It’s Time to Rethink Your Purpose
There’s a fundamental shift happening in society — one in six employable Americans may be out of a job. Fear of the virus and social distancing is not going away soon. We’ll be experiencing more hunger, homelessness, domestic violence, suicide and mental health issues. Inequality is growing. Schools and universities may be forever changed.
The challenges are larger than ever, and bigger, bolder solutions are needed to address them. Solely streaming your services is not the solution. This moment calls for creative thinking to break through traditional ways of doing things. Nonprofits can rise to the challenge if they rethink their purpose.
As Albert Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
Creative Thinking Is Needed
New approaches are already happening:
- Farmers face the problem of having to destroy crops they can’t get to market because of COVID-19. Food banks face an increasing demand for food. The solution: New York State provided food banks with the money to buy produce.
- When Elmhurst Hospital, at the coronavirus epicenter, lacked supplies, the governor of New York created a coalition of public and private hospitals to share resources and materials — a connected network for the first time.
- The homeless need a place to stay. Vacant hotels need tenants. The solution: Hotels are being repurposed for housing the homeless.
Examples of creative solutions abound — thinking beyond the expected and connecting unlikely parties. So, what is your nonprofit doing to think out of the box?
Why Does Your Organization Exist?
Ask yourself, “What business is your organization really in?”
In the mid-1800s, railroads rose to prominence, overtaking the horse and buggy in spades. Thousands of miles of track were laid, opening up the country to expansion. But by the early 20th century, automobiles had overtaken trains, providing more freedom and creating a new way of life while thousands of miles of track were abandoned. The railroad magnates viewed their business as trains — not transportation. They missed the boat, so to speak, on their reason for being, and failed to change with the times.
Your organization can’t afford to miss the current opportunity.
Examine Your Purpose
Start by thinking about the problem you are addressing. Ask what’s needed to prevent it. Take several steps back to explore the root cause.
If you run an after school program, ask why it’s needed. Public schools are not providing appropriate education? Parents have to work and need a place for their children to go after school? Employers don’t provide the appropriate work-life balance for parents to be with their children? Do you provide specialized offerings that can’t be found elsewhere?
All of those factors are in flux right, so now is the time to address the larger issues. Why aren’t public schools providing appropriate education? What can you change in your community as schools rethink what education will look like in September? As Congress addresses another round of relief, what can you do to influence new expectations for working that recognizes the realities of having kids?
New thinking can lead to collaborations with parents, teachers, community groups, the government and businesses, even transportation businesses, local attractions, online services and others.
It’s up to every nonprofit to rethink the business that they’re in and create new, more effective ways for accomplishing change as well as redefining and re-asserting their role in society.
This will require getting out of your comfort zone and asking what’s possible. Shedding inhibitions and casting off scared cows. Collaborating with unexpected partners. Embracing technology and new and uncomfortable ways. Experimenting. And, yes, failing. Trying new approaches will not be flawless, and we shouldn’t expect it to be.
What You Can Do
Explore new models that combine service with organizing, advocacy and system change. Organizations that have proven to be successful combine direct service with advocacy to change the systems that created the problems they are trying to address.
Create new partnerships across sectors. Solutions happen when problems are perceived from multiple perspectives. Reach across the aisle to other nonprofits as well as businesses, social entrepreneurs, think tanks, foundations and other unexpected partners that can bring a different approach to the problem.
Work on systemic change through collaboration and coalitions. Individual nonprofits can do only so much alone. Join associations and coalitions to combine power to generate ideas and affect larger change.
Generate new income streams. Now is the time to explore other ways of raising revenue. Look to the business sector for examples of subscription pricing (Netflix and newspapers), fees based on timeliness (airlines), usage (phone companies), as well as social ventures, retailers and others.
Share what you’ve learned to help other organizations be more successful. Direct service organizations possess in-depth knowledge about what works. It’s time to share that with others — whether informally or through white papers, presentations at conferences, a consultancy or other methods.
Embrace technology. This is not the strong suit of most nonprofits. But by investing in artificial intelligence, augmented reality, gaming, big data, blockchain and other emerging technologies, nonprofits can amplify their effectiveness tremendously.
Be at the table. Decisions are going to be made that will affect your fate — whether at the federal or local levels. Make sure that you have a say. Get involved in the political and business communities where decisions are made.
Create the Change That’s Needed
It’s up to nonprofits to think of bold ways of creating the future that we want, not getting back to the old paradigms that didn’t work — otherwise, their fates will be shaped for them.
Yes, we are in dire straits right now. No, it’s not easy to reimagine a new future when you’re fighting for survival. But now is exactly the time to do so. Decisions are being made now that will affect your organization. The rule book has been tossed out and the critical hand of accountability has been lifted.
So what are you waiting for?
Howard Adam Levy is the president of Red Rooster Group, a brand strategy firm that promotes nonprofits, governments, and foundations. For the past 20 years, Howard has assisted countless organizations to launch new brands, clarify their messages, gain visibility and raise hundreds of millions of dollars.