Nonprofits & NGOs

Making the “Social [Fill in the Blank]” Movements Available to All

There is a great need to connect small- and mid-sized nonprofits to the innovative work and ideas associated with new movements like "social entrepreneurship."

One of the perks of my work is having regular conversations with nonprofit leaders. After speaking or training at a conference, I often grab a meal with a dozen or more attendees who want to pick my brain. Once the group tires of my babbling, I get the opportunity to ask them questions. It’s a great time to find out how day-to-day leaders feel about some of the things I ponder regularly. Most leaders represent small to mid-sized nonprofit organizations—a large segment of the nonprofit sector.

Lately, I’ve been asking people what they think of when they hear the words “social impact,” “social innovation,” “social capital,” and “social entrepreneurship”. Of the four dozen or so people I’ve talked to, a very small percentage are comfortable using these terms, a larger number have heard these words in their day-to-day work but are not generally confident about their meaning, and the majority are unfamiliar with the terms entirely. The most interesting comment came from a nonprofit executive who had been running a mid-sized human services organization in the South for nearly twenty-five years. To paraphrase: “I am hearing that language more and more, but no one can tell me exactly what those words mean. It seems like they are used by an elite group in the sector, essentially a club of cool kids.” As she said this, many others around the table nodded their heads emphatically.

I thought about her words and my own involvement in the “social blank” movements, I began to understand her point. Most of the gatherings, discussions, and information about the “social blank” movements include only a fraction of the people working in the nonprofit sector, and they are often the same people from the same organizations. At conferences or gatherings outside of these “social blank” worlds—say, a national federal grantee conference or national association of “XYZ” gathering—discussions are much different. There is little or no connection to these terms or to the movements they help identify. Even more disappointing is that the majority of small and mid-sized nonprofits are not positioned to benefit from the great work, ideas, and energy associated with them.

The natural question that emerges is: How does the nonprofit sector introduce these useful terms and the great and growing work of the “social blank” movements to people outside the Cool Kid Club? How do we open the “social blank” movements to all, and help leaders use the language and the work to significantly advance their important missions?

Read more stories by John Brothers.

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  • BY Al Huntoon

    ON May 4, 2011 05:01 PM


    Well said - I have a very similar concern.  If these terms and concepts are to have widespread relevancy to the nonprofit sector there will need to be a more inclusive dialogue that creates a participatory understanding of both their history and promise.  I hear the phrase “social innovation” with increasing frequency but at the same time its usage seems disconnected from a sense of how innovation has traditionally worked in the nonprofit sector.

    I agree, in order to take full advantage of the potential represented by bringing “social blank” perspectives to the sector we will need to make the discussion both more accessible and responsive to the broad variety of people working the nonprofit world.

  • BY Dave Algoso

    ON May 4, 2011 05:45 PM

    You seem to be arguing that one problem facing the “social blank” movement is that other nonprofits simply don’t get it. As if the problem with the Cool Kids in high school was that not everyone knew how to be cool. When I was 17, I was a proud outsider to the Cool Kids, and I would have offered a different analysis: the problem with the Cool Kids was that they thought they were special, while everyone else just thought they were a little full of themselves.

    Leaving the high school analogy behind: Are you sure that the outsiders need the “social blank” language to advance their missions? Weren’t the outsiders already doing “social blank” work long before these ill-defined terms became the basis for a movement?

  • Rob Zwang's avatar

    BY Rob Zwang

    ON May 5, 2011 04:39 AM

    Interesting read of the “new” language, in a field that use to be referred to as social services. As I think of the various iterations, I am reminded of one other “social blank.” Add the word social development to the list, and define it as a means to broaden the boundries of individual and group/community relationships.

  • Floyd Rumohr's avatar

    BY Floyd Rumohr

    ON May 5, 2011 07:36 AM

    John, you raise compelling points as usual and this article leaves me wondering about arts groups.  Many of them struggle to describe their essential work in the context of social entrepreneurism and are more like the kids in the hall than the cool kids on the block.  What are you hearing about how arts groups are or are not positioning themselves this way?  Are there “innovations” that you’re aware of that make sense for arts groups?

  • BY John Brothers

    ON May 5, 2011 10:51 AM

    Thanks everyone for posting.  I think specifically to the following points, my perspective is:

    Dave - I would believe that there is quite a momentum around the “social blanks” and by a number of really smart and motivate people.  Your right to say that “outsiders” are “social blanks”, although not all but my challenge, and hopefully in the essence of the article is that in their motivation and excitement behind the “social blanks” is an unintended (or maybe intended) leaves out the largest segment of the sector.  Just looking at where these groups are convening (online or personally) shows that there are much different conversations happening.  I think it best for the sector that these voices intertwine, and not sure if your thought of your final paragraph would bring these groups together.

    Floyd - I think art groups are left out of much of these important dialogues and I find that the arts intermediaries or networks have to send the emissaries out to learn it and bring it back to their masses. My suspicion is that part of this is that many arts organization sometimes lack capacity to get out of their own way and second is that those in the “social blanks” don’t view arts organizations as groups that have a strong place in the missions of the “social blanks”.  Much of my clientele are arts organizations and say any one of the social blanks to them and it’s just not a world they think in.

    Rob, I am interested to see what other language is added to the word “social”.  My feeling is that the real meaning behind the word “social” is creating an environment that is anything but.

  • Hi John,

    This comment is one I’ve focused on for the past 20 years: “Most of the gatherings, discussions, and information about the “social blanks” include only a fraction of the people working in the nonprofit sector, and they are often the same people from the same organizations.”

    Unless someone is making a consistent effort to learn who the various organizations and people are who are focusing on the same issue, but in different places and different organizations, no conversation can be reaching more than a few people and thus no solutions really reflect the thinking and commitment of a majority of those who are affected.

    I’ve been building a master database of volunteer-based tutor/mentor programs serving the Chicago region since 1994. I’ve been building a web library of people/organizations with related information since 1998. I use email newsletters to draw attention to this information and to connect organizations with each other. I host a conference every six months to help bring some of these people and groups together, and to try to draw more attention, and operating resources, directly to each of the organizations in the network.  I call this building a network of purpose and this pdf is one of many that I’ve posted to share this strategy.

    Unfortunately, we’re still invisible to most of the people who do this work because we’ve not found the money to increase the advertising and public awareness efforts that are needed to support the information gathering and network building.

    Many people who we’ve introduced this information to in the past may be using it, but we don’t know how much they are sharing it within their own network.  However, until more money flows to the intermediaries who build the basic databases and network web hubs, we’ll still have too many people working in isolation from each other and too few solutions that are well funded for many years that are needed to build great organizations and provide innovative solutions to complex problems.

    PS: I believe we met about 10 years ago when you were with Americas Promise. Is that correct?

  • Some non-profits run effective social enterprises. Most non-profits don’t get the social innovation movement because they are absorbed in chasing grants and doing crisis management. Nonprofits in the main provide social services, i.e., putting bandages on the wounds caused by the market system as well as “acts of God.” They carry out what we call charitable activities. Social innovators, e.g., social entrepreneurs, create social change by using tools that most NGO’s don’t have or understand how to use. If you ask most NGO’s if they should perhaps study whether they might use or adapt these tools they are inclined to say “we don’t have time to because we are inundated with crisis management issues.” In the main they lack the entrepreneurial leadership capacity to change. Most social enterprises that are effective in fostering social change will be new ones started by private sector entrepreneurs who switch to pursuing community missions.

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