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Depressing. Maddening. Motivating. Good or bad, With Charity for All will get your blood boiling

Every year there are more books and articles about the nonprofit sector than any one person can read. So how to decide which book wins your precious time? Let us provide some food for thought. This post starts a 2-post series where we review the winner and a finalist for the Terry McAdam Book Award.

Blue Garnet (really Jenni) is honored to be on the Terry McAdam Book Award committee, especially for its 25th anniversary. This annual award program, which honors Terry McAdam, who devoted his life to improving the nonprofit management field, selects the nonprofit sector book that best shares knowledge and builds a social change movement. Books are rated on 4 criteria: inspiring, useful, applicable, and readable. Learn more about the book award here.

Without further ado, let’s get reviewing our favorite 2013 book, With Charity For All: Why Charities Are Failing and a Better Way to Give. So here it goes…

3-word synopsis: Bold. Brutal. Battle-cry. (Ok, that’s kind of cheating with the hyphen, but you’re just going to have to let it slide.)

Why it’s depressing: It rips off the rose-colored glasses that people tend to wear when thinking about the good work that nonprofits do. You’ve heard of D.A.R.E., right? Did you know a six-year scientific study proved that D.A.R.E had NO material effect on participants and that suburban students who went though D.A.R.E. were more likely to use drugs than the control group? It has a negative impact on students and somehow still lives on funded by the taxpayers, “boxing-out” other more effective drug education courses. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Stern details many more stories (well researched and backed by evidence) of nonprofit inefficiency and waste – it’s enough to want to make you want to curl up in the fetal position for a nice good cry.

Why it’s maddening: The inefficiency and waste of many of today’s nonprofits are not because their leaders are stupid. It’s because the hard-wire frame of the non-profit sector is messed up. Leaders are forced to live within a market structure that has a short-term focus.  Funders write checks for pretty pictures and nice stories about program outputs (e.g. how many wells did you build?) instead of demonstrable impact (e.g. how did those wells you built change the village; are people actually healthier? Oh, and by the way, are the wells still in use or are they sitting unused in disrepair because no one wants to fund the well maintenance, because that’s just not sexy. Sadly, most often the answer is the latter.). Nonprofits are forced into a “starvation cycle” and try to get by on outdated and insufficient infrastructure that leaves them struggling to function as an organization. Funders create backwards incentives because they often are focused on funding programs only, not the essential administrative costs that ensure the programs are run efficiently and effectively. (Listen to a great argument in favor of funding administrative costs in this TED Talk.)

Why it’s motivating: While Stern paints a bleak picture of the social sector; it is not one without light. There is a possibility of reinvention and he points to efforts to change.  He writes of the benefits of investing in strategy, research, and infrastructure. He doesn’t want the social sector to shut down; he wants to expand (well…learn from their mistakes, and then expand).  He shares case studies of organizations that are doing it right: Nurse Family Partnership and Youth Villages as examples. Their leaders had the commitment and foresight to ask, “So what?” They wanted to know if their programs truly made sustainable social change and took the time and resources to prove it. And prove it they did. We understand that not every charity needs to, or even should, use randomized control trials to prove their impact. There are simpler, more cost-effective ways of evaluating impact that every nonprofit should employ.

Why you should read it: It is a much-needed punch of realism that forces people to take their blinders off. This book does a great job of telling us why we can’t be okay with the status quo; why things need to change. Whether you love it or you hate it, this book will generate important conversation and debate.

On a more personal note, it provides affirmation for the work we are doing at Blue Garnet. We come in and try to fix where the market fails and help organizations become exceptional despite the market and its constraints.

Why some people hate it: This book calls for change. Change is hard and requires a lot of work, and frankly, a lot of people don’t like it. People get defensive, especially when someone is telling you that you are pretty much are failing at your job. The dreamland where a lot of people in the sector are living is a lot warmer and fuzzier than the harsh reality that Stern brings to your attention.

For non-profit leaders who read this book: You may read this and think your organization is the exception. Our advice to you: prove it. Articulate your impact, not your output. How is the world (or enter your community here) different because of your work? Don’t give up in light of the market’s constraints. Don’t give up on asking and answering, “So what?” Invest in and be informed by evidence that you are creating sustainable social change.

For funders who read it this book: What are you going to do differently now? How can you ensure you won’t fall into the market’s traps? If you are asking your grantees to prove their impact, how can you not fund the research to answer your question? Want an easy way to become part of the solution? Fund general operating support. This will allow nonprofits to make much-needed investments in infrastructure and evaluation.

Long story, short: Rarely does a book come by that is this honest and blunt. It’s an uncomfortable, eye-opening experience that has the power to shake things up. And we really, really need to be shaken up.

Interested in reading the book? (nod your head) Buy it here.

Next, we will be reviewing the Terry McAdam book award winner: Measuring the Networked Nonprofit. Spoiler alert, it’s really good too.

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