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Dennis Tivey

This quote from the Godin interview stuck with me: “There are no comfortable problems left to be solved. Nonprofits are supposed to be scientists – looking for solutions to the problems. It’s okay to fail. Nonprofits have gotten into an easy trope — give us money, and we’ll solve the problem. We need to say to our donors, ‘This is difficult, and it’s not going to happen tomorrow, but we can do it together.’”

Anyone working in the social sector, public or private, is familiar with this problem. If a particular approach to solving a problem fails, you may lose the financial support that you need to work on the problem at all. Or the approach may succeed, but not in the way or in the timeframe that people are expecting, and thus it may be initially mistaken for a failure—and by the time the success is apparent, people have already lost interest or lost faith and stopped funding.

A few years ago I read about a real-life example. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a longitudinal study began of two sets of low-income kids in the same Massachusetts community. One set got free preschool, the other didn’t. When the preschooled kids didn’t do better in grade school than the control group, free preschool was dismissed as a failure, and interest and funding for it dried up. But the study continued, with researchers checking in with the two sets of people year after year, decade after decade. And something astonishing became apparent: tremendous benefits accrued to the preschooled group, but not until well into adulthood. They earned more money and paid more taxes, lived longer and healthier lives, and reported more happiness and satisfaction than the control group. It turned out that the real benefit of preschool had been social—teaching kids how to get along with others—and those skills, built upon year after year, had ultimately resulted in more job offers and promotions, more supportive and resilient friendships, and a stronger and more tranquil family life.

How many millions of kids could have grown up to have a better life if people had supported this approach instead of giving up when it didn’t produce instant results? I’d try to calculate that, but I don’t have the attention span.

Godin continues, “Are you willing to do the hard work of telling your donors the truth about where we’re going to go next? The best stories [to tell your donors] are the true stories.” I take two things from this.

One, we should be transparent. If there’s a big problem and you insist that things are going great, instead of explaining why the problem exists and what you’re doing about it, then the loss of trust is more harmful to your organization than the loss of face. See this decade’s scandal with Red Cross, last decade’s scandal with United Way, etc.

Two, people care about people, not ideas. It’s the downside of empathy: we can’t seem to care about climate change to do much about it, but we care so much about that one kid who fell down a well that his parents are buying a new house from all the unsolicited donations (let’s hope the new house is hooked up to city water). People respond to individual stories. If you can get someone who has been helped to tell their story, that makes it real.

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