“Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind,” said the philosopher Seneca. Having recently traveled to Australia, Northern Ireland, the UK, and Canada, I couldn’t agree more. As I met and talked with government and social sector leaders in these countries, I learned that there are a few universal truths about nonprofits:
1. Whatever you call us, we have a hard time marketing ourselves. Aside from multiple names—nonprofit, NGO, third sector, civil society—social change leaders everywhere have a hard time unifying the needs and position of the sector to the business community, government leaders, and others.
2. From my earlier work in Trinidad and the United States, and in Northern Ireland and Australia, government is having a hard time understanding what to do or how to partner with us. The growth and changes in government regulation toward nonprofits we see in the US closely reflects what is happening in other countries.
3. The terms fundraising, governance, evaluation, and infrastructure support are used more in the US, but other countries are paying a lot of attention to our sector’s lexicon. In each country I visited, people had questions and requested resources about the “how to” of running an organization—less so about where the sector is going.
I also attended the Skoll World Forum last month and, although I found that my takeaways from the gathering do not directly apply to the majority of nonprofits in the US (small- to medium-sized organizations), seeing leading social entrepreneurs from around the world energized me.
My most valuable experiences came when I stepped off the beaten path. I was particularly inspired by visits to two organizations.
First, I had a chance to visit a homeless shelter in Belfast called the Stella Maris, run by one of Northern Ireland’s largest homeless services providers, Depaul Ireland. The Stella Maris provides 24/7 care, support, and accommodation to individuals with a history of homelessness and severe alcohol misuse, and in cases where rehabilitation may no longer be a possibility. An interesting feature of Stella Maris is that the shelter has allocated “wet areas,” where residents can consume alcohol onsite. Depaul’s CEO, Kerry Anthony, said that Stella Maris is often the only place this population can call home.
As my own father suffered from both homelessness and alcoholism, the shelter immediately became a special place to me personally. As a nonprofit practitioner, I instinctively wanted to ask about impact and what success means for a place like Stella Maris. Anthony said the organization’s first order of business was to create an environment with a “high standard of accommodation.” She said that while it would be great to find move-on opportunities for the residents, its primary purpose is to provide on-going support, including improved access to preventative health care—hugely reducing the need for emergency services—and eliminating duplication of work by other agencies.
What was most refreshing about Stella Maris is that there wasn’t a lot of discussion of impact, just people doing really good work. It was obvious that the driving force behind Stella Maris was caring support and quality service. I often feel that nonprofits I visit in the US are driven by an “impact bottom line” but that there was time when, as my mom used to say, nonprofits aimed to “do good at doing good.”
Another inspiring organization I visited was Melbourne’s Research Design Institute. As I walked along the Yarra River in Melbourne, I came across a row of oddly designed large crates sitting near the river’s edge. Two people sat in front of them, and they invited me to take a closer look. What I saw was simply amazing—the result of thirty research and design teams that came together at Australia’s RMIT Design Research Institute to design solutions to social issues. Last year, RMIT’s focus was on homelessness. Innovative designs included informational websites, a backpack bed and multifunction beds that double as seating or storage, and technical training programs.
I was most moved by how collaborative the design process was. Each innovation seemed to reflect the work of artists, designers, business folks, academics, nonprofit practitioners, and others. In 2010, RMIT focused on alleviating crime, and the top submission—a design model to prevent water theft—was the product of a graphic designer, an architect, a lawyer, a philosopher, and a puppeteer. While there is certainly cross-sector collaboration in the US, it mostly seems to happen in boardrooms, not design institutes.
Getting back to Seneca, after traveling 50,000 miles over two months, I believe I have some new vigor—as well as desire to connect and share information with others. I observed a strong willingness among nonprofit leaders I met to share information, but despite the Internet, social media tools, and all of the other technology available, they seemed unsure about how to effectively connect and share with their peers.
While I don’t like comparing the business sector to the nonprofit sector, it would appear that the business community is far better at sharing information globally than the nonprofit sector. I am sure there is some information exchange happening within specific issue areas, but I do think we are missing out on a larger discussion. What if US nonprofit leaders from organizations such as Independent Sector or Guidestar met with infrastructure groups in other countries to learn, discuss trends, and share best practices? In working with NGOs in Trinidad to create an infrastructure organization, and in conversations with leaders in other countries, I’ve seen a strong desire to connect with similar groups internationally. Here’s hoping that Seneca’s words take root on behalf our sector soon and that vigor leads to greater exchange.
Read more stories by John Brothers.