Why So Many Social Change Organizations Struggle

Social change is quite different today than it was in the 1960s, in large part because of a professionalized social change sector.” We now have institutions dedicated to solving just about any societal challenge you could possibly imagine. We just can’t get enough of these nonprofit organizations. We’ve already got a million of them in the United States alone, and thousands more file for their charitable status each year.

Why so many? Well, there are a lot of issues that need attention, and for each issue, there are different solutions. To protect wild salmon, for example, one organization might work to dissuade consumers from buying farm-raised salmon, while another might work to remove dams on salmon-bearing rivers. Multiply this diversity of issues and solutions by all the different locations in which they might come together, and you end up with a lot of different missions, and a lot of nonprofits struggling to makes ends meet fulfilling them.

This superabundance of nonprofit missions isn’t a problem – in itself. A diverse, localized social change sector should actually be good for society, and it could be more viable for the organizations themselves were it not for a set of assumptions many of them use to run themselves. This article tackles one of those assumptions.

The Niche Audience Problem

One of the most basic, most fundamentally wrong, assumptions many nonprofit organizations make is that lots of people should care a lot about their mission.

It’s just not true, and that’s because people have finite attention.

Like it or not, issues do compete with one another for our attention. The more niche the issue is, the less likely it is to attract attention from a lot of people – and that’s even more true when the issue is sliced by different locations and solutions. There are people who care about removing dams in the Pacific Northwest to protect wild salmon, but there just aren’t that many who care enough to become dedicated financial supporters.

This gets to the heart of the problem. It’s hard to build big audiences around niche missions. And yet, big audiences are what you need in order to build the kinds of individual donor bases that nonprofits are told are essential to their long-term viability.

This leads to two types of problems.

On the one hand, we have hundreds of thousands of small nonprofits, allocating scarce organizational resources to marketing, outreach and development in hope of building viable individual donor programs. Yet because these organizations work on solutions and issues that are simply too narrow to draw large audiences, the vast majority are simply lucky to muddle along, cash-strapped and competing for attention with other hard-working organizations in their community.

On the other hand, there are some organizations that are able to break through and grab the kind of attention that’s needed to build a thriving individual donor base. These organizations invest heavily in marketing, communications, outreach and fundraising. In most cases, their success depends on a core group of major donors and board members who are willing to use their social capital and good standing in a community to attract other donors. These personal connections are the key to success with individual donor fundraising, but organizations don’t get there without substantial investments in building the kind of polish these community leaders require in order to put their name behind an organization.

Niche missions are a problem only because the nonprofit community is so deeply wedded to individual donor fundraising and the larger audiences they require. There are organizations that are better suited for developing individual donor programs – organizations that define their mission more by audience than by specific solutions to particular issues – and I’ll write about them in a future article. For most organizations working on niche missions, however, building a diverse donor base works against the naturally more limited appeal of their mission, and so I’ll be writing about more sustainable models for these missions in a future article as well.

The point here, however, is that investing in marketing and outreach to artificially increase the attention that a niche issue would normally attract is a bit like the consumer marketing that big brands do to artificially stimulate additional demand for products. In a way, nonprofits are now doing the same thing, and it’s not just causing them to compete unsustainably with one another for attention and donors – collectively, it’s also wasting huge amounts of precious resources that might otherwise go towards catalyzing real social change.

 Paying the Right Amount of Attention

Here’s another way of thinking about the problem.

Most of us use laundry detergent; it matters to us a bit, but not all that much. It’s just one of several thousand things in our lives that matter, but that we just can’t afford to think about that much. As a result, most of us don’t make a habit of reading about laundry detergent on a regular basis. We don’t really need a newsletter focused on Tide, even if the freshly-minted MBAs at Proctor and Gamble might think otherwise.

So, here’s a bit more heresy. Nonprofit missions are like detergent, or toothpaste, in this regard. We care about them, but most of us just can’t afford to think about them that much. As a result, most of us don’t really need to read that monthly email newsletter on removing dams to restore wild salmon, even it the staff working on that mission might think otherwise.

That’s not quite fair, you might say, saving the whales, stopping climate change, and preventing predatory lending in communities of color – surely these things matter more than toothpaste? Yes, of course they do – at least at one level. But the problem is that there are just so many of these issues competing for our attention that our poor human brains simply can’t keep track of them all. We might be able to pay a little bit of attention to many of these missions, but we certainly can’t focus in-depth on all of them. People have finite attention.

The commercial sector has a very functional solution to this problem of limited attention: the marketplace. When we go to a supermarket, we find a wide selection of things that we care about a little bit. The store aggregates all these things for us so that we can easily and efficiently pay just the right amount of attention to them. Laundry detergent, toothpaste, mayonaise and AAA batteries – all in one, convenient decision-making process.

The retailer plays an important role as a kind of attention intermediary between us and the companies that make the products we care about. There are, of course, a few product companies whose offerings are so attention-worthy they’re able to build their own retail stores: Apple and Nike are two examples. For the most part though, it’s more efficient for product companies to rely on intermediaries to reach customers, and the point I’m making here is that this isn’t just about distribution efficiencies. It’s also about helping people to more effectively manage their attention to products, and I believe that the social change sector faces some of these same problems.

