Attention, donors: If Bill Shore turns out to be as successful in advocating a new approach to financing nonprofit organizations as he has been in other charitable endeavors, your place in the nonprofit economy and your relationships with grant recipients could change fundamentally.
The problem Shore addresses is that “the most committed and thoughtful social-change activists, those upon whom our society depends to solve social problems, are forced to spend most of their time and energy raising money to support their work.”
In Shore’s view, this constant pleading for money and the short-term character of most grants are a major hindrance to sound program development and execution.
Shore’s solution is to increase the financial independence of nonprofits by engaging them in a range of for-profit activities—producing goods, selling services, and entering into marketing agreements with businesses—that can support their charitable work. The Cathedral Within presents Shore’s argument and a series of portraits of nonprofits that have succeeded in building such “community wealth.”
One organization Shore describes is Pioneer Human Services of Seattle, Washington, which employs 700 ex-convicts and former addicts in a variety of service and manufacturing businesses. Its largest operation is producing precision sheet metal for the cargo holds on Boeing airplanes.
Share Our Strength (SOS), the renowned anti-hunger and anti-poverty organization that Shore and his sister Debbie founded in 1984, pursues a very different way of building community wealth. The bulk of SOS’s cash income is derived from entrepreneurial activities and corporate partnerships. For instance, American Express has been a national sponsor of the organization’s flagship program, Taste of the Nation, for several years, and Shore himself has appeared on American Express television commercials with tie-ins to SOS.
What does an entity like SOS have to offer a potential partner? It has contacts with restaurants and food suppliers, a mailing list, and a logo, among other things. Shore encourages nonprofits to consider all of their potential assets and to think about how those assets, including a good reputation, can be leveraged to produce income.
It should come as no surprise that Shore’s unapologetic embrace of commercial opportunities and corporate partnerships leaves some social activists and nonprofit leaders uneasy. (Although the response of many nonprofit executives has been to try to learn Shore’s methods as quickly as possible.) But how should donors view his agenda?
An obvious benefit to donors would be reduced dependence on them, meaning more philanthropic dollars would be left for supporting experimental projects. Such independence would cut both ways, however; for better or worse, charities that were less reliant on donors would likely be less receptive to guidance from them as well.
In addition to helping pay for current expenses, the community wealth model is intended to make it easier to replicate effective programs—a top priority for Shore, who believes that most social problems have actually been solved. In Shore’s view, the main challenge nonprofits face is figuring out how to apply proven ideas, say for addressing hunger or drug treatment, as widely as those problems are experienced.
It is a mistake, however, to view all successful programs in these areas as “solutions.” Understanding that is a key to seeing why many cannot simply be “scaled up.”
Shore contrasts social-service work with medicine and health care—fields where an effective vaccine or therapy is rapidly publicized and widely used, and where a failure to adopt proven methods of treatment would never be tolerated. Here Shore appears to be something of a redundant prophet crying in the wilderness; after all, he is hardly the first advocate of replicating success and bringing projects to scale.
A personal bond between a caregiver and someone who needs help, or between a leader and staff, is frequently an indispensable element in effective social-service work—an inconvenient fact that makes standardization and replication an elusive goal.
Likewise the challenge of identifying talented leaders. Shore acknowledges this latter difficulty and cites the work of Gregg Petersmeyer of the Points of Light Foundation, who identifies a “random triggering event” as a key factor in inspiring strong nonprofit leaders. The obvious question is whether such events are necessarily random or, on the contrary, whether they could successfully be induced. Shore notes only that Petersmeyer is studying that question.
The title of this book reflects the author’s striving “to design a new architecture . . . much like the cathedral builders of an earlier time who combined imagination, invention, and faith to build something both magnificent and lasting.”
That is indeed an ambitious undertaking. Because Shore appears to be succeeding in his own ventures and attracting others to adopt his ideas in their own work, this book is worth reading even for those, like this reviewer, who doubt some of its premises.
Montgomery B. Brown is director of communications and publications for the American Enterprise Institute and a former editor of Philanthropy.