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on the promise of nonprofits
L. Bradach, Thomas J. Tierney, and Nan Stone, Extracted from Harvard
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in inner-city communities, educating disadvantaged children, stemming
the loss of rain forests or marine wildlife—U.S. nonprofits
are being asked to take on an increasing share of society's
most important and difficult work. At the same time, the expectations
being placed on these organizations to show results—by their
staff members, their boards, and public and private donors—
are rising. How are nonprofits responding? By being much more explicit
about the results they intend to deliver and the strategies and
organizations they'll create to achieve those outcomes.
following example. Ten years ago, Rheedlen Centers for Children
and Families had a $7 million budget and a truly herculean mission:
to improve the lives of poor children in America's most devastated
communities. It provided New Yorkers with family support networks,
a homelessness-prevention program, a senior center, and a host of
programs to meet the needs of troubled and impoverished children
and teenagers. Among them was the Harlem Children's Zone,
a fledgling neighborhood initiative based in a 24-block area in
many good programs, however, the prospects for Harlem's children
appeared to be getting worse, not better. For Geoffrey Canada, the
nonprofit's longtime CEO, the imperative was clear: To help
the greatest possible number of kids lead healthy lives, stay in
school, and grow up to become independent, productive adults, Rheedlen
would have to step up its performance. So in 2002, it changed its
name and sharpened its focus. Now simply called the Harlem Children's
Zone (HCZ), the agency linked its original mission to a very concrete
statement of the impact it intended to have: namely, that 3,000
children, ages 0 to 18, living in the zone should have demographic
and achievement profiles consistent with those found in an average
U.S. middle-class community.
from the board and major funders, particularly the Edna McConnell
Clark Foundation, Canada and his team discontinued or transitioned
out of activities that were no longer in line with HCZ's intended
impact (such as homelessness-prevention programs outside the zone)
and took on new ones (such as a Head Start program and a charter
elementary school). They also diversified HCZ's funding, shook
up and expanded its management ranks, and invested precious dollars
in evaluating results. By 2004, HCZ had more than doubled in scope,
encompassing 60 square blocks that housed some 6,500 children. In
2007, the organization added another 37 square blocks— housing
4,000 kids—to the zone. Over the same five-year period, its
budget grew from $11.6 million to $50 million. Civic and nonprofit
leaders in other cities have expressed interest in replicating HCZ's
is not an isolated case. During the past eight years, we have worked
with more than 150 nonprofits whose executive directors and boards
are committed to increasing their organizations' social impact.
We have yet to find one "best way" to do that, and we
wouldn't expect to. Every organization faces unique challenges
and opportunities, and the decisions its leaders make necessarily
reflect those realities. The one constant, however, is a willingness
to rigorously confront a few essential, interdependent questions:
- Which results
will we hold ourselves accountable for?
- How will
we achieve them?
- What will
results really cost, and how can we fund them?
- How do we
build the organization we need to deliver results?
questions create a framework that executive directors can use in
candid conversations with stakeholders and in developing pragmatic,
specific plans for making a tangible difference, whether that is
measured in more high school graduates or in healthier oceans. Although
the questions look easy and generic, answering them—and acting
on the recommendations—is remarkably hard for many reasons.
Ironically, the dynamics driving the nonprofit sector actually undermine
its organizations' ability to focus on results, despite the
mounting pressure to do just that.
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