Want to Change the World? Humility Trumps Hubris

By Jane Wei-Skillern

Why do seemingly selfless nonprofit organizations have such a hard time working together?

To their credit, social sector leaders increasingly recognize that it’s folly to go it alone in tackling complex social or environmental problems. Most know that even modest successes require collaboration between many groups with different strengths, skills, and even missions. The era of networked nonprofits has arrived.

Yet despite some notable successes, the social sector is littered with failed partnerships. What differentiates success from failure among these collaborations? After studying a wide range of nonprofit networks over the past decade, I find that the successes have one hallmark trait in common: humility.

Even dedicated nonprofit leaders and foundations have stumbled by focusing primarily on empire-building, brand development, competing for market dominance, and controlling strategies and programs.

By contrast, leaders in successful networks focus less on developing the competitive advantages of their own organizations and more on learning and engaging with others as equals in the field. Networked nonprofits understand that no single organization has a monopoly on good ideas. They cultivate success in each other, rather than fixate on their own achievements. When it comes to public recognition, they understand that sharing the spotlight — or stepping out of it entirely – can engender trust, build goodwill, and motivate all participants to fully invest in the overall effort.

Unfortunately, this kind of humility is often the exception rather than the rule even in the social sector where the goal is to generate social good. Here are four remarkably common sources of hubris, along with examples of how smart leaders have avoided them.

*Lust for Infrastructure. Too many organizations strive to achieve impact through organizational growth, such as through geographic expansion or large budgets and staffs. But bigger is not necessarily better. A much more efficient and effective strategy may well be to build on the resources and expertise of established organizations.
*Habitat for Humanity’s Egypt program offers a prime example. HFHI, which seeks to address poverty housing, had traditionally built its own organization from the ground up in each country where it operated. But regulatory obstacles made that difficult in Egypt, so HFH Egypt channeled money and program expertise to well-established local community development organizations that were already addressing everything from education and health to economic development. The results were amazing: with a small budget and a skeleton staff, HFH Egypt was soon building more than 1,000 houses a year – five times more than most other HFH country programs, with higher repayment rates. Perhaps even more remarkable, HFH Egypt’s network began to achieve community level transformation as synergies between housing and other community development programs emerged.
*Fixation on Brand. Public attention and praise are important for fundraising and building influence. But marketing and PR should not be mistaken as the mission. Working in the background to foster broad collaboration may ultimately have far more impact. Significant and sustained mission impact more often requires collaboration across many groups over the long run.
The Energy Foundation, a $100 million foundation dedicated to advancing clean-energy policies around the world, makes grants to regional groups and often to coalitions that use their own judgment to re-grant funding to organizations they think will advance the overall effort. EF itself doesn’t attract much public attention, because it seeks to give credit to grantees rather than to win praise for itself. But the policy achievements of its grantee network have spurred hundreds of millions of dollars in additional philanthropic commitments and enabled billions of dollars in private investment in clean energy markets – far more than EF ever could have accomplished on its own.
*Competition to be Number 1. Nonprofit leaders often view organizational growth and revenue increases – rather than their mission impact –as the measure of success. But KaBoom!, a group whose mission is to create playspaces through community participation and leadership, readily acknowledges that the success of other related organizations are essential to achieving its mission. It has shared resources with partners and allies, and even referred donors to peer organizations. Darrell Hammond, KaBoom’s CEO, summed up the strategy this way: “You need more boats in the fleet, not to be the biggest boat in the fleet.”
*Innovation Myopia. Innovation is a buzzword that has broad appeal across all sectors. Countless social entrepreneurs scramble to develop silver-bullet solutions to complex and longstanding social and environmental ills. Similarly, foundations often insist that their latest strategic approach is the most effective way to solve a problem. Innovation may be where the glory lies, but it doesn’t guarantee maximum impact. The Energy Foundation is careful not to state its own strategy too specifically, for fear that it will preclude new ideas from grantees that don’t fit squarely within it. Knowing that critical insights come from outside the organization, EF seeks innovation not only through its grantee network, but also its board, which is comprised of energy and policy experts rather than large donors.

This kind of collaborative success requires a fundamentally different mindset. Nonprofit leaders have to give up the quest for top down, organizational level solutions and focus instead on developing networks of trusted peers to formulate joint solutions. In describing EF’s operating approach, Eric Heitz, president of the Energy Foundation, quotes the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tse: “The leader is best when people barely know we exist. When the work is done, people will think they did it themselves.”

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