A DIFFERENT TYPE OF COACH IS NEEDED
one that equips leaders and teams
with enduring mindsets and skills
to build sustainable, catalytic nonprofit organizations
and take delight in their work along the way.
-Seed Strategy Guide
This spring, in the dark of night, the catalytic converter was stolen out from under my Toyota Prius. I started my car the next morning and a roar erupted from underneath that sounded more like a Harley than a hybrid. And apparently there is a shortage of spare catalytic converters laying around. From what I understand, it’s hard for mechanics to get their hands on the non-stolen kind–which is why my mechanic was elated when she called me back to let me know she found one. Mechanics are rarely elated in my experience.
I think there is a shortage of catalytic nonprofit organizations as well.
Catalytic nonprofit organizations are those that are willing to disrupt the status quo of what’s possible in their field.
In our experience, this is difficult for many nonprofits. Nonprofit leaders hedge their bets because their sustainability depends on funders who ask for SMART goals, an acronym that describes realism and reinforces the value of tangible progress. Very few funders ask for audacious goals, or the new solution to an old problem. As a result, the leaders we meet often begin with phrases like “let’s start small,” “what’s realistic,” and “practically speaking.” Understandably, these leaders are working on deeply rooted challenges that have no foreseeable solution: hunger, the education system, criminal justice reform, the climate crisis, and the refugee crisis, to name a few. And yet, they are not leading with the question Google co-founder Larry Page is famous for asking, “Why not bigger?” Catalytic nonprofits believe in exponential change more than incremental change. And while we are still studying this, it is our hypothesis that these organizations have less trouble raising money. Why? Because their donors are activated by their boldness. The promise of sweeping change wakes up donors.
The good news is that despite the shortage, we have worked with several catalytic organizations in 2022. From coast to coast, they are dismantling complicated problems: the climate crisis, oral health disparities, food insecurity, and the education system, to name a few. They are willing to do so exponentially rather than incrementally. They are willing to ask “Why not bigger?” They are willing to do what it takes to extinguish problems rather than make problems a little bit better.
How? There are two key ways we witnessed these organizations commit to bold change this year: orient yourself around a bold impact statement and facilitate challenging conversations to define what problem you are designed to solve. And to any organization eager to be more catalytic in 2023, these are your invitations:
#1: Orient yourself around a bold impact statement. An impact statement is a summary of what it looks like if you knock it out of the park on your mission within your organization’s lifetime. This is the bold commitment your organization makes to the world. This is your chance to disrupt your field of practice with something definitive and innovative. A few catalytic impact statements from organizations we worked with in 2022:
Astoria Park Conservancy: We will unify our community through intentionally co-creating spaces– transforming Teton County into a place where all residents experience belonging.
Blue Planet Foundation: We want to make Hawai‘i a model for climate solutions that inspire and catalyze action globally.
Center for African American Health: Health equity for Black communities is achieved within our lifetime.
City Kids: Empowering the next generation of young adults to redefine where their learning takes place.
Kids in Need of Dentistry: Creating Colorado’s first community-led oral health advocacy network, which has an active role in shifting policy
My Quiet Cave: For mental health to be integrated as an essential component of spiritual health for all Christian communities.
Neighborhood Industries: Community ownership will replace community poverty within neighborhood economies in California.
One 22 Resource Center: All individuals have the opportunity to transform their crises rather than suffer from them.
Sharefest: Los Angeles youth will no longer be limited by barriers to economic mobility.
Teton County Search and Rescue Foundation: Backcountry Zero will end preventable deaths and life altering accidents in the Jackson Hole backcountry.
VoicesJH: Immigrant families no longer live at the margins, but at the heart of our community.
Wyatt Academy: We will transform the elementary education experience through the power of empowered families.
And the best part—these impact statements are backed by an evaluation plan that ensures milestones can be measured and reported.
#2: Facilitate challenging conversations to define what problem you are designed to solve.
In 2022, we witnessed several brave leaders ask their staff and board to embolden something. Some did this to raise the bar on the impact of their programs. Others saw the connection between lackluster programs and disengaged donors. All were challenging conversations because they poked at deeper identity questions: What are we really designed to achieve? What problems are we designed to solve? Do we have the right board members for this strategic plan? These conversations often occured as part of strategic planning, routine board meetings, and 1-1 staff check ins. As a result, organizations we worked with in 2022 have seen the following:
Blue Planet Foundation: a dialogue on which programs are most essential to meet impact goals. The Blue Planet Foundation launched a decade and a half ago with a vision to end the use of carbon-based fuels, starting in Hawai‘i. Since then, the team at Blue Planet has worked diligently to move closer to a resilient future without fossil fuels by advocating for policy change, sharing community stories that bring a clean energy future to life, and working directly with Hawai‘i residents to build awareness and increase access to clean energy solutions. As part of the organization’s strategic planning process, the team brought a key question to the board: should we continue to balance both the efforts of shaping individual behavior and shaping systemic policy change? Or just one of those? They believed that they could make exponential change by doubling down on one of those levers rather than continuing to try to do both. As a result, the strategic plan includes an emphasis on policy work at the systemic level rather than programming designed to shift behavior from individual residents.
Catalytic move: we must double down and be willing to say “no” in order to witness exponential outcomes.
Repowered: a dialogue about the relationship between underdeveloped programming and lack of donor engagement. Repowered is an electronics recycling and refurbishing nonprofit social enterprise hiring individuals with barriers to employment. In 2022, the development director challenged the executive director and board to invest in strengthening the outcomes of the workforce development program in order to see fundraising improvements. It became clear that the organization has inadvertently prioritized business operations over programming. Additionally philanthropy was seen as a necessary evil rather than an opportunity to activate latent generosity toward their mission. As a result, the team is investing in technical assistance and site visits for program staff and continues to dialogue on the power of philanthropy.
Catalytic move: we must address the beliefs that drive our program design.
Off Square Theatre Company: a board/staff dialogue on a core identity of the organization. Off Square Theatre Company offers professional theater and education in Jackson, WY. As part of a strategic planning process, the board and staff tackled one of the most challenging philosophical questions a theater company can ask: What is the role of theater in community life and social change? The answer to this question will be core to their strategic plan that is currently slated to be finished in 2023. The staff and board have a range of answers to this question. Seed is guiding the organization toward a strategic plan that will disrupt the status quo while honoring the voices of those concerned about maintaining a sustainable (crowd pleasing) organization. We are still discussing if the organization will achieve sustainability from leaning into commercial entertainment or from offering experiences that challenge audiences and facilitate community dialogue.
Catalytic move: we must clarify our organizational identity before we develop a strategic plan.
Seed is clear on this: we are honored to work with catalytic nonprofits. In 2022 we had the privilege of walking with organizations who made bold commitments and contributions to their field. We believe this will only ease their fundraising efforts. In short, the first two steps toward creating catalytic change are to:
Orient yourself around a bold impact statement.
Facilitate challenging conversations to define what problem you are designed to solve.
Do you want to see your organization step into making an exponential rather than incremental difference on the social sector problems you are solving? Please reach out to us to discuss how we can help.