Four years ago at a luncheon for Literacy Mid-South, I stood in front of a group of 200 nonprofit and corporate professionals and announced a series of new programming for our agency. Literacy Mid-South had been serving the Memphis community for four decades, and these were the biggest changes in the history of the organization. These programs marked our true transformation from the Memphis Literacy Council into the new Literacy Mid-South. As I ended the presentation, I said, “We don’t want to exist, but we have to. Let’s hope these new programs end up putting us out of business.”
It was as if I had farted directly into the microphone. The faces of the audience, many of who were our nonprofit partners, looked panicked or confused. Why on earth would I want to put Literacy Mid-South out of business? Why did I not end on a vision of massive expansion and growth? To this day, people still bring this up to me, either for clarification or to remark on its acumen. (I prefer the latter.)
When I came to Literacy Mid-South five years ago, I, like many first time executive directors, had visions of growth, expansion, mountains of foundation dollars, and books for every kid in Memphis. I would address the many struggles of the organization then lead it into a new era of prosperity. I’d be a hero, and illiteracy would be eradicated! Huzzah!
That’s not quite how it happened.
Because the organization was near insolvency, I had to make several difficult decisions very quickly. These decisions included reduction of staff and elimination of some loved (but not terribly impactful) programming. My pipe dream of quick expansion gave way to the realities at hand. As I worked to restructure our programming, I read an upsetting article that called for the elimination of most nonprofit social service organizations. The article claimed that these organizations were ineffective and promoted a pipeline of services that didn’t address root causes of America’s challenges. The only good nonprofits, the article asserted, were the ones who worked to close their doors.
I did a lot of soul searching after reading that article. Did I want growth for the wrong reasons? Why was I ultimately here as executive director? I finally realized that in order to truly have an impact on literacy rates in Memphis, I had to take what was there and make it better, not bigger. This was a huge learning experience for me and one that will likely shape the rest of my career. I don’t equate growth with success anymore. Growth for growth’s sake is driven by ego and self-preservation. The only good growth is planned, sustained, and driven by meaningful outcomes.
When we build programming at Literacy Mid-South, we ask ourselves, “Are we building just to build, or are we addressing the systemic causes of illiteracy? Are we measuring impact along the way?”
Instead of focusing on expanding the number of adults we serve in our Adult Learning Program, we decided to reallocate some of our funding to helping other nonprofits embed adult reading programs into their existing infrastructure. This would allow more people to access adult basic education services even though it wouldn’t always be from us. Instead of starting our own summer reading program, we now provide resources for programs that already serve thousands of children. Instead of griping about homework help programs that don’t actually increase reading proficiency, we’re working to influence schools to reduce the amount of homework and reallocate the time we save to starting new after school reading programs. This work is far less sexy, but we’re actually showing record success in addressing literacy issues in Memphis. The best news? Our budget has remained the same. We didn’t need to grow exponentially in order to make an impact.
Nonprofit boards, usually comprised of corporate representatives, financial experts, and big-picture thinkers, often equate growth with success. The development of new programs are not strategic, these programs are not sustainable, and the quality of services in these programs suffers because of a vision of expansion. Growth is only positive if it can eliminate or reduce the problem and can be executed strategically so that it can be sustained. No large problems in Memphis can be eliminated or solved in a year, and nonprofit boards and funders need to be cognizant of that when exploring expansion.
The ultimate goal of a nonprofit–especially in social services–is to mitigate or reduce the community problem, not build an empire out of it. If nonprofits truly want to achieve their mission, they will structure their programming to solve the problem, with the intention of putting themselves out of business. Closing a nonprofit because of a mission achieved is the biggest success any nonprofit could imagine.
Boards and nonprofit CEOs need to reframe the conversations when discussing the direction of their organizations. Instead of the standard “let’s increase revenue next year” conversations, why not instead ask, “What can we do to reallocate our revenue to more meaningful outcomes that address the need?” If you’re not working to close your doors, you aren’t doing it right.
Kevin Dean is an overly ambitious vegetarian book nerd who also happens to run a literacy organization, have a passion for nonprofit administration, with an irrational fear of sheep.