P O S T E D B Y A L B E R T
1. An Hypothesis
Those who study and teach management often attempt to make a science out of pure theatre: the partly inspired, mostly mundane spectacle of people doing things and trying to get other people to pay for them.
In a recent Stanford Social Innovation Review article, Heather Grant and Leslie Crutchfield outline six practices of high-performing nonprofits. They do this because they believe that
without more nonprofits, businesses, and government agencies following these six practices to achieve maximum impact, we are doomed to plod along with slow, incremental change ...
Their hearts are clearly in the right place, and who am I to judge? Nevertheless, I’m not convinced by the primary thesis of the article.
3. Ain’t Nuthin’ But a Practice Thang
According to Grant and Crutchfield, high-impact nonprofits (1) serve and advocate, (2) make markets work, (3) inspire evangelists, (4) nurture nonprofit networks, (5) master the art of adaptation, and (6) share leadership.
I refer the reader to their article for details.
4. Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d
There’s a French management saying: “It’s all very well in practice, but it will never work in theory.”
I’ll put aside the methodological challenges in selecting the twelve “high-impact” organizations that became the focus of their study.* I’ll also put aside the objectivity of observation implied by the use of phrases like “we discovered …” and “we found …,” as if the authors had observed something with heft or corporeality. Grant and Crutchfield certainly aren’t trying to mislead readers by using these expressions—they’re unavoidable—but one is given the impression the authors saw something change color in a test tube and then dutifully recorded it in their notebooks.
There’s one thing I can’t let go of as easily. It’s the claim that
When a nonprofit applies all these forces simultaneously—the six high-impact practices coupled with basic management skills—it creates momentum that fuels further success.
This is what is technically known as “a howler of the first water.” It reduces good management to an incantation, a checklist of practices to be put into place at the next gibbous moon.
There’s nothing amiss about the authors’ list of good practices—how can it hurt any organization to “master the art of adaptation,” for example? But isn’t it also clear that a different set of researchers, looking at a different set of nonprofits, would likely produce a different list of spells? How are we to generalize from twelve nonprofits that were not randomly selected? Don’t all nonprofits beyond a certain size exhibit these characteristics to some degree? (The smallest organization in the sample has a budget of $13 million!)
5. Why the Right Things Get Done
The article by Grant and Crutchfield opens with the story of Teach for America. They describe how it was launched by Wendy Kopp in 1989 on a shoestring budget in a borrowed office but now has an annual budget of over $70 million. What’s extraordinary is that the authors are able to attribute this success to their six principles and not to Wendy Kopp. Of course the authors would argue that it’s ultimately what Wendy does that makes or breaks the organization. This is true to some extent, but it’s like examining the individual strokes on a beautiful canvas to understand the principles that gave rise to its creation.
Great man theories might have been discredited in the study of history, but they seem to me essential to understanding the growth trajectories of many nonprofit organizations. (At least up to a certain point. Beyond that point there are other issues to consider—among them, the reinforcing effect of spin; the fact that we’ll readily open our purses to the American Red Cross, for example, even though we know not the slightest thing about its effectiveness.)
My suspicion is that the six practices adduced by the study’s authors are epiphenomena with little predictive power when compared with the qualities of a nonprofit’s leadership. How committed is an executive director to delivering social value? How likely is she to make sound programmatic and financial decisions? How well does she understand her organization’s finances? How good is she at raising money? What role do powerful board members play in opening doors to new sources of financial support? How talented and how empowered are the members of the organization’s management team?
The authors do mention that high-impact nonprofits “share leadership.” The importance to nonprofit success** of strong leadership goes far beyond this, I believe.
* Part popularity contest, part something else. The authors describe their selection methodology on p. 40 of the article: “Because there is no objective measurement of impact (such as ‘total return to shareholders’), we had to use more subjective criteria for evaluating these nonprofits. So we borrowed methods used in management books such as Built to Last ....” At the heart of these methods is the surveying of executive directors and other experts for lists of high-impact nonprofits. Each of these individuals, presumably, has his or her own definition of “high-impact” in mind.
** As the authors appear to define it.