Embracing Risk in the Shift from “Program Thinking” to “Social Change Thinking”

Print Share on LinkedIn More

Alexander Gitlits / Shutterstock.com

I was intrigued by the opportunity to write about the topic of “risk” in the nonprofit sector. After some 20 years in the sector as a lead staff member at LiveWorkPlay, as a volunteer with other nonprofit organizations on the ground or around the board table, and perhaps most importantly, thanks to countless formal and informal conversations with peers and community members, I believe the importance of risk-taking in nonprofit organizations is being critically undervalued.

Based in Ottawa, LiveWorkPlay helps the community welcome people with intellectual disabilities to live, work, and play as valued citizens. I’ve been a part of leading several significant shifts at our agency, the two most significant of those being the vast expansion of our volunteer network (and volunteer responsibilities) and the elimination of our day program in favor of a community-based approach to supporting the inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities. These are both shifts with outcomes that organization insiders and engaged members of the broader Ottawa community would see as having had hugely successful outcomes.

Of course, taking risks and making successful shifts is at once an exciting and humbling experience—exciting because it can be scary and humbling because, in essence, it means we weren’t doing our best prior to the change. In our case, that meant we were underutilizing our volunteers by failing to invite them to do more, and were limiting quality of life for the individuals we were serving with our focus on the day program as an outcome in and of itself.

We were engaged in “program thinking” versus “social change thinking.” In the broad field that is “human services,” we often forget that “life is not a program.” I’m not sure who said that first, but we say it a lot at LiveWorkPlay. It really annoys sector peers who find comfort in a programmatic view of service delivery, which is always a great indication that we are on to something.

This is not to say that great programs aren’t worthy of a defense, but rather that the existence of a program (no matter how long it has been around) does not in and of itself justify continuation or even the necessity of said program. But how often do you hear a nonprofit organization announce that one of their programs has become irrelevant or misdirected, and to heck with the financial consequences of going in another direction? If we don’t hear about it, is it because the need for change doesn’t exist—or is it because there are too many incentives to maintain the status quo and too many disincentives to take the risk?

In Ottawa, I witnessed this sort of scenario play out publicly with our local United Way and some of the agencies that have benefited most from United Way Ottawa donors over the past several decades. Responding to compelling internal data as well as to clear sector trends, the local United Way made the decision to transition away from being primarily a major funder of program budgets for a small number of agencies. They decided to instead pursue working with a broader representation of community agencies as partners. In other words, they shifted from a programmatic perspective to pursuing a social change agenda (with targets for addressing specific community problems such as reducing unemployment for people with disabilities rather than funding a broad range of disconnected disability programs). Perhaps not surprisingly, this change was not well received by those with impacted budgets. In the resulting (and harmful) public debate that played out in the local media, the desire to shift to a social change approach was pilloried as an attack against those programs that would no longer be automatically funded.

The critical context of there being more than 3,000 registered charities in the Ottawa community with tens of thousands of programs was largely ignored. To me, the really important story was that a very old approach (and more importantly, an approach with a limited impact that was difficult to measure) to utilizing donor dollars for the betterment of the community was undergoing a significant and important reform. But in speaking publicly about this perspective, this view seemed largely baffling to our local media, who were clearly infatuated with a dialogue about “cuts.” Notwithstanding the many lessons to be learned about communicating and managing change, to me, the more important lesson here is that our sector is a long way from the type of leadership that is “disruptive innovation.”

The concept of disruptive innovation is commonly associated with Clayton Christiansen, who routinely dispenses logical statements like this one: “Over time, we’ll need fewer and fewer hospitals. Boards of those institutions need to just remember that the scope of what they need to do is to be responsible for the health of people, not the preservation of the institutions.”

Radical stuff? It all depends on whether one is primarily pursuing social change or primarily seeking to grow one’s programs. I spoke publicly of the “de-programming” movement earlier this year, but (for now) this movement seems to be happening rather quietly. On the other hand, opposition to change and aversion to risk-taking frequently happens loudly and publicly, often with the willing assistance of media outlets that continue to report on the sector from a programmatic perspective rather than focusing on the work of solving problems through permanent alterations of the social fabric.

Leadership in the nonprofit sector should be understood and celebrated for its risk-taking and anticipation of critical trends, not merely for affiliation with a particular cause or set of programs. A car that has four wheels is not cause for celebration, but a car that reduces fuel consumption by 40 percent is something to get excited about. Likewise, we should not get excited about a program that serves 100, 1,000, or 10,000 people; we should be celebrating an increase in employment, a decrease in homelessness, or prevention and reduction of disease—real changes that we can measure in the lives of individuals and that forever change our communities.

