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Stand Together Podcast: A Brief History of Good (Part III): A New Hope

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Stand Together Podcast: A Brief History of Good (Part III): A New Hope

Roger Fox, Shepherd's House

The Stand Together Podcast is a podcast for people who care about tackling the biggest challenges facing our country, exploring the origins of philanthropy, the challenges and opportunities facing community organizations, and the experiences of nonprofit leaders across the country. Click here to learn more and subscribe on your platform of choice. 

This episode and the following transcript were originally published by Stand Together Foundation.


Evan Feinberg:

Hey listeners. My name is Evan Feinberg, executive director of Stand Together Foundation and one of your hosts for the Stand Together Podcast. Every time you hear my voice in the show, we’ll either be talking about the history of the social sector or paradigms that are shifting within it.

While I’d like to fancy myself an expert on the history of philanthropy, in reality, I’m really a good student at best, one who loves to opine on how where we’ve been continues to affect where we’re going as a social sector. But fortunately, I’ll be joined by a great friend, Becky Endicott of the We Are For Good Podcast, who is something much more akin to an expert on the subject. Together, we’ll attempt to present you a 10,000-foot view of philanthropy, past and present, as we all look to a better future. This is A Brief History of Good.

[Short Break]

Evan Feinberg:

Hey there, this is Evan Feinberg, the Executive Director of Stand Together Foundation, and a host of the Stand Together Podcast. Thrilled to welcome you back to another episode of A Brief History of Good. I am joined again by the amazing and incredible and always insightful Becky Endicott, who is a founder and co-host and the chief storyteller for the We Are for Good podcast.

And we are so excited to, again, walk through the history of philanthropy and nonprofits and the social sector here in America in order to better understand how we can move forward together as a sector.

So again, Becky is the chief storyteller of the We Are for Good podcast. Why don’t you go ahead and kick us off, as always, with a story?

Becky Endicott:

Well, I’m so delighted to be here, and I’ve got to tell you, I’m so delighted to—I think we need to turn the tables a bit, giving your role at the Stand Together Foundation—you are like the king of empowerment, and I just think with this topic specifically, you would just be great to share a story that you’ve seen within your community. I want to be the one listening this time.

Evan Feinberg:

Alright. I got to come up with a story from within our community to get at what we’re going to talk about today. So maybe I’ll share the topic first.

We’re going to be talking about modern approaches to philanthropy—that control versus empower—and better examples of philanthropic strategies today that are actually making a difference, empowering. And so I guess I will share the story of my first time to Bonton Farms in Dallas, Texas. Does that sound good?

Becky Endicott:

Oh, I can’t wait to hear about it. That’s just a stone’s throw from me. What’s going on down in Dallas?

Evan Feinberg:

Alright. Well, a number of years ago, this would’ve been in 2017, maybe 2018, I was eating at Cafe Momentum, which is a restaurant in South Dallas. It’s an incredible organization. It’s staffed almost entirely by young men and women coming out of the juvenile justice system, and they run the third-ranked restaurant in all of Dallas and the familial environment and the world class restaurant that they run is what empowers those young men and women to overcome barriers and realize their full potential. And it just delivers these incredible results.

But this story’s not about Cafe Momentum, because while I’m sitting there eating this incredible food, one of the kids is walking me through the charcuterie board in front of me, and he goes over the cheeses on the board, and one of them is goat cheese. And he literally tells me the name of the goat that the cheese came from.

I’m like, “Why do you know the name of the goat?” And he says, “Well, I know the name of the goat because it was produced by Bonton Farms here in Dallas.” And I said, “Tell me more about Bonton Farms.” He said, “Bonton Farms is an urban farm in South Dallas that’s helping to transform the entire community of Bonton,” which is—he explains a little bit more about the community—it’s a community that’s dealt with really significant problems.

