Toward a User-Centered Social Sector

Tris Lumley at Stanford Social Innovation Review: “Over the last three years, a number of trends have crystallized that I believe herald the promise of a new phase—perhaps even a new paradigm—for the social sector. I want to explore three of the most exciting, and sketch out where I believe they might take us and why we’d all do well to get involved.

  • The rise of feedback
  • New forms of collaboration
  • Disruption through technology

Taken individually, these three themes are hugely significant in their potential impact on the work of nonprofits and those that invest in them. But viewed together, as interwoven threads, I believe they have the potential to transform both how we work and the underlying fundamental incentives and structure of the social sector.

The rise of feedback

The nonprofit sector is built on a deep and rich history of community engagement. Yet, in a funding market that incentivizes accountability to funders, this strong tradition of listening, engagement, and ownership by primary constituents—the people and communities nonprofits exist to serve—has sometimes faded. Opportunities for funding can drive strategies. Practitioner experience and research evidence can shape program designs. Engagement with service users can become tokenistic, or shallow….

In recognition of this growing momentum, Keystone Accountability and New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) published a paper in 2016 to explore the relationship between impact measurement and user voice. It is our shared belief that many of the recent criticisms of the impact movement—such as impact reporting being used primarily for fundraising rather than improving programs—would be addressed if impact evidence and user voice were seen as two sides of the same coin, and we more routinely sought to synthesize our understanding of nonprofits’ programs from both aspects at once…

New forms of collaboration

As recent critiques of collective impact have pointed out, the social sector has a long history of collaboration. Yet it has not always been the default operating model of nonprofits or their funders. The fragmented nature of the social sector today exposes an urgent imperative for greater focus on collaboration….

Yet the need for greater collaboration and new forms to incentivize and enable it is increasing. Deepening austerity policies, the shrinking of the state in many countries, and the sheer scale of the social issues we face have driven the “demand” side of collaboration. The collective impact movement has certainly been one driver of momentum on the “supply” side, and a number of other forms of collaboration are emerging.

The Young People’s Foundation model, developed in the UK by the John Lyons Charity, is one response to deepening cuts in nonprofit funding. Young People’s Foundations are new organizations that serve three purposes for nonprofits working with young people in the local area—creating a network, leading on collaborative funding bids and contracting processes, and sharing assets across the network.

Elsewhere, philanthropic donors and foundations are increasingly exploring collaboration in practical terms, through pooled grant funds that provide individual donors unrivalled leverage, and that allow groups of funders to benefit from each other’s strengths through coordination and shared strategies. The Dasra Girl Alliance in India is an example of a pooled fund that brings together philanthropic donors and institutional development funders, and fosters collaboration between the nonprofits it supports….

Disruption through technology

Technology might appear an incongruous companion to feedback and collaboration, which are both very human in nature, yet it’s likely to transform our sector….(More)”