Seth Godin's blog post of a few days back, in which he accuses non-profits of hating change, has caused a lot of stir in some sections of the non-profit advisory sector (a sector which barely existed a few years ago) and the charities sector more generally.
Some of the best responses have challenged Godin's metrics for ambition and responsiveness to change. For sure these are controversial. He uses in support of his argument the fact that none of the 100 most followed users on Twitter are charities. This rather fatally equates ambition with scale, and assumes that free-to-use social media platforms really do provide a level playing field, completely ignoring the level of sophistication and the investment of time (and money to buy expertise) needed to build sustained social media presences. Unsurprisingly, charities which are often stretched for time and resources often feel they have better things to be doing.
It has also been pointed out in many responses that resistance to change is not an organisational problem unique to, or even peculiar to, non-profits. The words 'Wall Street' have been chucked around quite a lot, though this seems a bit opportunistic given the events of the last year, and not quite right either. The boom years in the financial sector seem to have been fuelled by an astonishing fetishisation of novelty and risk, and the bust has been a consequence of that, not of risk-aversion.
Many counter-arguments, though, share a guiding assumption with Seth Godin's piece: that disruptive innovation is a desirable good. As a former non-profit analyst my instinct is to agree: my whole industry is in the business of shaking up (or shaking down) ineffective patterns of philanthropic and charitable activity. But, with the same hat on, I realise that's flawed. The aim of philanthropy is not social innovation but the improvement of people's lives and conditions and the tackling of social, economic or environmental challenges. A non-profit analyst's role is to help establish criteria for impact and measure effectiveness - to see whether attempts to 'make a difference' are, well, making any difference. All social action begins with a perceived need for change, but not all requires disruptive innovation. What matters is the change philanthropy creates, not the pace of change in how philanthropy does what it does. This is not rocket science, and neither is much philanthropy: sometimes the most impact comes from doing familiar things better.
None of this lets charities or philanthropy off the hook, though. Both charities and funders can be resistant to change because change - and planning for change - can be uncomfortable. This can lead to charities pursuing objectives that are coherent but do not meet real need, or funders structuring their giving in ineffective ways. Doing things the way they've always been done is not good enough, and neither is novelty for the sake of it. In this way Seth Godin is both right and wrong, but most of all just misses the point by confusing activities with results. In this, he has a lot in common even with those he criticises most fiercely.
Above all, this debate should remind us that there is a clear need for good non-profit analysis as an an independent discipline. Not just to annoy charities and funders with awkward questions, but to test both old and new strategies for social impact in a way that charities and even funders often don't have the time and resources to do. To find out, in other words, which changes are worth making.
# Alex Steer (17/09/2009)