And so then I ask Chad Houser, the leader of Cafe Momentum about this organization, he just tells me, “Oh man, you got to meet Daron Babcock from Bonton Farms.” And so eventually I made my way to Bonton Farms and got to meet this incredible human being, Daron Babcock. Now here’s what you should know about Daron: Daron is just a brilliant dude. He was in private equity and significant business leadership roles.

Some things happen in his life, and one thing led to another, he’s volunteering at his church in this area of Bonton. What should you know about Bonton? Bonton historically was like—you’re from Oklahoma City, Becky, it was a lot like Black Wall Street in Oklahoma. It was this vibrant and thriving segregated Black community where Black Americans in Dallas were pushed into this marginalized space. It was a flood zone in Dallas, but even amidst all of the marginalization of the community, Bonton thrived and it became this very prosperous area.

So then it wasn’t called Bonton, then it got its name because it was a spinoff of Bomb Town because literally people would throw bombs, Molotov cocktails, et cetera, to destroy property in Bonton, because of the sort of cultural discrimination toward the individuals there. So really tragic.

And over the years it just kept getting worse. They pushed all of their public housing into Bonton because they were trying to marginalize communities, really struggling. So by the time Daron visits there with his church, Bonton is doing really poorly. A few thousand people are living there, no job opportunities. It’s a complete food desert. I mean just miles and miles before any food available. And so Daron goes to come serve meals, to ladle soup essentially, in Bonton. And Daron just says, “This is not making any difference. I am not making any difference here.”

So Daron leaves his current home and moves into Bonton, and he does nothing for a year, just lives in the community, gets to know all the neighbors, just lives in the community. And after about a year, he learns that the community is most worried about the fact that they can’t get reasonably priced—and certainly they can’t get any healthy food. So there’s just serious health problems in the community as a result.

So some of the community members there told Daron, “We’d like to start a farm and produce our own food.” And Daron says, “That sounds like a great idea.” So he uses some of his connections from private equity and to learn more, he researches himself. He learns, this guy who’s never done it, he learns how to start an urban farm with those community members who wanted to start it.

And they started what’s now one of, if not the largest urban farms in America, right there in Bonton to be able to produce healthy food for the community. But this isn’t a story about urban farming, and I’m sorry, this is a longer story than you asked me to tell, Becky.

Becky Endicott:

So good. I am a puddle on the floor. Don’t stop.

Evan Feinberg:

So it didn’t just end with the urban farm. They started all kinds of enterprises to meet the unique needs of the community by the community. And soon the whole community was sort of involved in rallying together behind Bonton Farms to start all kinds of businesses. And it totally transformed the community, everything from housing and construction companies, to the marketplace that was there, to car mechanics, and everything else you can imagine. And all of a sudden, Bonton started to thrive, all because Daron moved into the community, helped to communicate with the individuals there to understand what they wanted to accomplish, and then just helped further their initiatives to transform their community.

So this is an area of South Dallas where there’s been all kinds of money spent on economic development and all of these big projects and tons of money spent on healthcare programs and obesity programs and all of these things. But all it took was Daron Babcock fanning the flames of what was already in the community to make a dramatic difference in Bonton. And so I wanted to tell that story because if we’re going to talk about how to do philanthropy and nonprofit work right, in my role I see tons of top-down—we can talk about this—collective impact efforts efficiently delivering resources that aren’t creating a fraction of the value that Daron Babcock helped to create with Bonton Farms by empowering people from the bottom up.

Becky Endicott:

Do you know what I’m thinking as you’re telling that story? One, I’m thinking, how can I get Daron Babcock and these farms onto the We Are For Good podcast, because this is a story that needs to be told. But I’m sitting here thinking, “De Tocqueville would be so proud to hear that story.” That’s exactly the thematic tone that I felt like he was perpetuating in, Democracy in America. It was truly about how do you empower those who are in the thick of it, who understand not only the challenges, but the solutions? And how do you bring that to bear? And it takes, to your point, one Daron Babcock, to be able to rise up. And we see this playing out so much in the We Are For Good Community, this just culture of empowerment. I’m so excited to dive into this and what a way to tone set with this conversation we’re about to have.

