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The Contrarian Path to Impact

June 19, 2013

Kat Rosqueta, founding executive directorI love a good, contrarian viewpoint. It’s not because I relish conflict or have a knee-jerk sympathy for the underdog. I’ve just seen how a good contrarian viewpoint, when offered in the spirit of doing the right thing, is a beacon to a better path forward. The past two weeks have brought some great examples of folks choosing to zig while the world zags:

End the Overhead Myth

Recently, the leaders of the major sources of information on nonprofits—GuideStar, Charity Navigator, and BBB Wise Giving Alliance—wrote an open Letter to the Donors of America with an invitation to join the pledge to end the overhead myth. In the letter, the authors emphasize that…

despite its widespread use, an overhead ratio is a poor indicator of nonprofit effectiveness. Amen!I currently serve on the board of Guidestar and have been an advisor to Charity Navigator—two nonprofits often faulted for enabling the rise of the overhead ratio in the first place. But the world was different then. Unless you were already an insider, it was difficult, if not impossible, to get information on a nonprofit. At that time, the contrarian view was that there should be some transparency into the nonprofit sector. Now that transparency is expected, let’s move away from a focus on what nonprofits spend and towards a focus on what nonprofits achieve.

Scale down, not up

This week, my colleague Carra Cote-Ackah is representing our team at the Social Impact Exchange Conference on Scaling Impact, a gathering of funders and practitioners interested in understanding how to scale up social impact. Yet at lunch last week, I found myself equally intrigued by the response I received from a fellow participant at GEO’s Learning Conference. I sat next to a woman who leads a family foundation. When I asked her what she most wanted to learn at this learning conference, she surprised me with the following response

“Everyone seems to be fixated on scaling up. They want to know, ‘How do we take this promising pilot or model and make it happen on a bigger, bolder scale?’ What I want to know is:

How do you scale down? How do you take practices that are implemented by large, well-resourced organizations and adapt them to achieve results in smaller, more resource-poor settings?

Is less just less?

Finally, in the age of twitter, texts, speed-dating, and presentations considered too long when clocked at 20 minutes, Michael Quinn Patton’s closing plenary remarks were wonderfully contrarian and provocative. He suggested that the conference, with its emphasis on quick, short presentations was less about learning and more an exercise in panel voyeurism. He challenged grant makers in the audience to consider what it would mean to spend 3+ hours working the same case with the same people before moving on. Would more real learning and real connections result?


Perhaps I’m drawn to the contrarian because, after being told too many times, that “donors don’t really care about impact”, I sense a kindred spirit. For the sake of the nonprofit sector and the communities it serves, here’s to turning that supposedly contrarian view—that donors care about impact—into a new and accepted reality.

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