Let's pick up on last week’s post noting that we could get to more constructive solutions for the problems bedeviling government—nonprofit relations in the human services if both sides took into account how things looked from the stand point of the upstream taxpayers that pay for the work and the downstream beneficiaries whose lives are meant to be improved by it. When it comes to beneficiaries, government agencies and nonprofits alike will contend that they are focused on understanding and meeting the needs of beneficiaries. But this assertion is rarely reflected in patterns of inquiry and information gathering that would make it real—and lead the way to breakthrough solutions.
I spent many years consulting with leading private sector companies around the world, and in almost every engagement the starting point was in understanding their customers—their unmet needs, their expectations, their experiences of the products or services in question, the compromises they were facing in using them and how they could be broken, etc. Any business strategy worth its name—and I worked on a bunch of them, ranging from a big three automaker selling collision-repair parts into body shops to a pharmaceutical company bringing a "me too" Viagra competitor to market—is animated by an illuminating vantage point on the customer’s perspective.
With human services nonprofits and the government agencies that fund them, this hunger to gain deep insight into the needs and perspectives of the people being served is typically much more limited, if it exists at all. The working assumption of the suppliers and their funders alike is that they know what is best for the individuals and families they are serving, who are thereby reduced to essentially passive "recipients." This working assumption leads more or less directly to the relative lack of outcomes data and user insights that plague so many nonprofits and their funders. Why dedicate yourself to collecting this information, seeking to understand what it means, and continually improving your offering in light of it, if you already know what the people you are supporting need? And why bother given that in most instances your beneficiaries can’t really take their business elsewhere? They aren’t buying your service; rather a third party is paying you to provide it to them. Hence the focus shifts more toward the requirements of who is paying vs. the unmet needs and aspirations of those meant to benefit.
There are of course some notable exceptions to this rule. From our work at Bridgespan, for example, I have come to appreciate how organizations as diverse as the Harlem Children’s Zone, Building Changes, the Nurse Family Partnership, Youth Villages, i-Foster and YES Prep among others bring to their work a restless desire to understand what makes the children and families whom they are serving tick, to get at what it would really take to solve their problems and if need be to reorient how they support them, and to measure and hold themselves accountable for improving the lives of their beneficiaries.
The peculiar combination of humility and determination that characterizes the work of these and other exceptional nonprofits gives them much in common with outstanding customer-focused companies. We all likely have a handful of companies—in my case they are Southwest Airlines, Kimpton Hotels, Peet’s Coffee, and Amazon—whose products and services leave us thinking—"Wow, those guys really want my business and know how to serve me!”" Now consider their curiosity about your needs and their determination to meet them in comparison to that which your average nonprofit and government agency bring to bear relative to their “customers” and you can see my point.
Do exceptional nonprofits routinely find themselves frustrated by existing systems of public funding and do they feel short-changed by them relative to the value they provide? Sure—but they are so focused on figuring out how to better meet the needs of the people they are serving that the vagaries of public funding are just that—frustrations, not central preoccupations. And indeed these same organizations have found that the unique "consumer" insight they have developed and the breakthrough results they are able to deliver accordingly put them in a powerful position to reshape if not transform the way public money flows to support their work. There are some lessons here for all of us.
In our next post will take up the breakthroughs that can likewise occur when we start seeing things from the taxpayer's perspective.
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