Large National and Global Nonprofits Revisit Founding Missions in Renewed Effort to Solve Social Problems

03/03/2016 |
Contact: Liz London
Director of Media and Conferences
[email protected]

BOSTON, MA—March 3, 2016—A new white paper by The Bridgespan Group, “Network Transformation: Can Big Nonprofits Achieve Big Results?”, highlights the potential of large nonprofit organizations, especially networks, federations and associations, to effect transformational social change. The research, based on 15 years of client experience and interviews with leaders of the largest networks, surfaces key characteristics of organizations that are evolving from simply serving community needs to actually solving underlying social problems.
According to Bridgespan partner and co-author of the white paper Kelly Campbell, “This pivot is seen clearly in ubiquitous nonprofits like the Y-USA, located within 10 miles of three-quarters of Americans,  4-H, in every county in the nation; the Salvation Army, in major cities of every state; and, Save the Children, in 120 nations around the world.”
Campbell said that each of the six organizations featured in the Bridgespan study had its own, “aha” moment that it had strayed from its origins and needed to dig into its organizational history to understand how to adapt the timeless elements of its mission to the current context.
Other traits the research cited among these innovative networked organizations were: the courage of their leaders to face and embrace change; their use of data as a catalyst for change; their ability to find paths that made the most of their networks; and, the ability for many of them to pivot their organization without changing its governance.
Shazeen Virani, Bridgespan manager and co-author said, “Waking up a national or global network to a need for change and rooting that change in an organization’s history are preludes to the Herculean task of galvanizing the change; but, our research surfaced two workable approaches: one anchors on a uniform, evidence-based approach, the other on achieving target outcomes.”
The Y, for example, was founded to solve problems faced by migrant boys and men in industrial revolution England. When Neil Nicoll became president and CEO of the Y-USA in 2006, he said he used the Y’s past as prologue to a renewed effort to re-establish the Y’s thought leadership in social change.  According to Nicoll, “We asked if we could identify a particular set of social issues that, if we brought the resources of the Y to bear, could change the whole life trajectory for the people we serve. And, we are on that path now by adopting innovative evidence-based programs, for example, in diabetes prevention and preventing summer learning loss.”
Said Campbell, “Like the Y, 4-H, found that its historic core of programming (grounded in over a century of experience in agriculture, scientific concepts and unique collaboration with university professionals and community volunteers) held the key to 21st century relevance.” Responding to a call to action around the looming crisis in U.S. competitiveness in preparing U.S. youth in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), 4-H stepped in and activated its network with a program called 4-H Science. 4-H serves six million young people through camp, clubs, after and in-school programs.
According to Jennifer Sirangelo, president and CEO of National 4-H Council, “Anchoring on a handful of measurable outcomes was key to bringing about change. We had to navigate multiple tiers of stakeholders, allowing state and local offices to implement curriculum as they saw fit, but the proof would be in the numbers of youth converted to STEM pursuits.”
Multiyear evaluations of 4-H Science found that the formula is working. For example, a National Assessment of Education Progress survey showed that among 12th graders who participated in 4-H Science, 77 percent said they wanted a science-related job upon graduation, more than double the 37 percent reported among all 12th graders in the same survey.
“Finding funding for transformations such as those featured in our study can seem impossible,” said Campbell, “but our exemplars showed time and again that a sound strategy for delivering and scaling impact can motivate long-standing funders to dig deeper.”
About The Bridgespan Group
The Bridgespan Group ( is a nonprofit advisor and resource for mission-driven organizations and philanthropists. We collaborate with social sector leaders to help scale impact, build leadership, advance philanthropic effectiveness and accelerate learning. We work on issues related to society’s most important challenges and to break cycles of intergenerational poverty. Our services include strategy consulting, leadership development, philanthropy advising, and developing and sharing practical insights.
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