Nonprofits & NGOs

Role Play: Define Your Role So Social Change Can Flow

By understanding their unique role in the social change landscape, nonprofit organizations can increase their impact.

It’s not a lack of ideas, or will, or even resources. Every day, people are writing new books, honing best practices, and conducting research on how to be more effective at creating positive social change. With so many answers, why aren’t we making more, consistent, and meaningful progress?

Clearly, the economic downturn of 2008 reduced revenues; it also shook our confidence. In the new world, technology is a change agent. Social problems are complex. The distinction between nonprofits and for-profits is more about legal rules than reality. And economic uncertainty has become the great leveler among sectors.

The new economy and world have ushered in a demand: Nonprofits should be sophisticated about creating and measuring programs, and about leveraging, then managing, partnerships across sectors to maximize impact. As obvious as it may sound, the real challenge for nonprofits is about how to manage change, all kinds of change, both the kind they hope to create with their programs and the kind they face trying to support and/or scale their work.

We deliberately need to set up nonprofits to manage and create change, and this requires a sound organizational strategy. Unfortunately, most strategic planning processes focus on predicting the future by understanding the past, benchmarking and scoping the competition and allies, and executing top-down. This traditional approach is linear, backward facing, cumbersome, and devalues what it takes for an organization to manage and create change. Crafting a sound organizational strategy that is flexible, responsive, and helps organizations thrive starts with being clear about the primary social change role a nonprofit will play to create change externally, and then aligning the organization around it (through strategy, structure, operations, skills, and partnerships).

How an organization seeks to achieve its external goals determines what skills, knowledge, strategies, partnerships, and funds it requires. Most organizations are not making a clear choice about the primary role they will play in achieving their goals. As a result, strategies and execution become muddled, and fundraising becomes stymied because ambiguity about purpose results in uncertainty about support.

An organization’s definition and discipline around its primary role in creating social change is the missing link in the development of a sound organizational strategy. Organizations must consider where their expertise lies and how they intend to use it:

  • Catalyst—expert in identifying timely opportunities and the right skills or resources to propel or scale an idea or solution; it's all about being an expert in timing an intervention
  • Innovator—expert at identifying innovative ideas or solutions
  • Problem Solver—expert on a particular issue or problem; these organizations figure out who needs to be part of the solution and how to leverage their skills, expertise, and resources to solve the problem
  • Networker and Advocate—expert at setting up, building the capacity of, or leading networks that work together to solve issues, share knowledge, and advocate for change
  • Good Partner—expert at working with organizations and communities by listening and supporting their capacity to solve problems

These five roles encompass how most social change occurs, and they often overlap; however, identifying the primary role an organization plays is essential, because it requires that organizations think deeply about their capacity, capability, and culture—the three Cs. Capability determines whether the organization has the skills, maturity, and processes for the particular role. Capacity has to do with bandwidth and resources for the particular role. Culture is how people internally and externally experience the organization—identifying values and whether they believe the organization is set up to meet its goals.

Take Innovators. Innovators create a culture and environment that recognizes brainstorming and idea generation. Innovation is not limited to the leaders or experts but open to everyone in the nonprofit. Process exists, but its role is carefully defined to avoid suppressing ideas and allow testing, learning and evolution of ideas. Innovators also tend to be risk takers, understanding that failure is part of innovation. By contrast, a Networker thinks about leverage rather than institution-building. They specialize in building relationships. They are strategic in creating and working with networks, and they understand power dynamics. They are flexible and adaptable. They tend not to operate or make decisions independently.

Once an organization decides on its primary role, strategies, goals, and measurements flow naturally from each role’s inherent attributes. That said, strategic planning and roles should never be static—as an organization moves forward, these concepts will evolve. Discipline about role is probably the biggest challenge, but if sticking to a role is a problem then it’s probably the wrong role. Playing the right role brings clarity about who you are and your strengths and expertise. And playing to your strengths is how social change occurs.

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  • Mark Rubin's avatar

    BY Mark Rubin

    ON June 7, 2013 07:10 AM

    Great piece! Focus is hard. In my experiences in the nonprofit world, I find a great challenge associated with meeting the needs of the organization’s constituents. To get time, talent and treasure engaged individuals must feel good about what they are doing and supporting (or they will not support the organization), and each person brings to the bargain his or her needs, wants, interests, knowledge, etc. With so much variance among those individuals, and the need to not turn anyone off, just staying focused on the organization’s mission presents lots of challenges. (I am, of course, assuming a level of understanding and commitment from the professional side that may not always be present.) You present a level of complexity that many constituents cannot even conceptualize, much less adopt and support. Really a tough conundrum, for success may require more knowledge and commitment to deep thinking and discipline than many constituents can or will provide. That all said, the clear thinking in your piece really resonates.

  • BY Rick Torseth

    ON June 11, 2013 04:59 PM


    Nice outline here. It is clear, grounded, specific and actionable. Also good to hear from you and read your thinking.

  • Jennifer Astone's avatar

    BY Jennifer Astone

    ON June 10, 2014 10:56 AM

    Thanks Theresa. This is a very helpful post. Reflecting on my own work at family foundations, I find that this role issue plays out among staff and family directors. Sometimes the diversity of perspectives is something one actually recruits for in staff because it can keep the work balanced. But how to renew? And what about focus? Ah, yes, the ongoing issue of whether to work on changing existing organizations or supporting new ones to change the existing. Many models of change to pursue.

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