Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits
by Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant
336 pp., $29.95
Few conceits are more cherished among the growing number of philanthropists and nonprofit leaders who regard themselves as “social entrepreneurs” than that their ultimate goal is to “change the world.” In the oft-cited formulation of Bill Drayton, founder of Ashoka and an icon among them, “Social entrepreneurs are not content to merely give a man a fish, or even teach him how to fish; these entrepreneurs won’t stop until they have revolutionized the entire fishing industry.” No shortage of ambition there!
According to Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant, a dozen organizations formed since 1965 seem well on their way to achieving such a goal. In their new and widely acclaimed book, Forces for Good, Crutchfield and Grant describe and analyze these 12 groups: Habitat for Humanity, Teach For America, City Year, Youth Build, Share Our Strength, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, the Heritage Foundation, America’s Second Harvest, Environmental Defense, Exploratorium, National Council of La Raza (NCLR), and Self-Help. Their aim is to identify what has made these organizations successful, and offer advice to other nonprofits about how they too can become world-changers.
Their principal finding is simple: the conventional wisdom about how effective nonprofit organizations work—and much of what funders look for in deciding whether or not to assist them—is wrong. According to Crutchfield (a managing director of Ashoka) and Grant (a former McKinsey consultant, now affiliated with Stanford University’s business school), neither an organization’s single-minded focus on its mission, nor the degree of control exercised by its top management and board, nor the size (and sources of) its budget, nor its public visibility have much to do with its impact on society. Instead, the groups examined by Crutchfield and Grant seem to thrive by carrying out multiple (even seemingly contradictory) activities, sharing power widely within the organization and with allies, operating behind the scenes (while their partners, including business and government, garner the credit), and focusing more on how they use their resources, rather than constantly increasing their income streams.
To management guru Jim Collins, all this seems “inspired and inspiring.” And indeed, at first glance, Crutchfield and Grant appear to have boiled down the secrets of building world-changing organizations to just six readily attainable steps, or “practices.”
But upon closer inspection, the dozen groups profiled seem to have as many differences as similarities. More importantly, on the evidence provided, it is far from clear how much impact these groups are having—to say nothing of whether it deserves to be called “good.”
The 12 organizations studied in Forces for Good were chosen through a multi-stage screening process, culminating in interviews with a selected group of “field-experts.” Some, such as Youth Build and NCLR, do indeed adhere to the first of the recommended practices: partner with government not just to provide services, but also to change laws and programs. But others, such as the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, pride themselves on their financial independence and refuse to take public funds. Another, the Heritage Foundation, principally seeks to reduce the influence of government in American life, including the kinds of partnerships with nonprofit groups Crutchfield and Grant extol.
Self-Help, a North Carolina-based nonprofit, works chiefly with banks to increase homeownership among low-income and minority groups through the development of new types of financing for its marginally qualified clients. But, as Crutchfield and Grant note, few of the other groups they studied were as successful in enlisting business incentives on behalf of their social objectives—the second practice they identify as necessary for world-changers. Some, in fact, such as City Year and Share Our Strength, have relationships with companies that look mostly like new ways of tapping into old-fashioned corporate philanthropy.
Others in this group of supposed world-changers seem similarly disposed to rely on the utterly conventional methods of the nonprofit sector. For example, another trait these dozen “high-impact” groups supposedly share is the ability to “inspire evangelists” to promote their causes, much as former President Jimmy Carter does for Habitat for Humanity. But many nonprofits have enlisted high-profile individuals for this purpose, often advantageously, but sometimes to considerable regret, when their champion falls from public favor for whatever reason. Besides, some nonprofits, like Environmental Defense and America’s Second Harvest, have done quite well without well-known boosters.
Likewise, the fourth practice—building alliances and collaborations with other groups to advance their agendas—is another old chestnut of the nonprofit sector, often encouraged, less often practiced. (Like businesses, charities compete—for influence and prestige, as well as money and talent.) Some of the organizations Crutchfield and Grant studied have built coalitions, but most of the others maintain networks that are loose or temporary, intended to respond to, say, proposed cuts in their government revenues. Some—Teach For America, for example—are famous for operating alone, staying out of relationships that might distract them from their own programs and cultivating their own loyal supporters, including VIPs.
