Institutional Life and Successful Exits

I remember hearing talk of nonprofit exit strategies in management courses, but in the real world of organizations these are rare beasts indeed. So I was heartened by this NY Times article that featured some of these actual, worked-myself-out-of-a-job nonprofits. I loved how Scott Case of Malaria No More describes the focus, creativity and effectiveness they brought to their mission-focused work:

“It meant that we worked to increase public awareness of malaria as an issue rather than promote our brand,” Mr. Case said. “And it meant we didn’t have to worry as much about protecting the brand, so we could be edgier and think outside the box more.”

This is echoed by David Douglas of Water Advocates:

“Knowing that we were going to close helped us work with extreme urgency and intensity… We weren’t trying to attract attention to ourselves, which allowed us to focus on the issue itself…And we weren’t competing for money, which also helped us build relationships.”

The intoxicating efficiency of these successful campaigns has me torn – I know (and the article admits) that there’s a need for groups with longevity to tackle those less solvable missions, like, oh, ending corruption. But maybe we shouldn’t have such lofty, unachievable organizational missions!

Maybe it’s all about a series of targeted campaigns that can strip away the organizational ego and focus on achieving change instead of permanency. We all know of a great campaign that attracted energy, media and funding because of its strong messaging and stronger execution – and that successful campaign morphed into a mediocre nonprofit. We also know fantastic nonprofits who can’t seem to campaign with the honesty and assertiveness that the issues demand, because in their efforts to stay afloat they take money from the very companies they purport to hold accountable.

We need advocates who represent the public interest, engage in ongoing awareness-raising and dialogue and keep important work alive between campaign cycles. I’m just not sure that our inflexible, image-conscious institutions can adjust to the demands of effective campaigning.

Are effective nonprofit institutions an endangered species, or did I just drink the exit strategy Kool-Aid?