Proving that even saints are not immune from criticism, the famously cantankerous British writer Christopher Hitchens has almost built a career on invective against Mother Theresa of Calcutta. Hitchens assumes that saints should always be presumed guilty until proven innocent. Particularly if it makes sensational copy, one might add. Whatever you might think of Hitchens though, one of his main criticisms raises an interesting point. He has argued that Mother Theresa was not primarily interested in eliminating poverty, which would have involved muscular advocacy for things like the empowerment of women. She was much more concerned with providing services to, in her own words, “the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society “.
The question posed by Hitchens boils down to: what’s more important— programs to provide services to the needy, or advocacy to permanently change the social conditions that actually result in hunger and homelessness?
I have been reading the wonderful book Forces for Good, by Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant, where this dilemma is presented quite starkly. In trying to answer the question “What makes nonprofits great” they look at twelve exemplary “change makers” and come up with some quite surprising answers. What makes nonprofits truly great has little to do with program efficiencies, organizational capacity, or even better management. Instead greatness is directly correlated with a relentless focus on social impact and results. They quote the founder of Ashoka —an association for social entrepreneurs in this mold—who defines the approach like this:
“Social entrepreneurs are not content merely to give a man a fish, or even teach him how to fish; these entrepreneurs won’t stop until they have revolutionized the entire fishing industry”.
Clearly, revolutionizing the fishing industry is going to take quite a bit more work than running a range of fishing programs. So what should nonprofits be doing? Conventional wisdom has always said that nonprofits should focus on either service or advocacy, but not both. After all, advocacy requires different organizational skills than providing direct services to needy populations. But what’s fascinating about the organizations studied in this book, is that they have all done both. At some point, it became clear to them that in order to create systemic change, programs had to be supported by advocacy. Most organizations that decide to engage in both activities begin with the provision of services, and then add advocacy activities later. But some take the opposite route. For example, Convio client Environmental Defense Fund (http://www.edf.org) started out as an advocacy organization focused on preventing the use of DDT. But eventually, they greatly extended their influence by building environmental programs to support advocacy efforts.
The really important thing is the synergy between both types of activity. By providing services, nonprofits learn what works on the ground, and can use that knowledge to frame more effective policy positions and associated advocacy campaigns. Conversely, advocating for social change through the legislative process can bring both organizational credibility to program work, and sometimes leads to federal and state funding for those programs.
Integrated online tools make it much easier to market to your pool of valuable activists, moving them to deeper and deeper levels of engagement and commitment both online and offline. Some donors will also be more than happy to advocate on behalf of the organization as their identification with the organization deepens.
The 2009 Convio Online Marketing Nonprofit Benchmark Study contains some good data on this synergy. Of all the organizations in the study, almost 6% of online activists have also supported these organizations financially online. For some industries such as Animal Welfare though, the metric is almost three times higher. So while organizations are getting much better at converting activists to donors, there’s still much room for improvement. Similarly, our report shows that over 8% of online donors have also taken an advocacy action. Once again though, some industries have much higher participation rates. About 22% of donors to Environment and Wildlife organizations are also involved in online advocacy.
Fundraising for program support, combined with advocacy for systemic political change can powerfully reinforce each other and result in very high-impact organizations. And as Forces for Good makes clear, this is what really counts. Hitchens notwithstanding, Mother Theresa‘s impact on the world was incalculable. But the poor will always be with us, and the magnitude of the task of providing services to mitigate social ills can sometimes seem overwhelming. At some point, it surely makes sense to think about fostering systemic change in addition to aid programs.