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In 1999, news producer Maura Minsky and I co-founded Scenarios USA, a nonprofit that uses storytelling for youth sex education. From the beginning, we were excellent at getting young people talking, but we found that we weren’t truly helping them change the choices they made—choices that resulted in unintended pregnancies or sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Five years in, we decided to revamp our program and seriously evaluate our work. 

We pitched the Ford Foundation: “What we’re doing isn’t working. We don’t know what we’re doing exactly, but we have an idea. Can you invest $200,000 in an experiment?” 

Asking an established foundation to fund an experiment is kind of like asking your mom for money for heroin and strippers. But we got lucky. Ford took a risk. The foundation backed a three-year project to examine how we could expand our organization’s impact, and with its support, we found groundbreaking research that changed our thinking. 

Our biggest discovery was that accurate information didn’t influence young people’s choices as much we thought. We needed to get young people to question the gender and power norms that affected their lives and relationships. What influenced their choices most was critical thinking—the ability to question concepts of masculinity and femininity. Analyzing cultural messages gives young people a powerful tool to eschew stereotypes and make their own choices.  

We reworked our curriculum. Ford not only supported the initial research, evaluation, and program innovation without restrictions, it stayed with us to support the next phase of execution and assessment. It behaved like a venture capital firm investing in a startup and stuck with us for ten years, periodically upping its investment in capital and support. 

Thanks to Ford's willingness to color outside the lines, Scenarios was able to pioneer a new approach to sex education that’s now gaining steam across the United States. Instead of teaching the birds and the bees, we teach young people how to critically analyze power dynamics and gender inequality—an approach that researchers found is far more likely to reduce adolescent rates of unintended pregnancy, STIs, and even gender-based violence than conventional sex-ed.

In the private sector, Ford’s behavior as a funder would sound ho-hum. Funders of private-sector startups regularly risk large amounts of money on unproven ideas and entrepreneurs. It’s called “risk capital.” They know big returns correspond to big risks. But the nonprofit story is quite different. Nonprofit funders generally prefer to avoid risk, investing incremental amounts of money in proven, established ideas. They look for the “safest” investments. 

Investors in the private sector know that where chance of failure is high, success is richly rewarded. By embracing the possibility of failure, they figure out how to improve their odds against it. They develop a deep understanding of every aspect of a field, and an acute ability to assess the potential of ideas and the entrepreneurs driving them. One need look only as far as Silicon Valley to see the success of this approach. Savvy private investors took a calculated risk on Steve Jobs and Apple, and the value they created is unparalleled. 

Private-sector investment invariably rests on trust and confidence in the originality of the idea and the entrepreneurial ability of the leader. Nonprofit-sector investment rests largely on the amount of evidence supporting a proven idea and the demonstrated managerial ability of the leader. So while investment capital in the private sector is actively seeking entrepreneurs with great new ideas to launch, donors in the nonprofit sector are looking for leaders to manage someone else’s proven idea. 

A statistic suggests why this could be the case and why Scenario’s partnership with Ford was the exception rather than the rule: Seven out of 10 nonprofit workers are women, while at Fortune 500 companies, 86 percent of corporate executives are men. The nonprofit sector is predominantly female; the private sector is mainly male. 

Time and again at the half-dozen nonprofit organizations I have served, led, or founded in my 20-year career, funding had more restrictions placed on it than security at a commercial airline. We were obliged to use a prescribed approach, and forbidden to spend money on certain salaries, organizational development, R&D, or evaluation. Ironically, we sometimes couldn’t get funding because we lacked evaluation. 

Imagine if Apple’s original funders had said: “Steve, you do great work, we’ll fund the keyboard, but we can’t fund anything else until you show us the computer, prove you can meet sales targets, and demonstrate that users actually benefit from the experience.”

Maybe it’s just a coincidence that leaders of startups in the male-dominated sector get financial support for their ability to develop and execute original ideas, while the leaders of start-ups in the female-dominated sector get financial support for their ability to manage someone else’s idea well. Maybe. But I believe it’s likely that the power dynamics at play between the nonprofit and private sectors reflect the gender dynamics of our larger society.

Traditional gender norms subscribe to the idea that men should be providers, in control, tough, and independent. On the flip side, women are dependent, submissive, nurturing, and soft. Like the provider of old, heading off to the office for a day of work, the private sector is focused on money and profit. The nonprofit sector, as the nurturing caretaker, is charged with caring for the young, the sick, the elderly, and the poor. Behind the scenes, the nonprofit sector tries to fix many of society’s most urgent problems—poverty, public health, the environment. You can catch up on the business sector’s daily challenges and achievements in the business section of any newspaper. But you won’t find a special section dedicated to consistent and sophisticated reporting about the nonprofit world. Like Cinderella relegated to housework, nonprofits toil tirelessly with little regular attention from the press.

The financial rewards of the actual work, consistent with typical gender norms, just exaggerate these dynamics. While the nonprofit sector takes care of the ills of the world, the private sector gets to work making money, accumulating an abundance of resources it can use to selectively support the work of the impoverished social sector. Corporate representatives sit on the nonprofit boards, hiring and firing leaders and funding the women’s work. This creates a have-and-have-not situation, where one side holds the money and power, and the other side asks for an allowance to do their “good work,” trying to get traction but more often getting stuck in a rut created by this dysfunctional dynamic. 

Rather than supporting innovation and entrepreneurship, investors in the social sector make it difficult for nonprofits to gather the resources to measure and pivot as necessary for success. They are looking for the proverbial “good girl”—an organization that doesn’t rock the status quo, that gives them a credential to show they “care” or “contribute.”

If we want the nonprofit sector to innovate as necessary, we need to acknowledge the gender gap between nonprofits and the private sector. If we are ever going to stop climate change, cure cancer, educate girls, or end homelessness, then we have to create a new model of philanthropy that incorporates more risk and leaves paternalistic thinking behind.

In order to shift the needle on the largest social issues, funders of the nonprofit sector need to take more chances on all the good ideas and smart entrepreneurs we can find. 

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