We all have some preconceived notions of each sector and the role it plays in our society, both good and bad. Nonprofits are supposed to serve disadvantaged populations, which can lead to handouts and inefficiencies. Businesses are driven by profit, which can fuel greed and excess. Governments are set up to guard the rule of law, which can breed inertia and corruption.
I run UnSectored, a community platform for re-thinking social change, where we try to dispel sector stereotypes; we help people see that nonprofits can be entrepreneurial and efficient, businesses can help improve society, and government can innovate. Our online conversations and events provide a neutral, safe space for a broad array of sector representatives to engage with each other, and to ask questions (such as, what is a social impact bond?) or express opinions (maybe: impact measurement systems are overrated) that they may not feel comfortable asking at a traditional conference or networking session.
After explaining UnSectored’s concept to a group of social entrepreneurs, one person came up to me and said that she did not see the point of working with a nonprofit because she thought they were inherently unsustainable. I asked her why, and she said she had no real reason but it was something she had always thought: How can nonprofits be sustainable if they can’t pay their employees?
This (unfortunately not exceptional) example shows that this work is necessary. Ultimately, our perceptions inform how we use the organizations that reside within each sector, and traditional perceptions blind us to their potential. What if we could unlock that potential and unify organizations in all sectors under one common purpose: solving social problems?
It seems like a simple question, but it is important to consider—and luckily, many have already begun to experiment with shaking up the stereotypes. In government, the Social Innovation Fund (SIF), developed by the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, combines public and private funds to scale up community solutions, and has leveraged its annual grantmaking budget of about $50 million to direct about $500 million to nearly 200 nonprofits across the country.
Another example: The nonprofit Urban Alliance started by connecting six students in the low-income neighborhood of Anacostia in Washington, D.C., with internships. It took an entrepreneurial growth path, expanding into areas where it saw need and market potential—such as offering job skills training and moving to other regions that could use its services—and now operates in three metropolitan areas (D.C., Baltimore, and Chicago).
In business, entrepreneur Karan Jain wanted to strengthen local communities, but instead of starting an advocacy organization or community association, he decided to give people a way to literally invest in local businesses through a crowdfunding site. In less than a year, his site Clovest has raised more than $20,000 for 3 local businesses from local consumers, with 4 more funding projects on the site now.
The individuals who started these organizations or developed these programs did not think about bucking the philosophical underpinnings of organizational structures. They just saw problems that needed solving. I have heard too many people say that they want to “start a social enterprise” or “start a nonprofit,” because they think only social enterprises or nonprofits can solve social problems. They rely on this perception rather than assessing the situation first and then finding the best way to fix it.
Lara Galinsky of Echoing Green recently wrote a post that implored people to find one problem and devote as many resources as they could to solving that problem. An important implication of this rallying cry is that all organization structures are on the table to help solve these issues. Unfortunately, because many people view certain sectors in fixed and sometimes negative ways, they don’t realize that they can harness the strengths of each. Working to move past these stereotypes will increase collaboration between sectors and produce better social outcomes.