A Nonprofit Leader Responds to Debate

Too frequently, the views of nonprofit organizations get left out of funder centric debates (see the 40 comments). So I was delighted to receive this comment today from reader Anisha Chablani, deputy director of Roca, whose website says “Roca is an outcomes-driven, high performing youth development organization… [we] deliberately seek out young people who other people, organizations, and institutions have left out, given up on, or turned away.”

Anisha’s comment is simply inspiring:

First, let me start by saying how incredibly excited I am that a dialogue like this is even happening! As a practitioner in a non-profit org committed to being both evidenced and principle based to ensure that we are positively impacting the lives of the young people we serve, it feels reassuring that others are committed to further define and understand what this all means.

For years working in the non-profit sector, I have asked myself the question “So what? What is the point, what are we really doing, what are we really changing?” I have asked these questions of myself as an individual, of my organization, of other non-profits, and of the whole sector of non-profit services.

Having the privilege of working with young people and young adults who have already experienced so much violence and trauma, have been left out, locked up, ignored, and often feared by those who were supposed to guide them, demands that those questions have some real answers. Getting to those answers requires being really truthful about what we are doing, how we do it, if it is working or not, how we know, and how we push ourselves to get better and better because that is what our young people deserve from us. It requires having really hard conversations about the work, performance, outcomes, and what we have to give to drive toward excellence and real outcomes that shift life trajectories, not just fill a gap or an immediate need.

If we aren’t willing to have those conversations, to truthfully look at our work, and know the answer those questions (as individuals, organizations, and as a sector)…we should not be in business.

The debate about high performing and high impact must be thought of in absolute solidarity. If we are not willing to drive toward excellence to be high impact (even if we may never reach that status) then we should shut our doors. If we are willing, then we must push ourselves to be high performing at every level and throughout every functional area of the organization.

It is time for non-profits to understand that we are responsible for ensuring high performance, continuously raising the bar for ourselves and those we serve, and committing to our individual and collective growth and improvement. It doesn’t take a dime to ask ourselves if what we are doing is making a difference, how we know, and what we need to do to be better. The cost on those we serve if we do not ask ourselves these questions and are not truthful with the answers is tremendous—feelings of hopelessness, that change is not possible, that real opportunities are inaccessible, that trusting and being trustworthy are fallacies—these are extremely high costs for all of us!

It is also time for philanthropy to recognize that the business of non-profit business is not about any one single product or bottom line. Organizations cannot be considered high impact merely by the bottom line on their financials, charismatic leadership, or sheer size and visibility. Also, we must understand that the work cannot always be codified to an exact science and be reproduced by applying the same calculation. Life and the dynamic complexities of our environments always add other variables that through off even the most precise calculations.

The business of non-profits, and those who lead and work within them, must be driven to work in ways that actually do have demonstrated positive impacts and must be committed to getting even better to best serve those for whom our organizations exist to serve.