In an era of tech-enabled, high-growth social enterprises, it's easy to overlook the very large, slower-growth organizations with expansive networks that have been serving children, youth, and families for a decade—or longer. But it's these national and global networks that have the reach and power to take on big social issues. That's a challenge some have chosen to undertake in a quest to evolve from simply serving community needs to solving underlying social problems. This pivot is seen clearly in ubiquitous nonprofits like the Y-USA, 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.
Each of these networks had its own "aha" revelation that it had strayed from its origins but could reclaim its historic mandate. (See "What Are Nonprofit Networks?") The Y, for example, was founded to solve the problems faced by migrant boys and men in industrial revolution England. Its pivot means a return to solving the real challenges of adults and youth today, including health issues like diabetes, scholastic achievement gaps, and resiliency in the face of challenges common to disadvantaged neighborhoods. But what about other large networks seeking greater impact? Their CEOs and funders have to ask: is such a pivot possible, and what will it take?
What Are Nonprofit Networks?
We define nonprofit networks as large direct-service organizations working under a single brand name with many branches or affiliates across the United States or the world. They include a variety of multi-subsidiary legal structures, from one consolidated legal entity to federations and membership organizations made up of separate legal organizations. These types of networks make up 21 of the 30 largest nonprofits in the United States according to The Nonprofit Times.
We believe the answer is "yes" based on our experience working with more than 50 nonprofit networks, federations, and associations over the past 15 years. That experience includes research delving into how nonprofits get and stay big, and how the most effective nonprofits scale their impact. We've also heard from more than a score of leading social entrepreneurs, including Echoing Green winners, that they see networks as a promising means of scaling their impact through collaboration.
In addition, we interviewed a dozen leaders of the largest networks in the United States and around the world and heard firsthand about what it takes for organizations to make major changes to get dramatically better results—changes other large networks could learn from. The innovative organizations share several important characteristics.1 First, courageous leaders and critical data serve as catalysts for change. Second, these organizations reviewed their historic assets and worked to make them relevant today. Third, they chose a path to change that made the most of their networks. And along the way, they debunked some myths about organizational transformation to adopt strategies rooted in solving, not just serving, the problems faced by their beneficiaries.