I’ve written before about my favorite leadership book “On Becoming a Leader” by John Bennis because his primary point in the book is that we are always “becoming” leaders. The same holds true for focusing the foundation I began in 1997. We like to say that we are “twice as good as we were last year but only half as good as we could be next year.” Our first iteration was “serving the poor.” We formed an outreach center, stumbled into a near-downtown Cleveland neighborhood and started our work… rather clumsily, I might add. A few years into it we realized that Northeast Ohio had over 2,500 non-profit organizations. That told us we’d do better to help make existing organizations better instead of building another very average one.
So we refocused on “serving those who serve the poor.”
Another few years into our work we realized we couldn’t do everything for everyone who needs and deserves our support, so we reviewed where we’d been and realized we were most effective when we applied our business knowledge and skill to selective non-profits. Around this time we also learned to focus on no more than 15 non-profit projects a year through a filtering process that lasts over five years.
So by then, you’d say we were getting pretty focused, right?
Not so fast.
Even using executive coaching to serve those who serve the poor requires one more filter: What areas of need are we most interested in serving through our selected non-profits? Another year of meetings honed our target even further. We offer organizational guidance that seeks to provide those being served with the opportunity for economic independence. The result is we are currently focused on serving those who serve the poor in the areas of education, entrepreneurship and employment through mentoring and microenterprise.
That ought to keep us busy for another couple years.
Of course the net point is that The Business of Good is becoming an effective, leveraged foundation.
We are not “there” yet and I hope we never are.
Because focus, developed from continuous learning, is the only way I know that we can get better.
P.S. Don’t hesitate to write me and pass on your own opinions and experiences in becoming more focused.
Editor’s Note: Our foundation continuously seeks to narrow its focus, keeping a constant diligence to avoid the natural tendency towards “mission creep.” This case study demonstrates the benefit of being single-mindedly devoted to a focused mission by telling the story of Rural Development Institute. The organization has helped 400 million poor farmers around the world take ownership of some 270 million acres of land – all on a modest budget.
Editor’s Note: I recently began researching PRIs, or Program Related Investments, to gain an understanding of how they create leverage and whether it makes sense for our foundation in some cases to provide low-interest loans instead of grants to our nonprofit partners. The attached, provided to me by the helpful people at Ohio Grant makers Forum, gives a good overview of the features and benefits of using PRIs.
“That's been one of my mantras - focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it's worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”
Editor’s Note: Steve Rothschild, former executive vice president of General Mills and founder of Twin Cities RISE!, a nonprofit that works to advance anti-poverty programs, offers a useful case study of the challenges and successes RISE! has experienced, with a view to providing a management guide for other nonprofit leaders to follow. I especially liked the book's honest portrayal of the early difficulties that RISE! faced, especially the process the organization went through to achieve focus, and the steps it took to overcome the natural tendency of most philanthropists to try to do too much too fast.
Excerpt: “To make progress, leaders – in government, funding organizations, business, nonprofits, and social enterprise – need a new approach. They need an approach that integrates the best ideas of social programming with the expertise that the for-profit sector has acquired in achieving long-term outcomes.”
Editor’s Note: It's hard to believe it’s been over ten years since George Harrison, my favorite Beatle, passed away. Hearing his solo stuff, especially this song, always puts me in a good place.
Excerpt: “Daylight is good at arriving at the right time.