There are many good ideas to help nonprofits become more effective in solving complex social problems. They include capacity building, social enterprise, and public-private partnerships, just to name a few. But they are all just means to an end, and the more important issue is what does the end look like. It may be the most important question that usually doesn’t get asked or answered: What is success?
As I wrote in a recent article on the Stanford Social Innovation Review, that one question dictates the answer to almost everything else: How much money must be raised? What skills to recruit and hire for? What milestones to measure? What deliverables are you accountable for? What criteria are used to assess and evaluate staff? Who should be on the board?
I can’t claim to have come to this realization on my own. Instead, at a dinner party with Paul Brest, the wise former CEO of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, I asked him what he made of all of the intellectual ferment around performance metrics, outcomes, etc. He leaned in close and said softly, “It all really comes down to just one thing: If you can say what success looks like, with clarity and precision, everything else really falls into place.”
Share Our Strength’s pivot from grant-making intermediary to leading a campaign to end childhood hunger was the culmination of extensive reflection on what success would look like. Other organizations like City Year and the America’s Promise Alliance both focused on decreasing student drop-out rates, have made similar transitions to put a stake in the ground and focus on a specific outcome.
Half of the nonprofit consulting industry could probably pack up and go home if more nonprofits asked this question. Not for donors or reporters, but for themselves. Ultimately it is a not just an organizational question but a deeply personal one. Once you cut through all of the jargon about strategy, impact, metrics, etc., what exactly are you hoping to accomplish? And how will you know when you’re done?Return to Top