Striking a Balance Between Supply and Demand

February 15, 2010

In this series of blogs, I’m going to discuss the problem of the lack of balance in funding service-providing nonprofits and funding those that engage not only in some sort of advocacy, but actively organize constituencies to advocate and provide for themselves. We’ve a long history of mainstream philanthropy eschewing advocacy organizations (at least on the left—the right doesn’t seem to have a problem with this). Perhaps it is time to rethink this lopsided funding if we really want to change conditions in our communities worldwide. This may be more imperative with the recent Supreme Court decision to allow unrestricted campaign contributions by corporations.
I encounter this problem in various ways. There is a recurring theme in my course on nonprofit strategy and leadership of the failure of nonprofit leaders to recognize the difference between need in a community and demand. There is unlimited opportunity for social entrepreneurship because there is so much need everywhere—here and abroad. Responding to real demand in a community is a different, and harder, job. As Don Williams found out when he went into South Dallas to “help” in the mid-1990s, and as Greg Mortenson found out when he started to work in the mountains of Pakistan, communities and their leaders are not helpless, clueless, nor lacking in priorities. Even in the most ravaged situations—New Orleans, Haiti—we’ve learned at least to ask the question about how the community wants to lead itself and move forward, even if we may not be entirely willing to support it. In many of our communities, our civil society organizations may be split—the many that provide services, funded from without, and the fewer that mobilize residents or advocate for policy change. Too few of our service-providing nonprofits are equipped or inclined to do the latter work, when many of them do have visions or missions that would require that level of change.
An interdisciplinary team of researchers at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University have formed the Transnational NGO Initiative. Led by Prof. Hans Peter Schmitz and Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken, they have just completed gathering data for a major research project studying the leadership perspectives of more than 150 transnational NGOs across all sectors of work. The data gathered span issues of leadership, governance, accountability, effectiveness, collaboration, and communication. Most of the data has yet to be mined, but in meetings they have shared some interesting early findings, analyzed by Christiane Pagé and Prof. Margaret Hermann. They find that the leaders are not inclined to challenge the status quo: 57% made statements that reveal they engage in incremental change; only 13% demonstrate they have the capacity to tackle change “head on”; 11% discuss issues in ways indicative of a “behind the scenes” approach to change, i.e., using influence indirectly; and only 19% communicate ideas in a manner that shows they use the situation to guide in them in their decision-making and recognize the difference between tackling a change “head on” versus indirect influence. These results were obtained from the sample of which 22% of the organizations were advocacy organizations, 46% were service-delivery NGOs, and 32% said they did both service and advocacy.
The point is not to just fund advocacy, but to encourage all types of nonprofits to develop advocacy and organizing skills and make this part of their work. My colleague Marshall Ganz has been teaching organizing and public narrative for years. We are launching an online version of this course, and we hope to reach many leaders who may not self-identify as “organizers.” Organizing is not just about mobilizing for a specific campaign. It is about creating leadership and power.

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