Teach For America is also an exception to another practice Crutchfield and Grant tout: sharing leadership by spreading authority among top executives and directors. For better or worse, Teach For America would not have achieved nearly as much as it has without the vision, persistence, and occasional abrasiveness of its founder, Wendy Kopp. Indeed, while all of these groups have undergone management changes, 10 of the 12 had the same leader in place while acquiring reputations for effectiveness.
Few claims have been more roundly denied by advocates of “social entrepreneurship” than that it takes a person with “heroic” qualities to build a world-changing organization. Yet, judging from the evidence in Forces for Good (and contrary to what its authors imply), at the root of successful nonprofits is, if not a hero, then a leader with a good idea and the ability to carry it out.
Such people, of course, may make mistakes. To be successful, they—and the organizations they create—have to be adaptable, the sixth practice Crutchfield and Grant identify. “Unlike many nonprofits,” they claim, these 12 groups “have also mastered the ability to listen, learn, and modify their approach based on external cues.” Of course, many other nonprofits have learned to adapt as well, sometimes in the face of significant challenges. The most famous example is probably the March of Dimes, which, having contributed to finding a cure for polio, re-invented itself with a focus on a wide range of birth defects.
While the organizations studied in Forces for Good may have changed their tactics from time to time, they are surely more notable for their constancy of purpose. From its start, the Heritage Foundation has sought to limit government, just as the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities has aimed to increase public spending on the needy. Share Our Strength has focused on raising money to feed the hungry, while Teach For America has tried to increase educational opportunities for disadvantaged children. Both Self-Help and Habitat for Humanity have attempted to improve housing for low-income people.
Unfortunately, Crutchfield and Grant never quite get around to demonstrating how successful these (and the other organizations) have been. In part, this is because they rely on information provided by the groups themselves, which is often inconclusive and not necessarily reliable. Moreover, they seem fixated on measures of what these nonprofits are doing, rather than on what they are accomplishing.
Forces for Good thus reports how many houses Habitat for Humanity has built, how many young people have served in City Year, how many teachers Teach For America has recruited, and how much food America’s Second Harvest has collected. But it does not indicate what difference these groups have actually made on the social problems—inadequate housing, civic disengagement among the young, inequality of educational opportunity, hunger in the United States, and the like—that they were created to address (if not to eliminate entirely). More to the point, when organizations with policy views as divergent as those of the Heritage Foundation and the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities are both deemed successful, the meaning of “high-impact” may need to be re-examined.
Determining what any organization—let alone an organization aspiring to change the world—has really accomplished is no simple matter. Nor is it always easy to agree on whether or not what these groups have done deserves to be called “good.” Teach For America may consider recruiting young people from some of the nation’s finest colleges to teach in some of the nation’s worst schools as worthwhile, but others claim it is just a recipe for giving poorly prepared schoolchildren poorly prepared instructors. NCLR may believe that advancing the rights of Latin American immigrants seems fully in keeping with American ideals of equality, but others regard their efforts as fostering the kind of multiculturalism that is antithetical to American civic unity. Among environmental groups concerned about pollution and climate change, Environmental Defense’s goal of finding common ground with waste-producing corporations has long been controversial.
Crutchfield and Grant do not look too closely at such issues, preferring to dwell on what they consider to be effective practices rather than on effective (and beneficial) results. Yet, in their steadiness of purpose, consistency of leadership, and willingness to tailor their finances and working relationships to fit their goals, the dozen organizations profiled in Forces for Good may be giving a hint about the requirements for changing the world: a carefully considered idea of what needs to be done and the determination to do whatever is necessary to achieve it.
Leslie Lenkowsky is professor of public affairs and philanthropic studies at Indiana University.