Financial and resource scarcity in the nonprofit sector is real, and we need to encourage risk-taking to find our way through. For even the largest of charitable organizations, financial pressures are threatening the status quo and motivating a response. Change is coming. Some organizations will invest in fighting it. Some will invest in leading it.

Keenan Wellar is the co-founder and co-leader of the Ottawa-based charitable organization LiveWorkPlay, which supports the community to welcome people with intellectual disabilities as valued members of the community. He founded the organization with his wife, Julie Kingstone, in 1995.

  • Glen Cosper

    In the small towns across the backbone of America, United Way has stood tall as the Champion for the small nonprofit agency trying to help their communities in providing food, free clinics, literacy education, youth learning activities and many more areas that I don’t have space to mention.

    This large UW needs to revisit their mission and vision statement. In my view, the UW receives public donations that in turn will be returned to those agencies that provide private sector aid to individuals in need of help. Why is it that they feel they only need to support those agencies that raise over $50K. To some agencies that is a tall “hurdle” to overcome. Some feel they don’t have staff, board initiative or ED’s that can do the work required of their job title and also fund raise too.

    The UW has always been the advocate for the small charity and I hope this chapter would revisit their decision and remain strong for the smaill charities as well as the larger ones across their chapter geography.

    One last thing, Alexis DeTocqueville, the namesake of the UW premier giving society would probably have a lot to write about in the public opinion polls, if he were alive today.

  • Donna Dziak

    Mr Wellar writes clearly of the need for service providers to look at the work they do and approach it from a social change perspective rather than from silo services that meet emergent needs but operate in isolation. The comments by Mr. Cosper ring true of the improtance of small agencies. The role of small agencies are vital in that they are good at building relationships with those in need, especially for those communities historically ignored and shut out of the mainstream.

    Small agencies can still survive by establishing true collaboration with a larger provider. If a small agency focuses solely on refugees from Sudan or only on mentally ill men over 35 who are not veterans, it’s incumbent on those small agencies to connect and link into a system that can fully support the needs of their clients. There is too much evidence supporting collective impact networks that create social change. When large funders change their funding mechanism it is necessary though that they give agencies time to adjust to connect with a larger service network so their specific work and value to specific communities isn’t lost in the process.

  • Megan

    Great article. Such a good description of the change that needs to take place in the non-profit world.

  • Liz Hudson

    Great post. Thanks for sharing. I would love to see more things like this in NPQ, especially related to the challenges between philanthropic expectations and community expectations about how change occurs. So important.

  • Keenan Wellar

    Well said Glen. Here in Ottawa, the United Way does support small agencies, provided they are pursuing objectives that meet UW priorities and they have a plan to carry it out (basic measurement in deciding who to support but of course there is more to it). LiveWorkPlay (the agency I co-founded) had a $3000 budget in our first year. Although it was not a goal to “grow our budget” we are now at $1 million. We have at times supported small agencies with their applications, and two years ago helped a small local charity with a successfull UW Ottawa application.

  • Keenan Wellar

    Very interesting Donna! I would also add that sometimes a small charity that cannot get anywhere with larger charities in their own sector might actually be better off rethinking what “sector” they are in. For LiveWorkPlay, significant values-based collaboration with our immediate sector peers has not been easy – many of the larger agencies feel less able to shift (and in many ways that is true). So we expanded our thinking about partnerships and stopped worrying that they needed to be seen as being in the same sector as us – as a result we’ve ended up with some extremely productive partnerships with relevant outcomes that have vastly exceeded anything we’ve accomplished with partners within “our field.”

    There is of course a big difference from being cooperative with sector peers (failure to do so can harm innocent people) and true partnerships. True partnerships have to be about a lot more than a bit of sharing and cooperation. They can be richly rewarding but also a lot of work, and it should never be assumed that they will be easy – it’s a bit like having a friend you go to the movies with and assuming they’d make a great room mate. Not always!

  • Keenan Wellar

    Thank you Megan!

  • Keenan Wellar

    Liz, I would like more about that as well! I hope you have suggested it to the editors: “challenges between philanthropic expectations and community expectations about how change occurs” if I look back at my Untied Way Ottawa example, that was a huge part of the challenge they experienced. It’s all tied in to the notion that “what charities do is operate programs” and if that is the dominant perspective on charities (which I feel it is) then we have a BIG problem!