Your One Goal for 2019

By: Sheela Nimishakavi, MA, MPH

In many ways, 2018 was the year of the story. Nonprofits were encouraged to share the impact of their work with supporters by using narratives that read almost like short stories. Appeal letters featured heartwarming tales of struggling protagonists who were helped along their journey by a nonprofit organization, with the donor as the hero.

But 2019 needs to be the year of questions. I’m not saying we need to throw stories out of our toolbox this year. But, if we are going to use them, we need to question the narrative. Does our story empower those we serve? Does this story unintentionally perpetuate racism, sexism, ableism, and other –ism’s? How can you be sure you’re telling a compelling true story and not disseminating poverty porn?

In addition to moving past stories and creating empowering narratives, questions can help us gain clarity of purpose and clearly articulate impact. As a donor, I want to know how my support helps. This doesn’t mean I need a log of how my $200 paid for lunches. I want to know: What change did I affect with my giving? Did I contribute to making the world a better place? What did we accomplish together and what remains to be done?

Importantly, nonprofits must keep a finger on the pulse of their field, having a ready answer to the question: Does your nonprofit treat a symptom or solve the root cause of a problem?

Both types of work are absolutely needed. Symptoms need to be treated until we can figure out how to solve the root cause of a problem, which will likely need to occur through advocacy for systemic changes. However, where does your nonprofit fall on this spectrum? What is the root cause and is anyone in your community tackling it?

If your organization goes through a facilitated strategic planning process every three to five years these questions are likely raised at that time. I would argue that this is not sufficient. Questioning what, how, and why we do our work should be a constant dialogue in our offices. Questions ensure we not only stay on track but are on the right track. Questions help us become better leaders, fundraisers, front line staff, board members, community members. Questions help us solve problems.

As you sit down to write your goals for the year, make sure to add this one to the top of your list: Ask more questions.

 

Book Review: “Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance Between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups”

By: Sheela Nimishakavi, MA, MPH

Insanity is often defined as doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result. Yet, many nonprofit organizations do just this. For instance, anti-hunger organizations continue to provide food for individuals and never question why the same people keep coming back. In fact, although there has been significant growth in the anti-hunger field over the last decade, hunger itself has not decreased. Clearly providing food is not solving the hunger problem- a new course of action needs to be explored.

In his book Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance Between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups, Andrew Fisher provides compelling arguments that force readers to take a critical eye to not only the anti-hunger movement but rather all movements that attempt solve societal issues. His over-arching argument is along the lines of “Give a man a fish and you feed him for one day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” The anti-hunger movement focuses on providing food as opposed to addressing the systemic issues that cause food insecurity in the first place. Root causes such as not earning livable wages and lack of access to health care, can leave people dependent upon services which were intended for emergency use- not a substitute for fair policies.

For some readers it can appear as if Big Hunger suggests that the tireless efforts of nonprofit staff and volunteers have been for naught. However, it is safe to assume that Fisher understands that until systemic problems are solved, constituents still need access to direct services. In other words, there needs to be a split focus between advocacy that addresses systemic issues causing a problem, as well as direct service that ameliorates the problem in the meantime. It can be difficult for nonprofits to split staff time between a systemic focus and direct service focus. Yet, Fisher argues nonprofits can’t afford not to.

In many ways, the push to focus on root cause as opposed to programmatic outputs is what funders and grant makers have advocated for many years. The problem is that systemic issues cannot get solved within the scope of a few grant years. Thus, nonprofit organizations are practically encouraged to focus on short term objectives if they want to receive funding. Big Hunger does highlight several nonprofit organizations that have been able to successfully navigate receiving funding while focusing on long-term systemic change.

Who Should Read This Book?
Nonprofit staff and volunteers of all levels will find Big Hunger enlightening as Fisher drew on years of experience and data to craft this book. Aspiring and current nonprofit leaders would be wise to keep the questions raised in this book in mind as they develop programs and strategic initiatives. Executives and board of directors, however, should definitely read Big Hunger since they drive strategic planning and implementation of goals that focus on systemic change cannot be completed without their buy-in.

Have you read Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance Between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups? Share your thoughts in the comments section!