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Forces for Good Review, Books for Good Book Club

“The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward social justice” -Martin Luther King, Jr.

If this book taught me anything, it’s that two things matter: the Cause and that Social Impact is the bottom line for nonprofits and there needs to be long term investment toward it beyond the four walls of the organization.  Instead of simply focusing on your internal organizational goals, focus on the systems-level change that your cause is seeking to influence.    

I’m going to cut to the chase and give this book’s secrets all away with (spoiler alert) THE six practices, cliff notes style that nonprofits should endorse according to the authors.  Research over several years with 12 nonprofits culminated into these strategies, and some may surprise you. The nonprofits ultimately chosen as case examples were: 

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities: performs research and analysis on state and federal budget and fiscal policy; advocates on behalf of low-income individuals. 

City Year: builds democracy through citizen service, leadership, and social entrepreneurship; advocates for national service policy. 

Environmental Defense Fund: creates innovative solutions to environmental problems through research, advocacy, and creative use of market tools and partnerships. 

Exploratorium: museum of science, art, and human perception designed as a model for new forms of education. 

Feeding America: distributes donated food and grocery products to grassroots nonprofits; advocates for hunger policy. 

Habitat for Humanity: seeks to eliminate poverty housing and homelessness by building houses, raising awareness, and advocating for change. 

National Council of La Raza: Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization; works to improve opportunities for all Latinos. 

Self-Help: works on economic development through lending, asset development, and research and advocacy. 

Share Our Strength: inspires and engages individuals and businesses to share their strengths to end childhood hunger. 

Teach for America: national teaching corps of recent college graduates who spend two years in needy schools and become leaders for education reform. 

The Heritage Foundation: formulates and promotes conservative policy based on principles of free enterprise, freedom, traditional values, limited government, and a strong defense. 

YouthBuild USA: low-income youths ages sixteen to twenty-four learn job and leadership skills by building affordable community housing while earning a GED. 

If you have read the book, Good to Great, that focused on best practices for effective businesses, then you will appreciate that a similar research methodology was used by Forces for Good authors in order to gain these six perspectives for nonprofits. 

Advocate and serve. In order to achieve great impact, the authors make the case that it’s about doing the work of direct program services and also influencing policy in order to make longer term more sustainable change for clients.  The point being: why spin your wheels only providing direct services when you could also influence laws and policies that make your work for clients more effective.  

Case example: “Self-Help began by giving home loans to clients – often poor, minority single mothers – who did not qualify for traditional mortgages. Although its services helped thousands of low-income families purchase a house, Self-Help’s work was soon undermined by predatory lenders, which took advantage of vulnerable borrowers by adding excessive fees or charging exorbitant mortgage rates, virtually ensuring that the borrower would default.

Eventually, Self-Help organized a statewide coalition in North Carolina and lobbied to pass the first anti-predatory lending law in the country. Later, the organization established the subsidiary Center for Responsible Lending to help local nonprofits pass similar legislation in 22 additional states. Through its direct services, Self-Help has given more than $4.5 billion in home loans to low-income families in the United States. But through its advocacy efforts, it has created far more value for the country’s most vulnerable populations by protecting them from predatory lenders.”

Make markets work.  Business partnerships prove important in creating the most positive change.  By leveraging business and seeking to find creative ways to work with them (as opposed to simply demonizing or neglecting to engage them), nonprofits receive anchor resources and massive awareness of their brands.  Nonprofits can learn from business models and businesses alike learn from nonprofits’ resourcefulness. 

Case example: “Environmental Defense was one of the first nonprofits to realize the power of harnessing market forces for social change. The New York-based organization was founded in the late 1960s by a group of scientists who lobbied to ban the use of DDT, and its informal motto for years was “sue the bastards.” Over time, however, the nonprofit became known for a different – and initially more radical – approach: working with corporations to change their business processes and become more sustainable.

For example, even though other green groups criticized Environmental Defense for “selling out” at the time, the nonprofit worked with McDonald’s in the 1980s to make the fast food giant’s packaging more environmentally sound. Since then, Environmental Defense has worked with hundreds of companies – from FedEx to Wal-Mart Stores – often scaling its innovations to change practices in an entire industry. Although these partnerships are becoming more common among environmental groups, Environmental Defense was an early pioneer in this area.”

Inspire evangelists.  The best nonprofits know how to engage multiple stakeholders on multiple levels, and while doing so, create advocates for their cause.  The authors make the point that creating passionate supporters levates what you do and inspires a movement, not just one organization’s actions.  This helps garner volunteer support that grows like wildfire, raise awareness through famous endorsements, and be more likely to gain resources because of a hands-on approach to engaging with your nonprofit. 

Case example: “Habitat for Humanity, located in Americus, Ga., exemplifies this ability to create a larger community and inspire evangelists for its cause. As founder Millard Fuller has said, he didn’t set out to create an organization so much as a social movement. From the outset, the nonprofit spread its model through local church congregations and word of mouth, building its brand from the grassroots up. That model includes enlisting supporters in the very core of its work: building homes for the poor. Participants work alongside the future residents of the home, and in the process live out their values while becoming advocates for the housing cause. These evangelists, in turn, recruit their friends and colleagues, expanding the circle of supporters outward.

In addition, Habitat for Humanity attracts what we call “super-evangelists” like former President Jimmy Carter – people who by virtue of their personal accomplishments, famous names, and vast social networks can help take a nonprofit to the next level. By serving on the board and as a spokesperson for the organization, Carter helped propel it from a grassroots nonprofit to a global force for change.

Not all of the high-impact nonprofits we studied had an organizational model that makes involving supporters easy. Yet almost all of them found creative ways to convert core supporters to evangelists and to mobilize super-evangelists.”

