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Rethinking How We Address Social Problems

By Nicole Motter


Nonprofits are great for serving a community, but they are functionally designed to be agents of charity. This is a fact. They were conceived, and later codified into law, as a means of mitigating the amount of harm that exists as a result of social and environmental problems. Nonprofits were not created to solve the underlying problems in the first place. They’re also legally required to be dependent on public support, which tends to be a real pain if you’re not interested in spending all of your time making pleas for donations.

As the problems facing our world grow increasingly complex, and we strive to meet this evolving need, the model itself has—counterintuitively—stayed exactly the same.

We can do more.

Question: How many social problems can you name that have been solved by nonprofits in the last 50 years? In case you’re wondering, the answer is zero. There is no evidence of a nonprofit solving a social problem and by most metrics, they’re not even getting close.

It’s quite a rude awakening to acknowledge that the relative amount of social ill that exists today hasn’t really improved since the formalization of the tax-exempt nonprofit model itself in 1984. What does this tell us? That the nonprofit model, combined with the culture and regulatory structure that has settled around it, isn’t effective at approaching the endgame (assuming, of course, your endgame is getting rid of a problem and not charity).

Let’s take a quick look at an example of a social problem – poverty. Poverty is arguably the root from which many other social problems flow.

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All things considered, at least that’s something, but shouldn’t 50 or 100 years do more than just something? Of course it should. Think about the remarkable (previously-not-though-possible!) strides humanity has made in technology even over just two decades. The Internet of Things has completely changed our daily lives.

Why have so many advancements been made in the technology industry, but our society seems unable to address social problems?

First is capital — whether human, financial, social, you name it – having the resources to get the job done is a necessity. Additionally, progress requires a culture where high-performance and innovation are rewarded. Stagnation has led to our inability to address social problems under the current structure. Lastly, evolution requires the freedom to propose new ideas without catering to outside wishes (with nonprofits this is often donors who misunderstand the complexities and underlying causes of the problems themselves).

All too often excuses are made for the nonprofit sector. And, unfortunately, the nonprofit sector’s limitations have led us to not only accept mediocre results, but to expect them. We think, “at least they’re doing something.” It’s time we rethink how to address these issues and use charitable resources more efficiently. The solution? Find another path.

Dream bigger. Do bigger.

It’s time to take some risks on something new. We recognize the problems are vast and the solutions are multifaceted. But the world needs more social problem solvers with the ability to shoot for the moon. The alternative is to stay right where we are.