aid, donation or goodwill and instead empowers the local community to help themselves. It also highlights the fact that simple solutions like learning to fish are good strategies but only truly effective for social problem elimination when incorporated into larger strategies. Collaboration amongst specialties is the only way that sustainability can truly occur.
Unfortunately, this has not been the focus of many organizations. We only collaborate if we can see the financial benefits to our organization, are forced by a funder, or will be seen as the leader in our field. Like our for-profit brothers, we want to maintain our brand and often see working with others as a dilution of our brand identity. This is one of the biggest issues within the social sector. Because of the increase in just focusing on double bottom lines, social return on investment, and the growth of nonprofit leaders using a business mentality, we have focused on strengthening our organizations and lost sight of our goals. Not that we have necessarily strayed from our mission, just that we are more concerned with maintaining our place as leaders, entrepreneurs and visionaries in social change rather than truly eliminating the problems we sought to address.
So how do we change this, especially for young social change leaders and others that want to make a difference? If you have a good idea on how to address a social problem take time to learn who might be great partners to work with. If you have a specialty area that you excel in, look at how your efforts might create even more social change when combined with others. Several of the SISGI Group interns have researched and written about strategies for collaboration that can work to change the effectiveness of the social sector. Use these as a springboard to build on when developing a new nonprofit, program or awareness campaign. There are limited resources available to fund many worthwhile projects for change. Rather than creating a competing new organization, why not lend your talents and skills to an existing effort that would increase its effectiveness and build on its experience. Competition in this sector does not necessarily improve the outcomes or improve the work of organizations, it instead often limits the ability for real change to occur because few organizations can truly receive all the resources that are needed to create the kind of change they propose.
For existing organizations, it is time to change our ways. Not only do we need to look at developing exit strategies whenever we begin new projects, we need to think beyond the ways that we have worked to solve social problems. We need to end the competition and silos that prevent similar organizations, with similar missions and outcomes from working together. When a new idea or strategy is developed that is effective at addressing a social problem we should look at ways that we can duplicate and replicate those outcomes. We need to use best practices and share this knowledge rather than trying to grow our organization and our power in the sector. For if we are truly trying to make social change we need to stop doing things that aren’t working and increase efforts that are. If your organization was established to “end hunger” 100 years ago but you still are teaching people to fish, then it may be time to reassess if this strategy is the most effective. Rather than creating a strategy that will make an organization last forever, we should focus on creating change that will last forever.Thenera Bailey is President/CEO of the SISGI Group, a consulting and research organization dedicated to addressing global issues through sustainable impacts and strategic initiatives. To learn more visit www.sisgigroup.org