Occupy The Box

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

By Maria Mottola, Executive Director, New York Foundation

(This post was adapted from a keynote address given at the Better Business Bureau Charity Symposium on February 28, 2012.)

When I heard the title of today’s symposium, “Thinking Outside the Box: meeting today’s challenges with creative leadership,” it reminded me of one of my favorite New Yorker cartoons. What I want to say today to you is this: You do some of your best thinking inside the box. Don’t dismiss the box—occupy the box.

Sandwiched between the government and corporate sectors, ours is not fully defined by either. Our “box” is not some version of a nonprofit big box store churning out a happier, more reliable workforce, and it’s not an extension of the government churning out happy citizens mindful of all the good their taxes are doing. What feels wrong about attempting to corporatize or politicize the independent sector is that it ignores the human aspect of our intention. We do this work because we want to, not because we have to. This is what distinguishes us. We value connectivity over competition. We don’t provide units of service—each interaction is an opportunity to tap into what is possible for the individuals and communities we serve.

The New York Foundation has a long history of supporting start-up nonprofits, with an emphasis on those that value self-determination and systems change and use community organizing and advocacy as vehicles for their work. Our trustees felt that our modest size gave us certain advantages. We could act based on our faith in untested ideas even before anyone was sure they could work.

In some fundamental ways, many of the groups we support have not yet built a box to think outside of. Is there something that can be learned from grassroots leaders before that box begins to constrain them?

Three things stand out for me about the nonprofits we support:

  • They have a strong sense of purpose—they said, “We can’t ignore this anymore, something needs to change.”
  • They approach problem solving in a different way that taps into their own often new perspective.
  • They take matters into their own hands; they act with autonomy.

It’s not easy for nonprofits to hold on to these qualities because of the constraints placed on them by foundations, government funders, and donors. To be good at what we do, we are told to adopt the practices of other sectors: use incentives, devise performance goals, adhere to a model. These are not bad things, but research says something different about what makes us good at what we do.

In his book Drive, Daniel Pink explains that if people are motivated simply by extrinsic or outside rewards, work becomes only what you are obligated to do. Also, if people are focused strictly on goals and incentives, it reduces creativity. Humans will problem solve by obsessing about what is expected instead of focusing on what is possible.

But if nonprofits depend on outside support that is highly prescriptive, what can they do to exercise creative leadership? The good news is that nonprofit leaders are some of the most creative leaders around.

Jim Collins wrote a companion piece to his book Good to Great specifically for the social sector—its subtitle is Why Business Thinking Is Not the Answer. In it, he says that nonprofit leaders have to deal with more diffuse power structures than their corporate counterparts, and he distinguishes between executive leadership and legislative leadership.

Executive leadership models concentrate power in one leader who ultimately has the job of making the right decisions. In legislative leadership, no one individual has enough structural power to make decisions alone—to make the right decision happen, a leader has to be persuasive, observe politics, find allies, and look for shared interest.

That’s what nonprofit leaders are so good at. In fact, Collins suggests that corporate leaders could learn a lot from shadowing nonprofit executives, rather than the other way around. CompassPoint Nonprofit Services and the Meyer Foundation studied more than 2,000 nonprofit and for-profit leaders and found that nonprofit leaders outperform for-profit ones in most indicators of good leadership practice.

What strikes me about the leaders I meet through my work at the Foundation is that, despite the small size of their organizations, they are big thinkers. Research shows that we are born “big thinkers” but we get taught over time to tone it down—to be realistic, to hone in. Over time, it takes more work to be expansive, inspired, and confident.

Are there ways for all of us, even larger nonprofits, to make room for more creative thinking—to tap the creativity of our staffs and involve our constituents instead of separating “us” (the professionals) from “them” (the communities served)?

Foundations need to get better at allowing creative big thinking to happen. Our own constraints—the expectations of our trustees and donors, and pressure on the field—set us looking for the highest performers by developing clear metrics for their excellence and going out to find them.

Every once in awhile, while those of us in the nonprofit sector are busy paying close attention to where we want to go and what we need to get there, something extraordinary happens that surprises us. It doesn’t fit the rules, it draws from some innate energy that’s been just below the surface, it articulates something strongly felt but not yet expressed, and it reframes the whole conversation.

The thing about good ideas is this: we can’t always see them coming.

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