Evan Feinberg:

Well, I’m so glad you said that, Becky, because that is exactly what I think when I think of Daron Babcock is, “This what Alexis de Tocqueville came around America looking for and found and said, ‘Man, America is amazing. Look at these incredible people seeking each other out and solving problems and driving transformation and overcoming whatever obstacles and whatever barriers.'”

And that’s what Daron did in Bonton, but it wasn’t just Daron. It was the entire community, was—we use this word at Stand Together Foundation—catalysts for social change. Daron was a catalyst, but he was just igniting what was already there in the community and helping it to flourish and thrive. I think it’s truly inspirational.

So let’s tie this back now to the history lesson that we’ve been going down in the Brief History of Good. We talked about everything from Tocqueville to then the nationalizing of communities, and then in our second episode on A Brief History of Good Part Two, we talked about the formalization of the 501(c)(3), which then became known by what it is not, that it’s a nonprofit. And we talked about all of the challenges around understanding and measuring nonprofit effectiveness and choosing measures that take us down the wrong path.

But now today, I think we need to talk about the elephant in the room when it comes to philanthropy, which is that in order to be effective today in our philanthropic world, we now have the proliferation of entire strategies trying to centrally plan solutions for entire communities.

I’ll call it out, it’s not a perfect moniker for it, and I’m sure I’m going to offend some folks by using this term, but I would put it all in the bucket of “collective impact.” This idea that if we can just all get together, circle a neighborhood, put our resources together, take out all the inefficiencies among our organizations, measure using the same measures, that together we can efficiently plan the solutions for entire communities.

I think it’s worth talking about whether or not that is an effective strategy in philanthropy. What do you think?

Becky Endicott:

I agree with you and I am just going back into the recesses of my brain and I think about just these hundreds of conversations that we’ve had in our ecosystem. And every single one of those success stories is really about empowering the collective. And I think about how many times are we saying, “I want to be put out of business as a nonprofit because I want this problem solved and I can move on to something else.”

The only way to achieve that level of success is by empowering everyone from the base. And we talked about this in the last episode, we talked about flipping the donor pyramid. How do you bring the base back into the discussion and make that the most powerful thing? I think your empowerment examples that you gave in the last episode were so powerful and the questions that we ask and the things that we value and measure. So where do you want to start when we go into new models of civic engagements? Are we in the 1950s? Where are we at?

Evan Feinberg:

Well, I think we could go all the way back that far, but I actually want to go to modern history here. Let’s start with 2011. When you get the first paper from FSG, Michael Porter got a lot of respect for him and his outfit, his effort, they do a lot of great work. So if any of them are listening, accolades, a collective impact, I think they’ve done a lot of good work. It is a lot of concepts, so I’m going to give a critique, but it’s because we’re all trying together to drive transformation in our sector and to continue to improve upon what we’re working on.

So the collective impact movement really got its kickoff in about 2011. There was a very famous Stanford Social Innovation Review article introducing the concept of collective impact. And on its face he was trying to solve a good problem. There’s so much time and so much money spent in these communities, communities in particular where there’s significant poverty.

And just to back up for a second, we’ve tripled the number of impoverished communities based on how the census measures the number of impoverished communities. We’ve tripled that number over the last 45 to 50 years. There are so many more communities that are in poverty today than there were a handful of decades ago. And so poverty in the US is fairly geographic. I want to share a sad truth about poverty in America today.

If you were to try to collect data to predict whether someone was going to experience poverty in their life, the most predictive thing that you could learn is their zip code, not who their parents are or what’s going on, not their health status. The most predictive thing for you to learn would be their zip code.

That is not the American dream, that is not the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the idea that each and every person has extraordinary potential and can overcome their circumstance, realize their full potential, if the place you’re born becomes predictive of your life outcomes.