To be clear, I’m not advocating some kind of nonprofit superstore. Social change is much more complex than that. You can’t just throw an issue into your shopping cart, swipe your card and solve the problem. And yet, I’ll make the case in a future article that there is a role for a kind of attention intermediary for the social change sector, and that, not coincidentally, these organizations are the ones that are best positioned to build individual donor programs.

Who’s in the Center Anyway?

Here’s one final way of thinking about this problem and it centers on the mental model that many nonprofit organizations often unknowingly use to think about how people pay attention to their work. We’ll modify a visualization technique from network theory to illustrate this organizational perspective.

In the below diagram, the green triangle in the center represents an organization, and all those little yellow circles surrounding it are the people outside the organization, paying attention to it in various ways:

Organizational Perspective

This perspective may feel quite natural to those of us who’ve worked in organizations before. It’s a fairly insular perspective, in that it imagines a distinct boundary between people inside the organization and those outside the organization. Part of the problem with this perspective is that this organizational boundary is a bit of an illusion in today’s world. The connections between organizations and people are much more fluid now than in the past. That boundary is much more permeable than it once was, and it’s becoming more permeable all the time.

But that’s not the problem I’m focusing on here. No, what I’m highlighting here is a perspective problem.

Let’s imagine, for a moment, what this situation might look like if we shifted perspective away from the organization’s view, and to the individual who is paying attention to it. In the below diagram, the big yellow circle in the center is the individual person and all those little green triangles surrounding her are the wide range of social change missions vying for her attention:

Individual Perspective

Both perspectives are important, of course, but from my experience, organizations tend to have a harder time slipping into that individual’s perspective. For it’s only by shifting perspective in this way that people inside the organization experience the reality of people outside the organization, which again, is that attention is a finite resource.

As individuals, we know our lives are full of eye-catching distractions, all competing with one another for our attention. But somehow when we go to work on our individual missions, it becomes easy to forget that perspective – and when we do, we put our organizations and our missions at risk.

Waste and Dysfunction

I’ve noted already that trying to support niche missions with large individual donor programs misallocates scarce resources, but it can also lead to dysfunctional organizational behavior.

To build large audiences and thriving donor bases, the biggest investments are obviously in salaries for marketing and communications and fundraising. Add to that investments in marketing materials, websites, special events, and expensive relationship management and donor databases, to name just a few. Successful fundraising organizations also just have more polish in whatever they do though. Effectiveness alone isn’t enough; it also needs to look good for donors. Financial statements become more detailed and get audited by more expensive firms. Annual reports get slicker and more expensive. What’s more, the most successful fundraising organizations also have strong fundraising boards, which, despite what some people might say, require a lot of organizational resources to maintain.

OK, so maybe it’s more expensive, but how does all this manifest in dysfunctional organizational behavior?

When fundraising is the primary lens organizations use to understand their stakeholders, it distorts their relationships. It reduces citizens to donors, and sees them primarily as just a means to secure funds to pay for professional social change experts – in other words, the staff of the organization.

Sure, these professionals may call on external stakeholders from time-to-time to click a button or sign an online petition, but the sad reality is that even these so-called advocacy campaigns are often just dressed-up vehicles for attracting new donors. Am I being overly cynical? Perhaps, but if the leadership of your favorite organization could speak with true candor, you would probably hear an ear-full about the tremendous pressure they have to operate this way.

It’s The System, Man

We can’t really blame these leaders for this dysfunctional behavior; it’s baked deeply into the system we currently have. There are many contributing factors to this waste and dysfunction, some of which lies with the behavior of big philanthropic players as well as the army of consultants that serves the social change sector.

Mostly though, I believe that these problems are caused by a failure to think differently about the structure of our social change movements.

What I writing here is not easy to say. I’m sure many will disagree strongly with my interpretation and my conclusions, and still I feel compelled to continue framing this argument over a series of upcoming articles.

Why? Because the most tragic aspect of these problems isn’t the waste or even the dysfunctional organizational behavior – it’s what the current system is doing to citizens. The way the current system is structured makes citizens view social change as a spectator sport. Leaving social change to the professionals also contributes to the perception that the social change sector is just one of many other special interests that must be balanced by elected officials as part of the overall public interest.

And that distortion is the focus of my next article.


Image Credits:

Detergents image by: http://www.flickr.com/photos/thetime-line/4646890478/

Yawning image by: http://www.flickr.com/photos/simajr/4285483549/

Donor image by: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bushtick/4429423902/

Supermarket image by: http://www.flickr.com/photos/juliekaffe/29104603/

Checkout woman image by: http://www.flickr.com/photos/cryptozoologist/3052545968/in/photostream/

Money image by: http://www.flickr.com/photos/aresauburnphotos/2678453389/



  1. Kawow, Gideon, it feels like you are reading my mind here.  I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately as well. I think there need to be a lot fewer small (<$1MM) organizations, more larger organizations (especially in the sweet spot of $4-8MM), that it will take a bunch of very challenging mergers to make this happen, and that it will take leadership from funders to make this happen, due to the structural factors you identify above.  Great stuff, can't wait to read more of your thinking here.