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How Nonprofits Can Reclaim Their Role as Leaders of Social Change

The old industry adage says that “in a complex world, brands help us make choices.”

As tired a statement as that is, there’s still truth in it. And if we look closely at the brands we’re choosing, we can understand something about what we believe is important at a societal level. It’s heartening to see that, in our complex and troubling world, brands on the rise today are those that promise to do some good in it.

The private sector has caught on to our appetite for improving the world around us. We continue to see socially conscious start-ups sprout, larger corporations wake up to the growth potential in corporate social responsibility, and annual for-profit spending on cause sponsorship reach into the billions.

And while all the purpose-driven growth is great, what I’m left asking is, where do nonprofit brands — our original catalysts for doing good — fit within this groundswell of goodwill? What must nonprofits do to compete as we and for-profit companies become more and more willing to invest in solving major social problems?

This is a critical question to consider now because, for the first time, as Paul Klein said in a recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR), “a combination of increased awareness, new technology, adequate funding, and more collaboration among corporations, civil society, and governments has created a context where effective social change is possible.”

In this new and audacious context there are new expectations of nonprofits. Supporters want more collaboration — to see their time, ideas and money as part of the solution — and they’re impatient to see measurable impact. But the typical nonprofit organization isn’t programmed to work this way. It’s more accustomed to playing the role of institution, not entrepreneur.

And the calls for change have grown louder. In the same SSIR article, Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, gave his view on how the nonprofit model needs to evolve: “More collaborative efforts. We need the collective efforts of countries and companies to step up and play their part — setting strong goals, having clear plans, and openly demonstrating progress.” In the Case Foundation’s 2012 Millennial Impact Report, one survey respondent wished nonprofits would “stop trying to figure out Millennials and just include them.”

If nonprofit brands want more donors, prospects and partners to choose them, they need to break down the institutional barriers and clear the path to impact.

Here are some first steps:

1. Clarify purpose: The issues nonprofits are designed to solve are complex, but their invitation to supporters and recruits don’t have to be. A concise, compelling purpose is the first step toward mobilizing people and resources for impact. After all, when Millennials visit nonprofit brands’ websites, nearly 9 out of 10 of them will go first to the page that describes the mission of the organization.

2. Invite collaboration: This means thinking differently about supporter engagement and organization-level partnership. Millennial supporters in particular want to participate, not just donate. “I would like to be part of what [the nonprofit] is doing so I can be really involved in planning and know what my donation is going for,” one Millennial Impact Survey respondent said. And to prioritize collaboration at the organizational level, in his SSIR article Klein suggests “establishing an annual review of all programs to identify initiatives that other organizations could better deploy or commercialize in partnership.” That way, both risk and impact are shared.

3. Show change: “Heartstrings don’t do much for us,” said 29-year-old trustee Jaimie Mayer Phinney in a recent article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Affluent young donors demand to see impact because they care about the cause, not the institution. The folks at charity: water have mastered transparency — their 100% Model promises all public donations will fund clean water projects, and they go to painstaking lengths to prove it. And it’s working: between 2013 and 2014, the company saw a 20% year-over-year increase in fundraising.