Commentary: Let’s Build Systems Of Diverse, Networked Organizations
This article was originally published in The NonProfit Times on December 16, 2022.
Small nonprofit organizations are the safety nets of our communities. When hurricanes devastated parts of Florida and Puerto Rico this fall, small, local organizations were among the first to rush in to provide emergency services. Small organizations are the first to step in when they see a gap — seeing the need in our communities — and meeting it.
It is our job to help those organizations succeed. Why? Because the messy, beautiful, diversity of our communities needs to be supported by nonprofits. Civil society is not structured and orderly, pushing always for greater efficiency. Civil society creates the space for our communities to express their authentic selves. Civil society identifies the needs we are not meeting and steps up. Civil society transforms itself in response to the pressures, crisis, and opportunities of the world, always in service to their community.
Our job is to support a diversity of organizations, small and large. They reflect who we are as humans. And it is our job to do everything we can to give them the opportunity to flourish.
My hope is that leaders invest in equity and creating the infrastructure that can engage small organizations at scale so that they can serve in the way that they uniquely recognize is needed and equally uniquely know how to serve.
Here are a few actions we can all take to move in this direction:
* Give every organization an equal chance to thrive. We need to acknowledge that the small size of an organization is often by design. For mission-driven organizations that address community needs, being small and hyperlocal are design features — not bugs in their systems. Many have missions to serve those living in their immediate communities or specialized offerings to unique groups. A small organization that is highly specialized or operating in a remote setting may be exactly the right size to serve its particular community. In fact, it might be the only organization that holds the relationships, language, and local understanding to serve locally in just the way it is needed.
An organization might be small because it is just getting started. Too often, the fragmented nature of the sector is framed as a negative when it is a positive. It can create inefficiencies, but these can be greatly solved through more capacity for collaboration such as the kinds that are created through digital technologies and networks. Achieving equity truly requires a diversity of many small actors, proximate to the problems they exist to solve.
* Bring an abundance of trust to a diversity of small nonprofit organizations. We are obligated to do everything we can for the diversity of these organization to survive because they reflect the diversity of our communities. Around the world, shifting resources and decision-making to local and small community leadership is critical.
Many are familiar with top-down development and the poor performance of the UN’s “Grand Bargain,” launched in 2016, which committed to redirect at least 25% of all humanitarian funds to local and national responders from the global south by 2020. Today, less than 3% of humanitarian aid goes to these organizations. Through networked approaches, solutions are emerging. This past October, five international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) signed onto the Pledge for Change, an initiative of “radical incrementalism” calling for accountability and localization that originated in the global south from the nonprofit Adeso led by Degan Ali.
Other networked efforts such as RightsCoLab in West Africa, as well as Giving for Change implemented in seven African countries and Brazil, are aimed at asking for a reimagining of international NGOs to improve localization, civic participation, solidarity and in some instances dissent to the current aid architecture. These are a good start. There is a lot more work to do and more supporters needed to overcome a long imbalanced system.
* Get better about seeking out and understanding and supporting the unique needs and vulnerabilities of nonprofit organizations and responding to support them. Let’s not hold them back from growing, if that is what they seek. But small nonprofits are most susceptible to the “nonprofit starvation cycle,” of unrealistic expectations about what it costs to run and manage a nonprofit. Managers underreport on the costs of what it takes to keep the lights on, and funders in turn demand lower expenses.
More than a decade after Bridgespan introduced the term nonprofit starvation cycle, we are beginning to see long-needed shifts. MacKenzie Scott’s transformative gifts to organizations of all sizes, sometimes larger than the organization’s annual operating budget, have enabled leaders to build endowments, to activate their strategy, to lead. The Ford Foundation announced during early November that it will increase allowable indirect and overhead cost rates by at least 5%. These are exemplars in the philanthropy sector. I dream of more changes like this to support small organizations and foster their ability to manage effectively and invest in their future.
Each of these innovations came through collaboration, interaction, and networked learnings. Changemakers should certainly not operate in isolation. We need to support existing networks, make them accessible to small nonprofits, and enable networks to provide the resources and mechanisms small organizations need to activate and transform their communities.
* Build systems that allow these organizations to maintain their size, grow, or shrink as leaders decide they need to meet their mission and withstand external shocks. Let’s support and strengthen networks that enable ready collaboration, action, and resilience. Small nonprofits become even more powerful when connected through networks of other change-making organizations.
Communities are built on connections, and better connections usually provide better opportunities. We need to support communities of small nonprofits as they emerge, strengthen them, and sustain them.
Through networks, local changes can materialize as global systems of influence. I love this quote from Margaret Wheatley of the Berkana Institute: “When separate, local efforts connect with each other as networks they strengthen as communities of practice. Suddenly, and surprisingly, a new system emerges at a greater level of scale… And the system that emerges always possesses greater power and influence than is possible through planned incremental change. This system of influence possesses qualities and capacities that were unknown in the individuals. It isn’t that they were hidden, they simply don’t exist until the system emerges.”
Innovation is everywhere across small nonprofits, but it needs coordination so that more of them can benefit and learn from it. Networks of all kinds, but especially those that stand ready for action, help to build the sustaining resilience of small nonprofits. In addition to networks, communities of purpose are helpful. We need to help build relationships between like-minded small civil society organizations so that they can help reimagine systems that are equitable and diverse, and that serve the many who need them.
The thing we’ve learned about helping small nonprofits through every stage of their digital transformation is that often the hardest thing about technology is not the tech itself: It’s the integrations across tech stacks and adjusting to the complexities of each individual organization’s needs. People learn and improve best in community. Let’s strengthen networks that can activate to support a diversity of small nonprofits with the resources and mechanisms they need for learning, resilience, and improving more lives.
Rebecca Masisak is CEO of TechSoup in San Francisco, California.