I am thrilled to introduce you to Hannah Beavers. She is the Executive Director at Freedom Communities. I have the privilege of being on the board of this organization that works with neighbors in West Charlotte to achieve equitable access to education, housing, employment, and community wellness. This is accomplished by aligning partnerships, investments, and the community to create an environment where every family can thrive.
Hannah gives an inside look at what it’s like to lead a nonprofit organization that focuses on holistic strategies that take time to produce outcomes while living with the reality that major funders are looking for outcomes to support their desire to make an impact in the community.
This is a fascinating look at the tension between making a big impact as opposed to making a sustainable impact.
Thanks for this submission, Hannah. Keep up the great work!
In the world of non-profits – everyone talks about impact. We are constantly reporting to funders about our impact.
- How many people do you impact?
- How much does it cost for you to impact those people?
We are forced to treat people as numbers in the same way a corporation would view widgets produced and cost of goods sold. We hear of lofty corporate goals that from a marketing perspective sound compelling. “We’re going to impact 20 million people by 2020!” Everyone cheers and thinks that’s great – but when we do a bit more due diligence it gets a bit less impressive.
- What’s behind that impressive number of 20 million?
- Who are the humans behind the numbers and what did the impact actually look like on their lives?
- Did they attend a training?
- Did they receive a pencil, a book, a micro-loan, an education, a job – or all the above?
Despite the laser focus on impact in our industry, there is no impact measure for depth – no credit for re-impacting the same individual through continuous efforts to improve their lives. Accordingly, in the non-profit sector you cannot compare the impact of two organizations on an apple to apples basis.
Organization A vs. Organization B – An Impact Comparison
Organization “A” says they’re impacting 20 people by giving out flashlights.
Organization “B” says they’re impacting 20 people by providing training, a job, housing, and food.
Which group of 20 would you rather be in?
If given a choice between a flashlight or a job, training, housing, and food I would hands down pick the latter. This solution would help me become self-reliant, meaningfully contribute to society, and positively impact the economy. It is a solution that has the potential to create a ripple effect of opportunity. However, is the funding community willing to invest in holistic and complex solutions?
The unfortunate reality is that a solution giving out flashlights is much more scalable than a holistic solution. As a funder, I can get more bang for my buck by investing in Organization “A” vs Organization “B”. It’s simply cheaper and easier to impact 20 people by giving them flashlights. It’s a way easier story to tell.
And so the problem persists. Checks are written, thousands of people end up with flashlights and funders feel great about how many people they’ve impacted. Why wouldn’t they?
Deep or Wide Impact?
When non-profits or foundations orient their strategy to drive an increase in the number of people impacted they often do so at the expense of depth. At a surface level, larger numbers are simply more impressive. When we crack those numbers open and begin to ask about the humans behind the numbers – when we are willing to put ourselves in the shoes of those individuals – we might feel differently.
In some situations, you may argue that a simple solution may be the best one. People need flashlights and meals and organizations cannot be all things to all people. However, what happens when the batteries to my flashlight die and I cannot afford to buy new ones? What happens when tomorrow comes and I still need a meal? Are these solutions really solutions at all? Or are they perpetuating the problem that they sought to solve?
It is true that organizations shouldn’t have to be all things to all people. But in the world of social good, if we are serious about creating a lasting impact, we must build partnerships with organizations that fill a gap. We need to pursue partnerships that build depth and ensure that behind impressive numbers there is quality and sustainable work being accomplished.
Why Nonprofit Leaders are Forced to Hold Their Tongue
If we look at the root cause of any issue, it likely demands a holistic or systems approach. An approach that requires social service organizations, public, private, and faith communities to collaborate. Sadly, this is rare because of the broken system in which we have historically operated. We are competing for the same dollars from the same set of funders and operate from a scarcity mindset that prevents creativity and collaboration. We are afraid to take risks because if we decide to do things a bit differently and fail to hit a home-run, funders may not make another bet on us. The philanthropic community is incredibly risk averse.
This shift in the way things are funded will likely not be driven by the nonprofit community. Here’s why:
- Donor dollars are the lifeblood of nonprofit organizations.
- Funders require nonprofits to produce higher impact numbers to release future funding.
- Challenging funders is a huge risk to the livelihood of nonprofit organizations
As you can see, I would likely hold my tongue. Even if I believe that the current approach to drive impact could be a detriment to the quality of my work. Even if I believe that instead of funding programs, the greater need is funding staff to help expand programs and not the other way around.
Why hold my tongue? Because I know there’s another organization that will do what the funder is requesting. This puts me at risk of not being able to run my programs at all.
A New Path Forward
So how can we get funders to change their tune to promote collaboration, depth of impact, and solutions that attack issues at their root cause? I think we need to start with education about what true impact looks like, and extend a lot of grace. Funders, generally speaking, have their hearts in the right place. However, letting people off the hook at having their heart in the right place is what has gotten us where we are today. I started an organization that relied on traditional funding models. By the time I tried to overhaul our approach to create sustainability, the damage had already been done.
I see a huge opportunity to shift the way things are done in the philanthropic sector. This shift that could be a game changer for our future. However, we must be willing to start taking risks. Nonprofit leaders and funders have to be as serious about making an impact as we are about keeping on the lights for the organization.