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Getting Out of the Echo Chamber

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Over the last several months, the SVP Seattle Board and Staff have been hard at work on a new 5-Year Plan. (You can download it and every Partner will get a hard copy in the mail). We looked … backward, forward, at the non-profit and philanthropic sector, at relationships with our investees, at how SVP could play the most positive role in the future. I’ve been to several conferences and in conversations about how to make the non-profit and philanthropic sector (including funders like SVP) more effective. The time feels ripe for meaningful, systemic change.

But recently, I had a realization of sorts. So much of this conversation is about how funding organizations function, how non-profits can be more efficient, about the relationship between funders and non-profits. Do not mistake the message here – all of it is valid, meaningful work and SVP is in the middle of it. But as a matter of proportion and urgency, there is one “player” in the equation that gets talked about less than they should:  the families, children, environment, civic and arts causes, homeless adults, et al that we are all in business to help.

The professionals in the sector think about important issues like operating vs. project support, how much reporting is appropriate, how funders and non-profits can have a more equal accountability relationship, and so on. It comes from good motivations, but at times is too self- and peer-focused, inside an echo chamber of sorts. It’s not sufficiently about the clients and beneficiaries. A lot of this goes back to two facts: 1) the ‘end user’ (i.e. families, children, et al) often is not the one that pays for the service and 2) the ultimate outcomes are often fuzzy and grey.

What if these ‘end users’ were somehow more top-of-mind and constantly urgent in our day-to-day work (I’m not talking here about counselors, therapists, etc on the front line at the non-profit provider)? What if we had to talk to and work with them every single day? It wouldn’t change the need to be more efficient, but might it shift our priorities?

For example, funders and non-profits are increasingly, and correctly, trying to figure out ways to make that two-way interaction more efficient and mutually respectful. If we each had to be more “client focused,” I wonder, would funders quit worrying so much about “being nice to grantees” and be more intentional about what it knows works and doesn’t work based on dozens of non-profits they’ve worked with? What if non-profit management worried less about offending the funder and instead banded together to tell funders they aren’t going to accept any more overly-restricted grants or the array of one-off reporting requirements?

What if we were all somehow required to end homelessness in 10 years or to ensure that every single child started Kindergarten at the appropriate developmental level by the year 2020? Would we all act differently and get out of the echo chamber more often? This is not a simple question. Maybe you don’t even agree with the premise. What do you see from your perspective, be it philanthropist or non-profit or citizen? What do you think needs to be different or better? “What do you think the players in the social sector need to do differently or better to make big, system change more possible?”

Paul S


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