Wednesday, October 28, 2009

What's Your Apollo Program?

This recent post by Dan Pallotta is just too thought-provoking to let pass without comment. In it, he asks the disturbing question:

What good is it to have a bunch of nonprofits that are able to sustain themselves, if they are only large enough to address .001% of the problem?

In Pallotta's world the problems are homelessness, hunger and AIDS. He's frustrated that literally hundreds of nonprofits dedicated to solving these problems have so far been unable to do so--and he speculates that part of their collective failure is their fragmentation and their inability or unwillingness to streamline and consolidate. Dan pines for a kind of Apollo Program for the social problems he wants solved--a galvanizing vision and commitment of human attention like the one that followed President Kennedy's challenge of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.

It's an interesting read, made more so by the 17 comments that follow--many of which are dismissive of Pallotta's perceived idealism and naivete. My favorite commenter says this:

Mr Pallotta: You touch on topics near and dear to my heart. I believe what is somewhat eerily missing from the scene today is a broad based social movement of any kind. I don't want to sould like the old goat I am(!), but there used to be a Labor Movement. There used to [be] a Third Party Movement. There used to be an Anti-War Movement. There used to be militant Gay Activism. There used to be a community control movement. Just to name a few. The point is, the cutting edge of meaningful, provocative social change that is going to jolt the lethargy out of the status quo comes from dissent, protest, good analysis, crisp issues, smart organizing, and mobilization. Non-profits follow, they don't lead. They're a way of institutionalizing gains.


I'm bringing this to your attention because I want to ask two questions.

First--who do you think is right? Pallotta or the commenter? Can nonprofit organizations overcome their inherent focus on their own sustainability and work together to create substantive change and progress for big social problems? Or does that kind of change only come from militant opposition of the status quo, and the more appropriate role for nonprofits is to create and sustain programs that institutionalize those gains? If you think the latter, then don't bother reading any farther. But if you think the former, if you think nonprofits can and should aim higher than the delivery of programs, then here's my second question.

What's your Apollo Program?

We all work in a world where there is constant competition--for resources, for attention, for meaning and purpose. Whatever kind of nonprofit organization you run or work for, there are surely other organizations in your space that are trying to deliver the same or similar services and trying to achieve the same or similar objectives. What is the one overarching goal that all those organizations can and should be working together on and when was the last time you talked to any of those organizations about it?

At one time in our history, our nation was focused on putting a man on the moon and we made it happen. Pallotta would like to focus organizations in his space on ending homelessness, world hunger, and AIDS--and he believes they can similarly do it with the same kind of shared purpose. What could be achieved in your world if all its players stopped focusing on their own success and starting working together to achieve it?


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