So there’s been this, I think, very positive rise in how do we do place-based philanthropy better? How do we transform entire communities? The problem of course, is that you cannot plan it out from the top down. So let’s talk about what’s happened in this collective impact model. Basically, you got groups of funders that then came together to share resources and develop singular, cohesive plans with shared backbone services like accounting and HR, legal, et cetera. And their goal was to more efficiently and effectively deliver services in a geographic area.

The problem is not that they were working together and not that they wanted to have collective impact. The problem is that they were solving the wrong issue in our communities. They were solving for efficiency of programmatic delivery, a lack of duplication in efforts, but that wasn’t the problem. The problem is that it’s really, really hard to discover what will actually make a difference in people’s lives, what will actually transform the community.

You have to take the insight from Daron Babcock, that you have to discover from the bottom up what will transform the community not impose from the top down. And so we’ve got this proliferation of collective impact efforts all over the country. Becky, they’re in every single city in the country. There’s a better-this or together-that.

Becky Endicott:

Women’s giving circle for this. I’m totally seeing them in my head as you’re talking,

Evan Feinberg:

And it’s sort of the hottest trend in philanthropy even to this day. And I think that it’s just a very misguided strategy and I think we need to rethink it.

Becky Endicott:

So when you have that information, Evan, talk to me about how you would attack that problem through the lens of this empowerment sort of strategy?

Evan Feinberg:

Well, I think it’s worth continuing down the path of trying to collaborate with other funders and nonprofits. I think the collaboration is extremely worthwhile, but the core principle of any geographic based strategy needs to be whether or not you are investing in and inspiring social entrepreneurs who take risks, who have proximate knowledge, who have experienced the problems firsthand, are in the communities that they seek to serve. You need to ask yourself, “Are we investing in social entrepreneurship from within the community to transform it?” Or, “Are we trying to deliver a of treatment to a broken community?”

If we take that deficiency based approach of treating the problems, the symptoms of a broken community, we’re going to get predictably bad results. So we need to take a more social entrepreneurship driven lens. And here, I wrote an article in Forbes recently where I…

Becky Endicott:

Which was fantastic. We should link it up in the show notes: read it here.

Evan Feinberg:

Thank you. Yeah, so the concept of the article was we need to go from collective impact to customer first. What do I mean by customer first? We need approaches that discover new and better ways of helping individuals from within communities to realize their full potential. And we need a social entrepreneurship ecosystem that’s taking risks and placing bets on firms that are taking risks to drive that transformation.

We need to invest in more Daron Babcocks to see if he can drive transformation in that community rather than develop a plan and go foist it on a community.

Becky Endicott:

I agree with you, and I’m thinking of so many organizations who are doing this and doing this so well and thriving. I think about Water For, who’s attacking the water crisis globally. And rather than talk about themselves as taking on the water scarcity issue, they talked about it like building a business and how do you solve this crisis while empowering entrepreneurs on the ground?

And you look at something as prolific as the water crisis and you’ve got a billion dollars worth of broken equipment right now in Africa alone. And so it cannot just be the product, it can’t be the technology, it can’t be just the giving. It has to be, how do you empower the end user to not only make a living off of it, but how can you give them a say in what works in their community?

And I think Bonton Farms is such a powerful example of that, but I also just think just the efficiency priority that was born likely out of just big budget philanthropy during the height of the industrial revolution created this divide for us. So my question really for you is how we deemphasize that efficiency and emphasize more the empowerment piece? Are those two things at odds, do you think?

Evan Feinberg:

Well, no. I think that we should care about efficiency and effectiveness, but we should understand that the first problem to solve here in this case is effectiveness, not efficiency. So it’s a matter of priority. So I care about the cost per transformation of a nonprofit that we would support at Stand Together Foundation. The problem is if you just do cost per services rendered, for example, the efficiency metric no longer matters if you don’t have it tied to the outcome and it’s just focused on the vanity metrics.

