Social Sector Survival in a Post-Virus World

By David Bishop

In March, the Foundation for Shared Impact (FSI) published ‘The Social Sector Needs a Lifeline: How Everyone Can Help’ in Jumpstart. Our suggestions for helping bolster the sector were met with sympathy and support. But among those responses, we also noticed a consistent refrain. Multiple foundation representatives reached out and suggested that, although tragic, Covid-19 will help eliminate inefficient and ineffective organizations from Hong Kong’s crowded social impact sector.  

This reaction surprised us, but it also prompted sincere thought. If the very organizations that fund the social impact space are skeptical and are actively hoping for organizations to fold, how can social impact organizations distinguish themselves and ensure a long-term future of sustained impact? Our answer is the ‘Shared-Impact Model.’

Broad collaboration 

When social impact organizations see fundraising as a zero-sum game, it frustrates funders, who only desire collaboration and better resource allocation. 

Collaboration requires organizations to focus on the things they do well while relying on others to do what they do well. It also involves sharing information, resources, and knowledge, so that goals and operations are synchronized, resources are maximized, and overlap and waste are minimized. Being open about successes and failures will also allow others to learn from your experiences. 

An example is the openness adopted by development nonprofit Evidence Action when discussing its seasonal migration subsidy program, No Lean Season. In a June 6, 2019 blog post, the organization explained its decision to discontinue the program, admitting its unsatisfactory performance based on a randomized controlled trial, and that one of its local contractors was accused of financial impropriety.  

The reality is that many social impact organizations do not want to objectively measure their impact, as they’re afraid they may find–as Evidence Action did–that their programs are not working. But as the Evidence Action team stated, it is essential for organizations to “contribute to an active exchange of learnings among our partners and the broader development community […] to ultimately drive better outcomes for the hundreds of millions of people living in poverty that we all seek to serve.”

Freely share knowledge and resources 

Even the largest social impact organizations are very small businesses by commercial standards, which often poses challenges to covering operational needs. In response to this problem, we share our subject matter experts with our portfolio of social impact organizations. Through our Community Connections Program, social impact organizations benefit from a broad network of corporate experts in accounting, law, design, programming, photography, and more. 

Data-driven impact models 

If we want funders to trust us with their money, we need to start proving ourselves worthy of it, which means adopting the business world’s efficiency and accountability while laser focusing on impact. Currently, few organizations have a robust impact measurement system in place, and most can benefit greatly from harnessing technology to streamline routine workflows and automate data collection. 

For example, time spent on client intake can be saved by introducing a chatbot, which allows data to be easily searchable, aggregatable, or shareable compared to in-person intake interviews. It can then be used to identify and avoid what’s not working, analyze trends, and isolate needed actions.

Change of mindset

A change of mindset involves seeing the bigger picture, rather than merely going from one grant application to another. Many organizations commit to a cause without asking these fundamental questions: Is your proposed solution alleviating the underlying problem to drive systemic change? If your model is successful, will the problem be reduced or even eliminated? If not, it may be time to rethink your approach. 

Organizations have to realize that they risk becoming irrelevant if they don’t change. Now, more than ever, leaders must optimize resources. 

While we hope that all social impact organizations thrive during this challenging time, in truth, some organizations will stand above their peers. Covid-19 has given us all an opportunity to consolidate, collaborate, and focus on fixing some of society’s most broken systems. Through the Shared-Impact Model, organizations will cease to view others only as competitors and be more inclined to cheer each other on, because success for one organization is a success for them all. 

David is the founder of Foundation for Shared Impact. 

About the Author

David holds multiple degrees, including a J.D. from Georgetown University. He has worked for multiple international law firms in both the U.S. and HK and is currently a Principal Lecturer at The University of Hong Kong and Shanghai’s Fudan University, where he teaches several courses concerning law, business ethics, and social entrepreneurship. David is also the founder, co-founder, or adviser to many social enterprises and NGOs in Hong Kong and elsewhere.

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