Changing the Game to Change the World

These days, our nation's 1.4 million nonprofit organizations are under increasing pressure to show dramatic results: ending poverty, saving the planet, or permanently curing their clients' mental and physical health problems. "We want results," sounds the growing chorus of public and private funders, who are joined by charity watchdogs, the philanthropic commentariat, and even Congress, in raising expectations. It is no longer good enough to "work on a problem." Today's nonprofits are expected to "move the needle," "bend the arc," or "change the conversation." If our society is beset by problems, the thinking goes, nonprofits exist to solve them. Yet even dramatic results are not enough. Successful nonprofits (those achieving "results") must act on an ever-greater scale of impact through organic growth, replication, or franchising of their service model. Those who do not rise to the twin challenges of results and scale risk flagging support, irrelevance, even censure from an impatient public. In this environment successful nonprofits are not just service providers, they are game-changers.

So what's your average nonprofit to do? Become above average!

And what's an already great nonprofit to do? Grow your impact!

How? As management consultants we are privileged to work with nonprofit organizations that are attempting to make the leap to heady results and increased scale of impact. Let me share the stories of two very different clients engaged in this process right now.

Experience Corps was a modest-sized national nonprofit with a great idea. It engages active seniors to tutor inner-city K-3 students in reading. Kids who do not read at grade level by third grade are at dramatically increased risk of school failure and a host of attendant social ills. The Experience Corps model is cheap -- a few hundred dollars per child per year spent recruiting, training and supervising the volunteers. And large-scale evaluation studies showed -- you guessed it -- results! So Experience Corps set an ambitious goal: grow to reach one million at-risk kids. Do that for a decade, they believed, and they just might start to "bend the arc" of poverty. Talk about changing the game! Talk about scaling impact! Yet to grow from serving a few thousand kids at a small number of sites around the country to engaging hundreds of thousands would require tens of thousands of volunteer seniors and a partner with much greater reach, clout, and resources, particularly access to those seniors. At this moment, AARP walked in, embracing the idea. Through a merger and a subsequent business plan the partners set a proof of concept goal to reach 100,000 children, then 200,000, on their march toward the full scale one-million-child intervention.

The lesson: great things are possible when nonprofits can put their own organizational concerns aside and join forces to achieve a big idea. Experience Corps gave up its independence and became a division of AARP, which in turn made a major financial and organizational commitment to the new initiative, which is in the early launch phase.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization. After one hundred years NAACP looked back over its storied achievements (results!) which also happen to be some of the greatest American accomplishments of the twentieth century. These include anti-lynching laws, the civil rights movement itself, school desegregation, the Voting Rights Act, and desegregation of the military. Talk about game changers! Then the board and staff had the courage - or one might say the audacity -- to ask "What would be similarly powerful accomplishments for our second century?" The resulting process identified five major unmet equity goals, in education, health, family economic sustainability, criminal justice and voting rights/participation in the political process. They even called the five goals "the game changers." All of NAACP's considerable energy is now focused on mobilizing its vast network of members and supporters to achieve true equality in these areas -- for as long as it takes.

The lesson: though we may stand on the shoulders of giants we still have to find our own way forward, creating our own future. By thinking about today's civil rights challenges in terms and on a scale proportional to both the current need and the organization's historical achievements NAACP broke out of the mold of incrementalism, setting a bold agenda and inspiring thousands of staff and volunteers to be game changers.


You can hear more about these two extraordinary organizations at a PlenX Session I will be leading at the 2012 Independent Sector Annual Conference in the San Francisco Bay Area with Benjamin T. Jealous, President of the NAACP and Lester Strong, CEO of Experience Corps at AARP on "GameChanging Outcomes: Effecting major change in your organization's direction, culture or identity to achieve game changing results" at the 2012 Annual Conference of Independent Sector, November 11 & 12.

David La Piana is Managing Partner of La Piana Consulting, a national firm that helps nonprofits and their funders find solutions to the strategic challenges they face. He is the author of six management books, including The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution and The Nonprofit Business Plan, forthcoming in July.