So I don’t think they’re at odds with one another at all. But I… Maybe, let me back up for a second. You were asking me about the history lesson first, I’ll go back there. I think that nonprofits tend to just trend in terms of innovation cycles well behind the for-profit sector, and this is just an assertion, but a lot of the big ticket philanthropy just mirrored the Industrial Revolution in America. And the early philanthropy work, the early philanthropists, had this sort of industrial mindset. How do you more effectively put people as inputs through the factory?

This is probably most prevalent in education where modern schools, and public schooling as the most glaring example, but most private schools as well, look just like a factory model. We recently talked to Todd Rose on the show, Todd has a great video out about this, about how our modern education system looks just like the factory, including the bell of shift changes at the factory, is what the modern bell that we can all hear in our head from high school.

And it’s clearly failing kids because they were trying to efficiently put the inputs of kids through the system of education. And our nonprofits are just trailing right behind that. How do we efficiently put people in poverty through… Everyone can picture the soup kitchen and efficiently taking people through, but even collective impact continues to flow that through. How do we more efficiently deliver services, et cetera?

So here’s what I’m most excited about, how you can take that empowerment approach. The way that that industrial sort of approach was disrupted in the for-profit economy was through the advent of modern technologies that allowed much more diverse production of goods and services and much more customer focused application of goods and services to the right individuals in the right ways, for example.

Probably most notably led by the Design Thinking Revolution in Silicon Valley where you saw the customer become king and entire companies orienting themselves around discovery in real time of what’s creating the most value for their customer. And so my great hope for the nonprofit sector is that we’re just looking at human service organizations, that they become world class customer service organizations, and orient around the customer to empower them.

Becky Endicott:

I agree with you, and I think we’re already starting to see some of this play out. I think about my former healthcare organization that I worked for. When you would come in to the cancer center, you come in with a valet, there’s a hospitality person waiting at the front to usher you somewhere, there’s a super bougie coffee bar off to the side, they’ve got an art gallery opening that has works produced by the patients and their families within that cancer center. That is an entirely different experience than going to your average community hospital. And it really is about getting that customer-centricness at the key.

But the other thing that I just have to hitch my wagon onto this is how are you telling the story of that? In a social and digital world, now I’m kicking ahead again to modern like I always do, in a digital and social world right now, that’s what we want to hear about. We want to hear about Daron, we want to hear about what Daron experienced in his life. Then we want to learn about Daron’s neighbor over at Bonton and how that’s impacted him.

And I think the story is the thing that gives us life and gives us lift, the nuance of what we can see, that we feel like we’ve been there, the vulnerability that we can capture. And I’ll tell you, empowerment and empowering that base is a vulnerable effort, but it’s one I think we’re so worthy and might I just say, best equipped in the nonprofit sector to attack. And I really think that that could be something that really accelerates our growth as well when we start to thread the stories of those involved into what’s actually happening on the front lines.

Evan Feinberg:

All right, we’re going to take a quick break and then we will get back to this incredible conversation.

[Short Break]

Evan Feinberg:

Becky, I’m so glad you put this in the context of ethical storytelling. And I think it actually goes beyond just the concept of ethical storytelling, of how we’re treating the individuals being served by nonprofits and not treating them with dignity. And it gets at that last point that you talked about, about the funder or the organization being the hero.

And I want to tell you a couple stories.

I’ve gone to some of the most incredible place-based efforts in the country. Ones that I’m not going to mention any names here, organizations that are some of my very favorites. Ones that I want to see just sharing their story from the rooftops and then when they share their story, it’s all about all of the incredible things that they did to serve their communities. And the problem is, when they tell their story through all of the things they did, it then inspires others to replicate what they did. But as it turns out, it’s not what they did that was the magic, it was the culture they created. And so they’ve actually missed the magic of their own efforts.

So a quick story, I was at one of these incredible place-based efforts, one that I think is exemplary in so many ways. And they shared a story of pride with me about another program and another city replicating one of their healthcare programs. And they were saying they were thrilled with this replication. And I was just thinking to myself, “You have missed the magic of your program if you believe that it was your healthcare program underneath a myriad of other things being replicated that demonstrates successful replication.”

