Does ‘Disruption’ Belong in the Nonprofit Sector?
Purely by coincidence, I was reading Jill Lepore’s essay on “disruptive innovation” in the New Yorker on my way to a conference of nonprofit managers that had disruption as one of its central themes. Describing it as a “competitive strategy for an age seized by terror,” Lepore laments how what she saw as an intellectually-flimsy business theory designed to explain why firms fail had become gospel far beyond the confines of MBA programs.
Given its origins, disruption did seem like an odd choice for a nonprofit leadership conference theme. As Lepore describes, the term originated from the work of Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen. What he termed “disruptive innovations” are what swept away companies and even entire industries that settled on making incremental innovative progress to satisfy their existing customers. While those firms tinkered, disruptive innovators rode the crest of technological change to deliver goods and services in entirely new and cheaper ways and destroyed their competition. Disruption therefore simultaneously offered firms salvation and ruin.
The true folly in this frenetic search for innovative progress, what Lepore calls a “competitive strategy for an age seized by terror,” is in how widely its values and goals have been cast beyond the business realm from which they came. Enterprises typically described as being for the social good like schools, museums and hospitals have adopted disruptive innovation even though they operate from very different principles than computer manufactures or retailers. At Harvard, where Lepore also teaches in the history department, disruptive innovation means developing Massive Open Online Courses to replace the traditional lecture hall setting, regardless of whether or not such innovation improves or weakens the core output – the quality of instruction.
And yet there I was, hearing “disrupt” and “innovation” thrown around a conference for nonprofits. Technically, the conference itself had been disrupted – it was an “Unconference,” with no pre-set agenda, after all. The practitioners assembled were encouraged to fail like Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, even if their budgets didn’t sniff a thousandth of start-ups’ venture capital pools. One discussion session I joined investigated how to practice “disruptive storytelling” (which we never did define). Even Craig Newmark, the man who had disrupted the local newspaper through free online classified ads, was a keynote speaker.
Was this all a sign that another bastion of human enterprise had fallen to the march of tech-industry-addled B-school jargon? Even if/though disruption is a “dumb buzzword” worthy of the full Mike Judge treatment, probably not.
If the Boardroom Jargon Fits…
First, nonprofits, philanthropies, and issue advocacy organizations operate in ways that are much closer to businesses than Lepore appreciates or admits. Each tries to maximize a return on investment of (often limited) resources, defining that return along the lines of numbers of individuals reached by the effort. Finding new and innovative ways to do that process better is one area that social and business enterprises share. “Foundations surely need not apologize for trying to learn from successful businesses the best ways to promote changes in education, health care, nutrition, or conservation,” Tony Proscio, a senior fellow at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy writes. “And at least among strategic foundations, the changes they seek surely are ‘disruptive’ in Professor Christensen’s sense, at least some of the time: they frequently seek not merely to improve the way this or that social function is carried out, but to replace the status quo altogether, with fundamentally new methods that will render current ways of doing things obsolete.”
The Nonprofit 2.0 keynote speakers echoed these sentiments. Even after winning a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship for her sustainability work Majora Carter said she quit the nonprofit field and launched a programming startup in the South Bronx out of her frustrations with the industry’s acceptance of mediocre program performance, limited innovative spirit, and hostility to leadership diversity. Running a for-profit subcontractor for video game testing actually achieved her goal of employing people in her community. If she simply ran yet another job training program, people would still have to wait for an opportunity to arrive. Incremental change that made poverty a bit more tolerable for people, she said, did justice for no one.
Craig Newmark, who left craigslist to run his own nonprofit foundation, said he judged organizations not by their dedication to consciousness-raising on an issue, but their ability to get things done.
Michael D. Smith, who runs the White House’s Social Innovation Fund, told the audience that a third of nonprofits should disappear, to the approval of most of the room. Those that remained should be the ones making big bets on solving the most daunting societal problems. Unfortunately, one in eight nonprofits spend no money on self-evaluation audits.
Smith came to his position from the Case Foundation, which funds large international development and social engagement projects. Similar charitable foundations, like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, aim to take on enormous challenges. “It’s possible that, whatever judgment history renders on “disruptive innovation” as a theory of business competition,” Proscio writes, “the one place where it truly fits is in strategic philanthropy.”
Disruption in One Sector is Good for Another
The drive to disrupt the nonprofit sector really has more to do with implementing disruptions that have taken place in other industries rather than overturning its own apple cart. Most of the time, innovation to nonprofit practitioners means adopting new web-based technologies to make internal processes more efficient. From mobile geotagging to communications to fundraising, Internet-based technologies do lower the cost of doing business for nonprofits (along with everyone else).
Digital technologies also have transformed the work of public relations, public affairs, and strategic communication firms. Campaigns can be much more precise in their audience targeting and messaging than ever before. Partnering with such firms or adopting similar technologies can further boost nonprofits’ return on investment.
Of course, there remain ways to innovate for innovation’s sake. Organizations will choose to spend time and resources on websites or apps of limited use, or focus on boosting vanity social media statistics like Facebook likes or Twitter followers. But such organizations risk being passed by – dare I say, disrupted – by similarly-focused ones that can point to their use of online tools to deliver some kind of tangible result for target populations.
These internally-focused innovations to improve organizational practices can be done incrementally because they’re not the same necessarily as the practices of ameliorating a target issue.
Like Lepore, I was trained academically in U.S. history, a field uniquely hostile to intellectual jargon and theory. Regardless of the buzzwords signifying its arrival, I do think that an intense level of professionalization is taking place throughout not only the nonprofit, but the advocacy and engagement fields as well. Whether this process truly yields the results it promised is an open question. But I’m curious to hear what others think about the reasons why the language of innovation has taken such hold in the nonprofit sector and whether Lepore’s criticism of disruptive innovation simply as “an artifact of history” in an era of “upsetting and edgy uncertainty” is apt. Fire away in the comments.