Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Innovating to the edge of capacity by Nora Sobolov, Executive Director

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the culture of scarcity.  Having recently gone back to the direct service nonprofit world, I’m struck by how small the field of vision for so many nonprofits has become.  While JobTrain is particularly lucky in our donors and funding partners, many of my colleague’s nonprofits have been starved for funding to keep operations alive, leading to the inevitable hamster wheel of doing more and more work to chase fewer dollars.  This makes it very hard to see beyond the cage or to use the cliché, think outside the box.  And yet, we all remain surprised that more concrete innovations and more importantly, implementation of these innovative ideas have not emerged.

My friend and colleague Laura Manning, Executive Director of the Lyle S. Hallman Foundation recently tweeted a comment that jump started me: “How do you know where the edge of your capacity is if you never fail?”  Innovation always entails risk, but as so many nonprofits have learned, selling risk in today’s environment is very tricky.  Funders want innovation, but frequently the solution to failure (or to the inevitable short term fall off of regular funds that can happen during the development phase) is that organizations cut back to “live within their means.”  Since so many organizations have been cash starved for years, cutbacks to find room for innovation can mean that core services are dropped and people aren’t served.  As services drop off, funding becomes harder to get.  It is not an environment conducive to risk or innovation.  It is rather like suggesting someone who is homeless should go to college and cut back on food to afford it; nonprofits have their noses pressed against the window and can see what’s inside the store, but they can’t possibly afford to buy. 

Our current nonprofit models are being disrupted by social finance and social enterprise, but concrete living examples are in short supply.  We have a long way to go to have our nonprofit “corporate culture” and funding models catch up with this vision.  As my grandmother would say: our eyes are bigger than our stomach.

In the short term, we need more leaders and funders of direct service nonprofits to start talking about fostering a culture where dreams are not only possible, but encouraged.  Front line social workers have known for years that clients who tell us that they can no longer dream of a better future are unlikely to ever have one.  Why would we think nonprofits are different? 

To some degree, we need a leap of faith, a sort of “if you build it, they will come” mantra to help us imagine a world where we might grow rather than incrementally creep along.  A world where the outcomes really will matter more than how many paper clips we bought.  And yes, a world where you truly go big or go home and are prepared to innovate to the edge of your capacity. 

 Stay tuned…..

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