The dilemma is that there is a common goal but no common agenda. Organisations want to assist communities or non-profits to make some kind of positive social impact but there are few mechanisms which will provide the assurance the funding makes sense and will be applied in the way that it was intended.
Annually, organisations invest significant effort in ensuring the causes they support are aligned with their strategic plan. In some instances, entire departments have been established to ensure the maintenance of such an alignment and the management of the associated stakeholder relationships. Now that some NGOs understand this approach, they are busy scouring websites and corporate brochures to identify how they could tailor their requests to the stated intentions of specific companies. At the end of all of this effort, NGOs still generally receive negative responses with some flavour of the month phrase about “economic downturn” or “strategic fit”.
My anecdotal evidence suggests that there is an unfortunately growing perception that the business community has no interest in social problems and is only interested in brand presence and expanding shareholder value. This perception is however not validated by the evidence. The disconnect occurs because business decisions are generally evidence-based and at this stage of our development, the NGO community needs significant strengthening to satisfy this particular commercial requirement for evidence.
The real pinch is for the non-profits to begin to measure the impact of what they are doing and be able to present the relevant data to funders. It might mean developing models which are relevant to our situation in Trinidad and Tobago. The change requirement which has just been described in 29 words is no simple task. In a sentence it speaks to the transformation of the non-profit sector from somebody’s favourite pass time to becoming a robust, professional organisation. The non-profits will have to attract professionals who see the sector as a career choice and not as a “bleeding heart” diversion until better comes along.
In North America, this changed thinking about the non-profit sector is being championed by the work of American Social Activist — Dan Pallota. He is the author of Charity Case: How the Non-profit Community Can Stand up for Itself and Really Change the World. His work is informed by a long career of intense activism. He created the multi-day charitable event industry with the long-distance Breast Cancer 3-Day Walks. AIDS Rides bicycle journeys and Out of the Darkness suicide prevention night walks. Over the years 182,000 people participated in these events and raised $582 million”. It would be safe to say that Pollota has earned his stripes to champion such a change.
Once the tide begins to turn in North America, it is a matter of time before we are bathed in the foreign waters and experience a similar transformation. As our economy continues to experience reduced margins and difficult times, the non-profit pie is shrinking. The leaders in this sector will have to respond by being disciplined about what funds are raised for and how these funds are applied.
There are several important social problems whose solutions require the collaboration of the non-profit sector and corporate philanthropy. But these sectors must speak a similar language and have a meeting of the minds under the umbrella of collaboration.
Money is needed yes but the more important requirement is the brain power behind these initiatives. Without the human resource, very little will be achieved, but the quality of that human resource must be such that it significantly adds value to the sector. Just as the commercial sector goes after the best and the brightest, the non-profit sector must have the capacity to attract the best and the brightest.
There is opportunity for the professional and the volunteer to work alongside each other to craft solutions to our myriad social problems. Social problems will be solved by the coming together and interaction between governmental, commercial and non-profit sectors. Cross sector partnerships working on “big-ideas” pointed towards major problems will provide the context for rapid solutions.
Maybe such collaborations will also reduce the wasted energy currently expended in the meeting of “requests for assistance” with “negative responses”.
The views expressed in this column are not necessarily those of Guardian Life of the Caribbean Limited.