What Would It Take for the Nonprofit Sector to Live Up to its Potential to Advance Systemic Social Change?

When individuals and groups decide on and take collective action on the problems in their own lives, progressive social change occurs. The information that follows looks at how some nonprofit institutions would appear if they were built on the principles of equity, relationship, trust, sufficiency, and possibility.

Organizational structure and leadership: If social change organizations mirrored the world we wish to see, connections inside organizations would mimic communities and natural ecosystems—networks of mutual support dedicated to a common vision and shared values. This is how social movements are structured, and when they are successful, this is the key to their success. Organizational “walls” would be permeable, promoting an open flow of information, people, and resources from outside such “walls.”

People from the affected communities would be the change’s leaders, and organizations would actively support their growth. With organizational staff serving as support, these community leaders would have the lion’s share of authority and make all the decisions. Where required by law or regulation, boards would see themselves as a support to all of those individuals—not as leaders.

Planning and program design: Community members would establish objectives and plans for their neighborhoods in order to build a more just and humane future. The planning process itself would be conscious of the racial bias, racism, sexism, and colonialism that are frequently present in planning processes, including choices regarding who is invited to which table and who leads the conversation. Future-oriented planning would be done with spectacular, visionary outcomes as an achievable goal. Following that, programs would be created by members of the community, building on their current strengths, with support from organizational employees only as required.

Evaluation as Learning: If evaluation were in line with the kind of world we want to live in, then those reflections would be disseminated across the community and across entire areas of endeavor—for instance, lessons learned from one food bank would be shared with all food banks worldwide. Because stories are the primary method that people learn, tales about the relationships that led to the transformation would be at the center of learning and evaluation, with quantitative data serving as merely one illustration of these stories. As a result, this learning would be an effective, open-source, collaborative effort, supported in line with its significance.

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