3 Things That Took Me 17 Years to Learn

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This is a guest post by Paul Shoemaker, Founding President of SVP International and speaker at the 2015 Mission Driven conference. Paul will present a keynote and session titled Reconstructing Philanthropy on Thursday, September 10 at the Westin at the Domain.

What would someone that has spent 17 years working, arm in arm, alongside philanthropists, social entrepreneurs, nonprofit leaders, engaged citizens to help try to change their world for the better want people to know? How about three things, just three “simple” things –

  • We have enough money and solutions for most of our world’s most challenging social problems – seriously, we do. Look at urban public education. The rate of spending, in real / inflation-adjusted dollars, per student, has doubled over the last 30 years. Doubled. We have spent trillions and trillions on reducing poverty in America since 1968. So there is no way we don’t have enough financial capital.

You can go to any city in America and find a school(s) that breaks the curve, despite the odds and everything that seems to be socio-economically aligned against them. For example, White Center Heights Elementary in Seattle, WA. For the last two years, they have pulled double-digit percentile increases on math and reading performance, at all grade levels, compared to schools all across Washington state. I can give you examples like this all over America, I just can’t give you a whole urban school district that has pulled it off … yet.

  • There are social multipliers that now amplify the impact of one person like never before. Technology, connectedness, and globalization are these three force multipliers that have changed our world in immeasurable ways, but primarily, economically and in our personal lives. Sometimes for good (read back on how the SARS epidemic was addressed) or for bad (9-11 and terrorist groups like al Qaeda and ISIS). And all three of these forces have been growing in significance in the last generation, there is absolutely nothing new about that comment.

What will be new is how profoundly and powerfully we will now apply those forces, those multipliers to social challenges in the decade ahead like never before. If every person, not just famous or wealthy people, will better understand how they can use these tools, like Sal Khan and the Khan Academy, to amplify, accelerate their good ideas, then the world will change for the better … sooner.

  • The biggest barriers are not cool new strategies and fancy programs; the biggest barrier is much much more “boring.” It’s that the underlying infrastructure of our nonprofit / social sector is fundamentally flawed, and far more so on the philanthropic than the nonprofit side. Philanthropic institutions and individuals … have this crazy, debilitating practice called restricted funding … fund far too short-term and not nearly collaboratively enough with other funders … are fundamentally unaccountable …

There are things that nonprofits needed to do better for sure as well. But if we don’t focus on fixing the plumbing, the infrastructure, the underlying guts of how we make social change happen, our high-falutin’ strategies are partly crippled. There is so much more positive change to be created because of #1 and #2, but until we do more about #3, we are driving a Maserati with a top speed of 30 mph. We need to overhaul the engine … now.


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