Thomas Friedman’s New York Times op-ed piece entitled Adults Only, Please contains a powerful thought-starter for nonprofit organizations:
Dov Seidman, the C.E.O. of LRN, which helps companies build ethical cultures, likes to talk about two kinds of values: “situational values” and “sustainable values.” Leaders, companies or individuals guided by situational values do whatever the situation will allow, no matter the wider interests of their communities. A banker who writes a mortgage for someone he knows can’t make the payments over time is acting on situational values, saying: “I’ll be gone when the bill comes due.”
People inspired by sustainable values act just the opposite, saying: “I will never be gone. I will always be here. Therefore, I must behave in ways that sustain — my employees, my customers, my suppliers, my environment, my country and my future generations.”
For nonprofits, cleaving to sustainable values means focusing on the cause rather than the organization that promotes it. Paradoxically, nonprofits embrace sustainable values by creating a viable plan to go out of business.
I wrote about this last year in a post entitled Wanted: Extinction, Not Attention that highlighted the work of Willie Cheng, author of Doing Good Well: What Does (and Does Not) Make Sense in the Nonprofit World. In Cheng’s words,
Individual charities are set up to solve specific societal issues, and hence should be working themselves out of a job by finding the solutions.
Translated into Seidman’s values language, a nonprofit with laserlike focus on finding solutions to the specific societal issue it was created to address will display sustainable values as it works itself out of existence.
Witness sustainable values in action in the decision of the Children’s Aid Society to close one of its schools, in Greenwich Village, New York. Why?
Because their sustainable values caused them to recognize that they had accomplished their work in that area.
From the Nonprofit Quarterly:
The school operates as part of the Phillip Coltoff Center, which according to the New York Times, opened 119 years ago “when the Village was populated by legions of poor children.” Times have changed, and the Children’s Aid Society feels the school’s 1,000 young children – plus older students who take part in extra-curricular programs—come from families who can afford to send them elsewhere, even at a higher cost. “We can’t really justify,” said Richard R. Buery Jr., president and chief executive of the Children’s Aid Society, “the big disconnect between having so many resources focused on serving a population—while clearly a population that needs and deserves the service – that simply has access to more resources and opportunity than a place in the South Bronx, who are in our mission to serve.”
This wouldn’t be the first time that the Children’s Aid Society has closed operations, declaring its work done in a particular community. The Times cites two other schools shut down in past years. “We support communities’ being strong, and then when they’re strong you want to focus on ones that are not,” Buery added.
If Children’s Aid Society was focused on situational values, they would have focused on institutional health and parental demand and continued to operate the school. But by focusing on the sustainable value of cause, they recognized it was time to declare victory and move on.
Nonprofits and parachurch ministries are church renewal movements, called to equip the church comprehensively in a particular work of mercy so that work may once again be normative for Christians.
Same is true for secular nonprofits: they are societal renewal movements. Either they solve the problem they were created to address, or they make attending to the problem the normative behavior of ordinary folks rather than the professionalized province of a specialized nonprofit.
As I noted in another post from last year, Nonprofit as Church Renewal Movement, such a focus–on the sustainable value of cause rather than the situational value of nonprofit survival, would give us an entirely different set of success measures:
- Getting big wouldn’t be viewed inherently as a good thing or even as a goal; in fact, we’d view it with a certain amount of suspicion. After all,
- The real metric of success would be the degree to which the Christian nonprofit successfully re-embedded care of the particular cause back into the church.
- We’d definitely be measuring not only ROI but RII, and
- We’d know exactly when to go out of business, namely, when the church gets back in business and on firm footing in relation to the biblical cause God has given us to harangue the church about.
- Could that be what God has in mind when He calls us to found a nonprofit?
So this year as you contemplate what to give your donors for Christmas and year end, eschew the calendars, key chains, and staff photos and send them your viable plan to achieve your purpose and go out of business.
It’ll set you up for a much better year-end or new year ask, by the way.