The persistence of start-up nonprofits aimed at perennial missions like family counseling and youth development testify to the spirit, at least, of innovation in the nonprofit sector. It’s practically cliché that most start-ups think no one is addressing their mission in the way that they will. Of course, there often are real social innovations addressing perennial issues. Look at affordable housing development over the past 20 years, and the rise of more effective strategies for drug treatment and domestic violence programs. But the point is that it seems the search for the new trumps the search for expanding what already works, despite all we hear about how nonprofits are hidebound and slow to change. Many donors see their role as funding innovation, even though it is no longer reasonable to presume that large-scale support—public or private—will continue to fuel even the most successful and popular programs.
Innovation also predominates among the sector’s thought leaders. A profusion of print and online journals like the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, the Skoll Foundation’s Social Edge online community, and many others extol the virtues of innovation. It’s not hard to see why: Innovation is something shiny and new, which is always attractive. But in the nonprofit world, as in the private sector, there is no shortage of ideas, and it often seems to be execution that makes one organization successful where another fails. In truth, we need both new ideas and sound execution, but the rub is that—particularly in the social sector, where we can’t assume that market mechanisms will maximize the distribution of social goods—execution is the most demanding god.
The memorable title of a landmark public policy article by Martin Levin illustrates this paradox for me: “The Day After an AIDS Vaccine is Discovered: Management Matters.” We don’t have the vaccine yet, of course, but in many other vital areas, we already have the knowledge that gives us the potential to make a huge difference. For example, we know a great deal about—choose your poison, here—the importance of early childhood education, prevention of teen pregnancy, prevention of involvement in youth gangs; and in developing societies, the critical importance of educational attainment for women and basic education about hygiene, nutrition, and other health issues.
With that knowledge comes responsibility. A colleague recently put it starkly as she described a horribly atomized and ineffective slew of youth violence programs that she is studying. It is a system that has grossly overemphasized suppression despite the proven value of high-cost prevention measures. She observed that the system is responsible for the deaths of over 10,000 children in our city alone in the past 30 years: “We all preside over that.” We know what needs to be done more than we have the will to make it happen.
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Peter Manzo is the director of strategic initiatives for the Advancement Project, a civil rights advocacy organization, and a senior research fellow with the Center for Civil Society in the UCLA School of Public Affairs. Previously, he was the executive director and general counsel of the Center for Nonprofit Management.