Nurture nonprofit networks. If nonprofits have the edge on business in any area, it’s their ability to work collaboratively as opposed to competitively with each other.  Whether it’s driven by necessity through lack of resources or through altruism toward a greater good, one thing is for certain: networking nonprofits who openly share resources, results, staff, models, and techniques are crucial to fulfilling mission-related large-scale work.  

Case example: “Today, Heritage’s Resource Bank – a network of state and local nonprofits – includes more than 2,000 member organizations. The Heritage Foundation helps leaders of these state and local nonprofits raise money and freely shares its donor list with like-minded groups. It also offers extensive programs to train non-Heritage policy analysts on everything from conservative strategies to public speaking skills. And Heritage cultivates talent – not only for its own organization, but also for other leading conservative groups – by offering a prestigious internship program and job-placement service for its young acolytes. The nonprofit also frequently works in coalitions to promote conservative policy and to pass legislation. Rather than seeing other conservative organizations as competitors, Heritage has helped build a much larger conservative movement over the last two decades, serving as a critical connector in this growing network of like-minded peers.

Other high-impact nonprofits harness the power of networks. In some cases, they formalize their networks through an affiliation structure, such as YouthBuild USA or America’s Second Harvest. In other cases, they keep their networks less formal and operate without official brand or funding ties, such as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities or the Exploratorium.”

Master the art of adaptation. These nonprofits have all mastered the cycle of adaptation, which involves four critical steps: 1. Take in feedback, listen, and seek to adjust and improve as needed. 2. Innovate and experiment, developing new ideas or improving upon older ones. 3. Evaluate and learn what works through effective data collection and analysis, and through sharing information and best practices across their networks. 4. Modify plans and programs in a process of ongoing learning (which brings you back to #1!).  It’s a never-ending cycle that helps these nonprofits increase and sustain their impact. Nonprofits should avoid the pitfalls of being both too innovative with loose structure or mired in bureaucracy with little innovation. 

Case example: “Share Our Strength has been exceptionally adaptive. Bill Shore started the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit by mailing letters to food industry celebrities to raise money for hunger relief. Although he received a few checks, he found that professional chefs were much more enthusiastic about donating their time and talent to a local tasting event. After the success of a single event in Denver, Share Our Strength abandoned its direct mail campaign and launched the Taste of the Nation series – now a national success in more than 70 cities. It has raised millions of dollars for hunger relief, and many other nonprofits have copied it.

Over time, Share Our Strength has experimented with a number of different innovations, from participatory events to cause-marketing campaigns. Not all of these events have been successful. One failed experiment was its attempt to extend the Taste concept into the sports arena, through a program called “Taste of the Game.” Share Our Strength solicited celebrity athletes to coach young people in a sport and asked parents to buy tickets to demonstration games – with all proceeds going to hunger relief. But the passion for antihunger issues wasn’t as strong among athletes and coaches as it was among the restaurant community. After several less successful initiatives cost the nonprofit time and money, Share Our Strength developed a more rigorous approach to managing innovation. Today, the nonprofit’s staff develops business plans and conducts more research before diving into new programs.”

Share leadership. One of the most surprising of the six, research showed that it wasn’t about one charismatic leader at the helm, but instead about leadership that empowered others to take on responsibilities that ultimately propelled organizations forward.  Three key elements of shared leadership included: 1. Having a strong second-in-command, 2. Investing in executive teams that result in longer staff tenure, and 3. Developing larger (20-40 people strong) and more influential boards. While it was noticed that personality-wise, more outgoing extraverted leaders seemed to outnumber leaders who were more introverted, the type of leadership persona had no effect on the impact an organization had. 

Case example: The National Council of La Raza (NCLR) is a great example of collective leadership in action. The Washington, D.C.- based nonprofit was founded in 1968 by a group of Hispanic leaders, and within its first decade it appointed Raul Yzaguirre as CEO. Yzaguirre led the nonprofit for more than 30 years of extraordinary growth. He quickly developed a cadre of strong and empowered senior executives, many of whom have been with the organization for decades and who have played critical leadership roles. Yzaguirre always had a second-in-command, or COO, who helped him with internal management while he focused on external leadership. And the NCLR board has learned to share power with the executive director. Even when Yzaguirre retired and was replaced by Janet Murguía, the organization maintained its leadership practices.

Overall, this book was extremely helpful and insightful, making me think about what truly drives change overall: the impact and the cause, not just organizational health.  As Self-Help Founder Martin Eakes says, “I need to have an impact more than I need to be right.” It’s impressive how the book has longevity, having gone through multiple editions since it was written before the recession. Each of the nonprofits not only survived since then, but have thrived despite new challenges.  I personally gained a lot of valuable insight into how business partnerships can be beneficial to nonprofits. Having worked in direct services for so long, I had developed an us vs. them mentality toward business, and this made me rethink that mindset. I especially appreciated how they mentioned businesses can benefit just as much from the relationship with nonprofits. 

The couple of things that irked me: 

1. It is geared toward highly-resourced, larger organizations.  I must not have been the only complainant because they recently added a new chapter on how these practices could benefit local, smaller organizations. The chapter was a little slim in my opinion, but makes some interesting points.  I also think there can be more pointed out about how with large scale comes challenges and power differentials that can result in harming smaller organizations, which ultimately harms their cause and reputation. I’ve seen this first hand and think it should be discussed more.  

2.  I also thought it was interesting they chose the Heritage Foundation even though this organization actively dismantles programs and government initiatives that benefit people in need.  As entities that gain government resources and tax benefits, I believe nonprofits should be helping those less fortunate. However, there were insights I did learn from the Heritage Foundation that I think nonprofits could benefit from.  

What did you think of the book, Forces for Good?  I’d love to hear your insight!  


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