10th Anniversary Reflections

A series of reflective posts by regular Stanford Social Innovation Review bloggers in honor of SSIR’s 10th anniversary.

I decided to go through all of the blog posts I’ve contributed to SSIR so far—beginning with my first in early 2010—and review the highs and lows. Here’s to reminiscing…


Over the years, I have written several posts that were either received with the sound of crickets or were somewhat loony in hindsight. The biggest snafus are as follows:

No Love for Government Regulation: During my time blogging with SSIR, I finished my doctorate, and my research was focused on the relationship between government and the nonprofit sector. I think the government’s role in the nonprofit sector is one of the most important issues facing the sector today, and I wrote many articles to this end (my favorite: “H.R. 5533: How the Nonprofit Sector Can Rally for a Seat at the Table”). But looking back, the topic didn’t seem to meet with great interest (these posts were the least read and commented on of all my contributions).

Unfortunately, interest hasn’t increased. Looking at the failure to pass the Nonprofit and Community Solutions Act, state governments’ (New York, New Jersey, and many others) increase in official regulation, and other examples, it’s clear that the sector has generated very little momentum or even dialogue. If anything, we have moved farther away from having the strength we need to be a meaningful government partner.

Humor is Risky: On a lighter note, I like to think of myself as a funny guy, and in one post, I tried to mesh together the problems of board fundraising through the children’s song “Hole in the Bucket” (see “There’s a Hole in the Budget, Dear Board Chair…”). Looking at that concept a couple years later, it is easy to see that nursery rhymes and fundraising issues are not so analogous. Sometimes trying to be funny means that you tell a bad joke—this was mine.

Bright Spots

Writing for SSIR has been a truly rewarding experience, and several of my posts have sparked some great dialogue. Here are a few of my favorite posts over the years:

“Carrot and Stick Philanthropy”: In early 2010, I wrote about the philanthropic tactic that some foundations use—a problematic system of punishment and support intended to motivate struggling nonprofits to get their houses in order. I called the approach “Carrot and Stick Philanthropy,” and others in media and meetings seemed to find the phrase apt. More interesting, some funders acknowledged that the practice was not a preferred method and was even sometimes detrimental; others stood behind it and have used my phrase to describe their approach to their grantees—something I did not anticipate!

“Making the Social [Fill in the Blank] Movements Available to All”: Anyone reading about the nonprofit sector over the last ten years will notice that there has been an increase in the use of the word “social.” Usually that word is followed by another word: “social impact,” “social innovation,” “social capital,” social entrepreneurship.” I called this the “social blank” movement, and observed that only a sliver of our community actually understood and identified with it. The number of discussions I had with small to mid-sized nonprofit leaders across the country who felt annexed from discussions around these terms was alarming.

The good news is that more people are using these terms and talking about these areas. The bad news is that unfortunately there is still a lot of confusion around their meaning, and therefore a lot of failed attempts at practice, which wastes time and resources.

“Third Sector Grit”: This series told the stories of community champions at nonprofits who do not have “important-sounding” titles but who play a critical role in moving their organization forward. I pulled these from dozens of stories from around the world about outstanding frontline nonprofit workers—stories often overshadowed by our sector’s tendency to highlight the leadership of a well-known few.

A recent example of this overshadowing is the coverage of former CEO of the Gates Foundation Patty Stonesifer’s decision to lead a local nonprofit organization. While anyone leading a grassroots nonprofit is commendable, I believe that many in the community were overzealous in their praise of her decision to tackle this role. There are thousands of people who have been doing the same hard work of leading a small nonprofit day in and day out for years without any great acknowledgement; this series was about honoring them.

Through dialogue around these and other posts I’ve written, I’ve learned a few things. (For example, fundraising and capacity building never go out of style.) Sharing my experiences and ideas in the blog has helped me start new conversations and form great new relationships. Here’s to the next 10 years!

Read more stories by John Brothers.