So what they miss is that they were doing something really special and magical. They had developed a culture in their community that believed in the people, much like Daron Babcock in Bonton Farms, this place that I was at, they had barn raised that community. Everyone felt a stake in the community transformation. They had been done really interesting things for the people that they were serving, but all of it was in this customer first mentality of understanding what the community wanted, needed, and desired, and then testing, are we delivering what they wanted from us and with dignity and respect for the people we serve? And so I just thought what they were doing is magical.

And it wasn’t just that they were telling their story poorly from an ethical perspective, but they were telling their story inadequately because they were telling the mechanics. And here this problem is not just place-based philanthropy. I would submit to you that we have this problem across our Catalyst Community, the most incredible social entrepreneurs in the country, and they want to tell their story based on the mechanics of what they do and have completely missed the magic about themselves, of how they empower people.

Becky Endicott:

I have seen this play out so many times in nonprofits. We had a really interesting conversation with Adam Garone, who’s the founder of Movember, and he has since been hired by many nonprofits. And he says, “More often than not, the board will say, ‘Do a Movember with our nonprofit.'”

And I think what you’re saying is hitting on exactly the same problem that he illuminates, which is, if you don’t have a culture where you’re lifting diverse voices, a culture of innovation, a culture where new ideas are expressed and celebrated, where the stories can be lifted while the collective power of everyone is a part of it, you’re never going to have a lightning in a bottle kind of moment. And every nonprofit has something that is unique and special to their mission. And that is why your donors, your volunteers, your social media lurkers, whoever they are, gravitated toward you in the first place.

So replicating somebody else’s great idea will not necessarily elicit the exact same response if that’s what we’re following up here onto. But I also want to say, I think it’s a disservice to your mission for what is already wholly unique and special and the thing that people want to hear more about. So great story. I absolutely love that.

Evan Feinberg:

Yeah. So getting back to this history of philanthropy in America, I think this place, this is sort of firmly in the story that we were talking about on our last episode where there was this strong desire coming out of the 90s and early 2000s to provide better oversight of nonprofits. And so we get the sort of reporting structures of GuideStar and Charity Navigator and everyone began to sort of realize, “Hey, we’re just not being effective. This is not helping us to get better results.”

And so that gave rise to this sort of evidence-based movement, evidence-based policy making where people are advocating for government policies to only give money to only give money to those programs that can prove that they deliver results for the people they serve. And then evidence-based philanthropy as the effective altruism models and whatnot.

The idea being: we’re only going to give money if there’s a randomized control study that can show positive effects for the people that are served by the program.

So what does that mean? Well, most random control studies take five to eight years. Sometimes the shorter ones can be two or three years. They have to be randomized, which means you need some experiment where similarly situated individuals are randomly selected to get the services versus not getting the services, which has all kinds of ethical considerations in our space as well. And then the results need to be statistically significant to make a difference.

Well, as it turns out, less than 1% of all nonprofit organizations deliver statistically significant results on randomized control studies that are performed. Less than 1% show any evidence.

Becky Endicott:

I’m depressed, but I believe it.

Evan Feinberg:

But then you add onto it the problem that even within that 1% that do, most of it is very small. People are doing back flips so that they can show any lift. And so our sector, it’s now a $8 billion a year industry to research the effectiveness of nonprofit models. And this is important, not to help that nonprofit know whether or not they’re effective and give them information to improve their effectiveness, but to validate a model so that the model can be replicated.

And this, to me, is a tragedy, because when we do follow up studies on, did the replication of the validated model—did the replication deliver similar results as the original experiment? The answer is almost never. Almost never do we see the replication of the model create the same value as the original. This gets back to the problem I described earlier. We replicate the what of philanthropy, but never the how, never the culture. Never.

