“avatar poussin-impatient,” Bernard Lamailloux

April 30, 2018; Comstock’s

A commentary in Comstock’s, illustrated with a crowd standing around a large bag of money, poses a conundrum that the author imagines we should take seriously:

It’s a familiar sentiment expressed by a local donor: The charity she supports is asking for money with increasing frequency. Yet nothing changes for the better, and now duplicate groups are popping up, all of them requesting funds to address the same problem. To her, the requests seem endless. She wonders whether the nonprofit organization should use less money for administrative costs, if it’s possible they run more like a business and if disparate groups addressing the same issue is truly efficient.

This donor’s concerns illustrate a bigger question: Can nonprofits scale sufficiently to solve—rather than simply treat—the community problems they were created to address without exhausting their supporters?

He proposes that scaling up will turn that donor’s frown upside-down and, by the way, solve the country’s housing problem, racial injustice, and so many other issues that everyone is bothering the donor about.

Let’s check where all of this is coming from. According to his bio on the magazine’s website, Ansbach is a consultant to nonprofits who has managed capital campaigns both locally and nationally. He has advised corporations on social responsibility programs and has taught at the university level on social entrepreneurship and social responsibility.

The article outlines three ways nonprofits can “get to scale”—form collaborations, merge with or acquire other programs, or partner with businesses. Given his professional focus on social entrepreneurship, it is not surprising that the article spends quite a bit of time talking about the third option—partnering with business. In particular, he focuses on working with social entrepreneurs and with “hybrid” organizations such as B-Corps and L3Cs.

The author throws out ideas on how to partner with such purportedly socially responsible corporations as Patagonia, Coca-Cola, and Walmart. Again, setting aside the shock of thinking of Walmart as a socially responsible corporation, how would a partnership with a megacorporation like that work for a small nonprofit trying to get to scale? How do you avoid being subsumed and made to do things the corporation’s way? The article offers no suggestions.

One way of reading all this is that the donor is leading the charge, asking for scaling initiatives to make her life and decision-making as a philanthropist easier, and for her donations to have a greater impact.

The article goes on to reference what is now a relatively well-worn allegory, in which children are found afloat in a river. One parent rushes in to grab them and pull them out. Another jumps in and starts teaching the children to swim. A third goes upstream to see what is causing this disaster. A fourth goes around collecting data to analyze what has happened. The allegory ends with the author stating this shows why nonprofits needs to scale up, so it can do all four things: assistance, empowerment, root cause solutions, and advocacy.

This author ends on this note:

In the end, the frustrated donor and the seemingly endless persistence of social and environmental problems beg for scaling in the nonprofit sector. Why is this so important? Because the trend among donors today is to want immediate gratification with their financial donations, and their willingness to give tends to increase with a sense of accomplishment.

Luckily, we don’t believe that most donors are silly enough to assume that small and local nonprofits have no value for local folk and for community health and wellbeing. We believe that many donors recognize that solving large social problems will take activism at many levels. This may involve small nonprofits partnering with larger nonprofits, sometimes with businesses and with elected officials to change policy, and even challenging the political discourse that sustains inequities and marginalization. Scaling may be appropriate in some cases, but not all. Indeed, often informal networking among nonprofits can achieve more lasting and overarching change.—Rob Meiksins