‘Innovate or die’ is a truism for any nonprofit, service agency, or social enterprise because the challenges we’re addressing are highly complex and unstable. But...how? It’s much easier to say how we want things to be than it is to make it so. The question is, how exactly do we become more nimble, innovative and more impactful within the constraints of our budgets, timescales and mandates?
In my experience working with many creative and effective civil society organizations, I see a clear pattern that transcends sectors, tactics and strategies These groups act simultaneously in three dimensions of their mission: they advocate for specific types of change, they constantly strengthen the movement of which they are an expression, and they take deliberate action to change the larger conversation that frame their concerns.
1. Advocacy means seeking change in the practices of other stakeholders, in the alignment of resources, or in policy or legislation that have population-level impacts. Having such a program of change (programmatic objectives) focuses internal resources and defines the scope of meaningful activities and partnerships. In this dimension, it is critical to have a clear correspondence of objectives (which are specific and time-bound) to goals (which are broader and longer-term).
2. By building the movement, I mean that they nurture identity, commitment and skills in their core community. This can take many forms - 350.org uses storytelling around climate change to build solidarity across a broad demographic spectrum; the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation’s annual Run for the Cure transforms a shared trauma into community action; the Idle No More Round Dances gave activists a concrete way to share a new vision of change and transmit it to the Canadian public. In this dimension, progress is measured by saliency - the extent to which the organization’s actions and values motivate an identifiable group of people.
“People are sharing that knowledge amongst each other,
where it's been forgotten.
They're bringing back that spirit of being one people,
with one voice.”
(David Churchene, Jr., on the Round Dance phenomenon)
3. The third dimension of success is changing the conversation for everyone by (re-)framing their concerns in the discourse of the wider society. They create - or take advantage of - compelling pathways between the ‘movement’ and those of us not yet engaged. This process can seem to happen instantaneously thanks to ubiquitous social media - just think of #rapedbutneverreported in 2014, a sudden upsurge of public dialogue around sexual violence faced by women around the world. But it is also a planned and deliberate approach to change the terms of debate to open up new opportunities for concrete change - for example, in the excellent series of ‘Ask Her’ talks by African community leaders, the Stephen Lewis Foundation asks us to dispense with our pity and put African women’s perspectives in the foreground instead. In this dimension, progress is measured by the development of new relationships between stakeholders.
No single dimension is primary over the others. Each dimension can be the zone where momentum occurs, depending on circumstances. If one area is static or complex, smart groups head out into one or another of the three dimensions to find opportunities and and ways to innovate, and take advantage of the intersections between them.
Think for example of how some climate action groups shifted away from debating greenhouse gas emissions targets to focus instead on pipeline development. This allowed them to temporarily step out of the conversational frame of ‘jobs versus environment’. Biding their time by building the base, these NGOs are now well-positioned to exploit the low price of oil and Canada’s poor economic situation to tack back towards their programmatic objective of dramatically reducing GHG emissions.
These observations highlight how mission-driven NGOs can be both nimble and, at the same time, constrained within a clear theory of change. This triangle of success factors is shown in the image below, which highlights the continuity of mobilization, dialogue, and publicity (or marketing) as modes of action that help to organize relations with stakeholders and use of resources.
One or another dimension will usually be the priority focus at a given moment, but this integrated view helps to avoid functional ‘silos’ such as fundraising, community outreach, policy work, action research and so on are not hived off behind separate strategic plans. Each can contribute to advocacy, to changing the conversation and to movement building.
Some organizations or agencies are suited to a particular success factor. The triangle model of success factors can be used to develop a common agenda for a network of organizations seeking collective impact. An example that many CharityVillage readers may be familiar with: the movement to end hunger in our communities made a historic shift in the 1990s. Instead of seeing its constituency as hungry people needing a special service, food security activists started creating grassroots linkages between many stakeholders - farmers, middle-class urban ‘foodies’, community gardeners and yes, agencies connected to low-income families like schools, rec centres and daycares. They have successfully changed the conversation from ‘why are some people hungry?’ (focusing on ‘the problem’ of hunger) to ‘how can we create a food system that is beneficial for all communities and stakeholders?’ In a way, they made the conversation much more complex but by doing so, they opened up new sustainable pathways of success to reduce persistent food insecurity.
The most successful mission-driven organizations achieve success in all three dimensions, making a virtue of the interactions between the public conversation, their goal and message, and the evolution of their movement. Check out OpenMedia.ca’s work on internet freedom and access, for an exemplary case.
This was demonstrated by Ontario’s Share the Road Cycling Coalition, which organized regular weekend rides in smaller towns and cities to forge social ties between their diverse stakeholders - urban planners, transport engineers, recreational cyclists, traffic cops, tourist operators, and commuters. The campaign mobilized municipal officials to inform provincial parliamentarians about local cycling infrastructure needs, and used public opinion polling to reframe the debate - away from ‘cars vs bikes’ and instead to health care, jobs and tourism, especially in suburban and rural communities. Many of the group’s objectives were achieved when the province announced its new cycling policy (2013) and $25m for new bike infrastructure (2014).
In short, being nimble means having somewhere to shift emphasis ‘to’ when a particular pathway is blocked or circumstances change dramatically. Staying within a strong overall strategy is essential, however, so effective NGOs need to move between nurturing their constituency, reaching out and making new relationships, and driving toward specific objectives that show both their core and their ‘reach’ audience where the solution is to be found.
John D. Willis is a specialist in strategic communications, polling & market research, and public affairs strategies in the nonprofit and public sectors. He held senior positions at Greenpeace in Canada, the UK, USA, and Japan before becoming Director of Campaigns & Research at the consulting firm Stratcom (1997-2013). He has advised a diverse range of clients in human rights, social services, climate policy, municipal affairs, health care, food security, labour rights, legal aid, diversity and education. John is currently a board member of Social Planning Toronto, and recently completed a Master’s degree in Inclusive Design from OCAD University in Toronto, He now consults at the intersection of service design and civic engagement, with a particular focus on people with disabilities.