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Americans don’t think nonprofits can fix society’s ills. Here’s how to make sure charities can succeed.

When asked to cite examples of what’s working, many of us point to other cities, states or nations – rather than the solutions happening right in our backyards. To change people’s minds, we must shift the narrative – the stories we tell ourselves about how society works and what obstructs change – toward the things nonprofits and their partners are already doing about deep-seated problems.

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Tiffany Manual headshot

U.S. charities are swimming upstream when it comes to convincing the public that what they do matters and is making an impact. A recent Indiana University poll found just 1 in 20 people think they or someone in their immediate family has been helped by a nonprofit. Fewer than 2 in 10 people think charities are headed in the right direction or that they can solve the problems facing our country and our planet.

I’ve worked with nonprofits in every corner of our country, and I know one thing for sure: There’s a lot of amazing work happening. But the message isn’t quite getting through.

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People see problems like growing inflation, rising health care and housing costs, and more and more people living on the streets, and their logic goes like this: “Nonprofit organizations raise lots of money, but the problems seem to be getting worse! Therefore, nonprofits (and philanthropies and governments and businesses and anyone who should be tackling these problems) can’t possibly be doing a good job.”

This misconception is keeping nonprofits and their partners and allies from building the will we need to take the solutions we know work and put them in place at a wide enough scale to end poverty, ensure abundant housing, end homelessness and create health and well-being for everyone.

We can reach these big goals – but only if people believe a better future is possible and that nonprofits, government, businesses and individuals working together can get us there.

To change people’s minds, we must shift the narrative – the stories we tell ourselves about how society works and what obstructs change – toward the things nonprofits and their partners are already doing about deep-seated problems.

The problem with Singapore and far-away solutions

The IU poll numbers back up a phenomenon I’ve seen time and again in focus groups with everyday people. Whether talking about poverty, housing or health, people tell a story about crisis upon crisis. Often, there’s very little hope things can change.

People also struggle to name the many solutions happening in their backyards. In recent work that we did in the Bay Area, every time we asked about innovative solutions, we heard a lot about Singapore’s social programs but very little about the many nonprofit organizations doing yeoman’s work to try to stem the tide of homelessness in that part of California.

We don’t have to go to Singapore to solve our problems. We need to collectively see the good work happening where we live and understand how we can best support it. We need to lean into the understanding that for many social problems, we have solutions – but not at the scale necessary.

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Three steps to lift up local strategies

To keep our conversations with people from dead-ending with Singapore or spiraling around the hugeness of the problems, we have to do three things: 

  1. Make people smarter about what the solutions are. Rather than focusing on problems, which often seem intractable, let’s lift up solutions we know are working. The future of where we live and what we leave to our children will only be determined by ordinary people working hand-in-hand with folks who are already putting solutions in place.
     
  2. Take stock of the ways local strategies are working. Invite people to a discussion about the competence, success and thoughtfulness of local organizations. Position their efforts as examples of excellence, ingenuity, innovation and creativity – and proof we don’t have to take our problems into the future.
     
  3. Advocate for the scale local strategies need to succeed. Local nonprofits and philanthropies are forever picking up the pieces of one metaphorical storm while another blows in. For example, local organizations that support people experiencing homelessness are working as fast as they can to house people and connect them to services – but more people fall into homelessness every day than they can help.
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The IU poll found people’s confidence in the ability of any sector of society – nonprofit, government, business, individuals – to solve problems is incredibly low. In fact, confidence in nonprofits is highest.

Let’s seize that opportunity and help people see how we’re already working toward a better future – and how we’ll only get there if we all join together.

 

Tiffany Manuel, Ph.D.
President and CEO, TheCaseMade

 

Tiffany Manuel, Ph.D., is the founder and CEO of TheCaseMade, a not-for-profit that trains social justice leaders to build public will for systemic change, the author of Case Made! 10 Powerful Leadership Principles that Win Hearts, Change Minds, and Grow Impact and a Philanthropy Forward ’23 plenary speaker. Join DrT for a powerful conversation on rewriting the narrative in an age where the truth can feel subjective at the Closing Plenary on October 12. Register to attend at philanthropyforward.org.

 

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Philanthropy Ohio’s blog is meant purely for informative discussion of topics, practices and viewpoints in philanthropy. We collaborate with various members, funders, consultants, philanthropy-serving organizations and Professional Partners to bring you quality content. Guest authors are partners in our collective vision for a just and vibrant Ohio through impactful philanthropy. Statements on this blog reflect the author’s personal opinions and do not necessarily fully represent the opinions, policies, practices, values and mission of Philanthropy Ohio. This blog may contain testimonials, opinions and real-life experiences of members. However, the experiences are personal to those particular members, and may not necessarily be representative of all members or of Philanthropy Ohio. 

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