Our Theory of Change

Author’s Note: This post is the fifth part in an eight-part series on the strategic framework of the nonprofit organization – United Way for Southeastern Michigan. Click here to read the full series.

I will never forget attending a national board meeting of United Way where Bill Gates Sr., father of the Microsoft founder and co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, stood up and said, “I am the chairman of the largest foundation in the world. There is nothing we can accomplish alone.”

Social conditions rarely change because of a single program, plan, or organization. Change occurs when networks align to work on common issues. Think of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), advocates of seat belt laws, the green movement, supporters of anti-smoking laws, the Occupy movement – you can’t name the CEO of any of those. Change occurs not through a linear process or an industrial model. Rather, it occurs as it does in nature, through the wider ecosystem.

When we at United Way studied how change actually takes place, we found we could learn a great deal from nature. Why? First, nature reveals patterns of change that have taken place over millions of years. Second, nature uses pathways of change that require the least amount of resources and are most sustainable.

Margaret Wheatley

Margaret Wheatley has been a thought-leader, teacher, consultant, and agent of change for more than 30 years. Much of her work is based on natural ecosystems and how they apply to our world. Her studies have influenced how thousands of other leaders frame and execute their work. She has had a great influence on me personally and on the organization’s way of thinking about and framing change.

As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Almost all social change begins with an individual or a small group of people. Often, this individual or small group of committed citizens bands together in a network. Those networks tend to look for similar groups of concerned citizens or organizations to connect with. Share with. Learn with.

When networks share a common purpose, banding together and moving forward with a discipline of practice – a methodology to organize their work and behavior – they begin to create a much greater system of influence. That is, these organized networks begin to have a greater voice, more resources, and synergy that affects the world more than if their members had remained alone.

When that happens, the likelihood that change can occur greatly increases. Those who have read The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell will understand. This network works in a discipline of practice, creating a potential tipping point.

Malcolm Gladwell

Recognizing the importance of networking, United Way acts as the thread puller. What do I mean by that? We connect the individual or small groups to wider networks. We help those networks work in a more disciplined way to achieve results. Those results create a wider influence that, in turn, gives us a chance at sustainable, larger-scale change.

For example, our high school turnaround work follows this model. We connected with an individual, Michael Tenbusch, who had an idea on how to create change in public high schools.

Mike Tenbusch

Michael, in turn, connected with an organization that worked with networks. An invitation went out to those networks of teachers, superintendents, businesses, unions, and parents, urging them to come together and address the 30 lowest-performing high schools.

Those early-adopter networks began to work in a discipline of practice that guided their efforts and behaviors. Working together, the members of the network made progress, which in turn gave them a wider influence on the system. The initial network of five schools more than doubled in size when the GM Network of Excellence joined. Those schools banded together in a common practice and are changing the arc of education in Southeastern Michigan. This is creating a greater likelihood that we will see broad-based social change taking place in our lowest-performing schools.

Together, these networks have put our region in a place to effect change not only here, but throughout the state and the country.

Whether it is our high school, early childhood, hunger, or financial stability work, we follow this model for change in all of our efforts.

Other blog posts on Building a Strong Nonprofit

Building a Strong Nonprofit Part 1: Our Mission to Empower Metro Detroit Communities
Building a Strong Nonprofit Part 2: What’s a BHAG?
Building a Strong Nonprofit Part 3: Core Values
Building a Strong Nonprofit Part 4: Crafting a Purpose Statement
Building a Strong Nonprofit Part 6: Strategic Anchors
Building a Strong Nonprofit Part 7: Engagement Pyramid and Cycle
Building a Strong Nonprofit Part 8: Board Roles
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