And it might have worked for those individuals, but then in a different set of circumstances it doesn’t work for other individuals unless you transform in some way. And so modern philanthropy in America falls prey to not only these top down collective impact models, but these top down evidence based best practice models that feel sophisticated, feel evidence-based, but actually don’t deliver on any of the outcomes they purport to.

Becky Endicott:

Okay. So knowing that information, knowing that that’s what we’re up against, what do you suggest to nonprofits listening? How is Stand Together Foundation leading the charge on empowering this collective empowerment movement? Where would you say we could all start?

Evan Feinberg:

We have this really incredible conversation coming up with Antong Lucky, the President of Urban Specialists, and Dr. Buster Soaries—he’s the chairman of the Dfree Foundation, but he’s also the retired pastor of a church in Somerset, New Jersey that totally transformed the community from the bottom up that he’s in. And they’re the co-chairs of a movement called the Heal America Movement to drive racial healing and address racial injustice through love and redemption. And it’s a total empowerment movement.

Now both these guys, their whole careers have been, how do you go in community? So Antong is awesome because he’s the former founder and leader of the Bloods gang in Dallas. He started at the age of 14 and his leadership skills—he then went to prison, transformed his life—he then used his leadership skills to transform the lives of others who were going down a similar path as him. And it’s total bottom up transformation. And then that credibility enabled him and others to step in and quell violence and heal the community in the face of so much adversity.

I’m excited to get into this conversation with him. And it blows your mind that individuals who are formerly incarcerated gang leaders, current gang leaders, and just to see how they can drive transformation in ways that the best laid top down plans never could. It’s awesome.

And then Buster, he just totally transformed that community through his church. They just developed the right relationships with the right folks and they had the right local knowledge and he was able to, over a long period of time, completely transform that neighborhood from the most violent and one of the most impoverished in New Jersey into a thriving and safe community today.

And so I’m excited to unpack with both of them how they did it and what paradigms they use, and importantly, avoid the trap that I’ve described before. It’s not about what they did, it’s the principles and paradigms underneath what they did that empowered people in their community from the bottom up that hopefully our listeners can learn a whole lot from.

Becky Endicott:

I just think it’s such a cool story. It just comes so full circle back to Tocqueville and what he’s saying and it’s like these principles still hold true today. And I want to ask you one last question as we kind of bring this thing in for a landing.

So we saw social upheaval in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, that really forced people to address some of what was broken in the social sector, that was both on the legal side and really from a philosophical standpoint, so in a lot of ways right now it feels like we’re in our own social upheaval movement.

So what are some of the things that you think that we are going to have to change about this sector to get on the other side of this movement in a very positive way?

Evan Feinberg:

Well, we’ve had this conversation over multiple episodes that we’re going to have to start looking at different measures. We have to reorient ourselves away from pleasing funders and towards serving customers. We have to start thinking about how our entire industry builds what I would call a better social economy. And as we build that better social economy it’s going to need to rely far more on local and personal and proximate knowledge of what’s actually working and what might work. We got to take more risk on and enable people to take more risk on what’s working and not working.

And so our sector is going to have to have another reckoning just like it did with the advent of the collective impact movement. Where it’s that, “Hey, the GuideStar or Charity Navigator giving to issues and nonprofits that have low overhead and efficiently deliver services, that’s not working. So now we’re going to try this collective impact thing.”

We need a similar reckoning and it’s going to be because we’ve learned that this collective impact approach that’s been tried… In every major city there’s tens of millions of dollars kind of being pulled together into these shared backbone organizations to deliver resources. We’ve tried it, we’ve given a good faith effort, and that experiment has largely failed.

And so I think we need to have that reckoning, and then we need to try something that’s much more oriented toward the customer. And I think that’s going to be the next big evolution in the social sector world. And you’re going to see organizations with Chief Customer Service Officers or Customer Success Officers, user experience leaders, in addition to producing a theory of change document, which is sort of the gold standard in nonprofit vision development these days. We’re going to start seeing customer product-market fit roadmaps where we’re going to be laying out as nonprofits, who does our organization best serve in what ways and how are we going to test whether or not our services meet the needs of our customers?

I think that kind of thing is going to revolutionize the sector and we’re going to start then seeing that instead of just formal nonprofits, you’re going to see churches and coaches and all kinds of community associations are going to also compete favorably with your traditional nonprofits in delivering what customers are looking for in the social sector. So I’m pretty excited to see those things happen.

Becky Endicott:

I am uniquely excited alongside you and I’m here to put it in writing that I want to live in that kind of a world. And I think the really exciting part of that, Evan, that we could dream about is that to me, it’ll blur the lines in a really good way, in the way that nonprofit interacts with for profit and B Corp and Social Good and NGOs. And there is a collective movement already building. We’re seeing it with the Great Resignation.

As people chase purpose, they want to do it in business, they want to do it in life, they want to do it alongside other people. I am here for that uprising. We call it the impact uprising in our community. And I am committed to helping you build that world. So let’s do it. We need more arms and hands in this pot.

Evan Feinberg:

I love that impact uprising language. I think that is what we need.

Just to recap, we’ve gone from an incredible local and diverse social economy that Tocqueville saw when he came to America—importantly that did not include everyone, and so I want to be careful about extolling the virtue of 1830s America too much.

But what Tocqueville saw as the special secret sauce of America was sort of Americans coming together to solve problems, but that wasn’t getting to, that sort of local approach, had the opportunity to get so much more sophisticated and to scale much like the market economy has over American history.

But then in the process, we saw this really, I think, negative trend where the sophistication of the nonprofit industry actually tracked with centralization of the industry. And we get what we talked about as nationalizing community, what Dick Cornell called nationalizing community, especially through the New Deal in great society. You get it through big government, but you also get it through big philanthropy. That became the sort of driver of a lot of what happened.

And then we got the advent of the modern nonprofit defined by what it isn’t. It’s not a for-profit organization because it’s in the tax code, a 501(c)(3) organization that’s a nonprofit. And we saw then that raised the stakes because you’ve got a tax advantage status, and therefore more resources. Then you get the explosion of nonprofits, 1.7 million nonprofits today.

Then you got, oh my goodness, we need to wrap our arms around this. And so you get the oversight of Charity Navigator and GuideStar that are beginning to try to make sense of, “Okay, well you need to make sure you’re not spending money on crazy stuff and overhead.” And so that became the sort of how people gave, and we saw how poorly that was working.

So then you get collective impact models and what have you to try to take out and efficiency and drive toward more effectiveness. And here we are today and we’re spending more money than ever, more time, more talent, and we still haven’t gotten to that impact uprising. So I’m with you.

We need to not just tinker, we need a total disruption and reframe of social sector work driven by what impacts individuals the most and inspires more people to learn what impacts people the most. And I’m here for it.

Becky Endicott:

I am too. And if we’re going to put a beautiful little bow on this, I just think that philanthropy has been a constant in America in terms of being that motivating factor for people to be an active part of the society that they want to live in and that will never go away. That’s in our DNA. We just need to harness it in the right way. We need to build for good. I’m here alongside you and I know we have a lot of allies listening probably out there. So I’m here for that brave new world.

Evan Feinberg:

Well, thank you, Becky. You have offered so much insight and have taught me and our listeners so much on this season of a Brief History of Good. I really can’t thank you enough for spending your time with us, and I hope all of our listeners will go download the We Are For Good podcast and continue to listen to your incredible content as you have hundreds of episodes digging deeper with the best social entrepreneurs and nonprofit leaders in the country. So thank you again for joining us.

Becky Endicott:

Thanks for having me.

Evan Feinberg:

This has been a brief, and let me emphasize, Brief History of Good. We know there is so, so much more to unpack and dive into here and we hope to be able to make many more episodes of this show in the future. So stay tuned.


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