A New Paradigm: Toward a User-Centered Social Sector


by Tris Lumley 

When I last wrote for Stanford Social Innovation Review three years ago, I claimed that the social sector needed to undergo a transformation. The thesis I presented attempted to confront the realities of a sector in which organizations are in theory accountable to those they aim to serve, but in practice influenced significantly by the incentives an entirely different group of stakeholders creates: their funders and investors.

In the simplest possible terms, it’s all very well to focus on doing what’s most important and most effective to help those you aim to serve, but if that doesn’t align with what foundations, philanthropists, and other funders want you to do, you can’t even get off the starting blocks.

You could say that the nonprofit sector is a market for funding, not a market for social impact.

The sector is changing

Over the last three years, a number of trends have crystallized that I believe herald the promise of a new phase-perhaps even a new paradigm-for the social sector. I want to explore three of the most exciting, and sketch out where I believe they might take us and why we’d all do well to get involved.

  • The rise of feedback
  • New forms of collaboration
  • Disruption through technology

Taken individually, these three themes are hugely significant in their potential impact on the work of nonprofits and those that invest in them. But viewed together, as interwoven threads, I believe they have the potential to transform both how we work and the underlying fundamental incentives and structure of the social sector.

The rise of feedback

The nonprofit sector is built on a deep and rich history of community engagement. Yet, in a funding market that incentivizes accountability to funders, this strong tradition of listening, engagement, and ownership by primary constituents-the people and communities nonprofits exist to serve-has sometimes faded. Opportunities for funding can drive strategies. Practitioner experience and research evidence can shape program designs. Engagement with service users can become tokenistic, or shallow.

Yet over the last three years, the practice of listening systematically to primary constituents has begun to re-emerge and flourish. Led by pioneers like Keystone Accountability’s David Bonbright and more recently by leaders like Feedback Labs’ Dennis Whittle, the movement to more fully incorporate constituent or user voice in program analysis and design has been gathering momentum.

In July 2014, a group of progressive US foundations formed the Fund for Shared Insight to explore and invest in these approaches. As the number of case studies on nonprofits’ use of feedback grows, so does the evidence of its benefits-it can improve programs, inform decision-making, and drive learning. A brief scan of the field provides multiple examples of these benefits, such as Integrity Action’s Fix Rate, which reports on how development projects respond to community feedback, and the subsequent actions organizations take to address identified issues. For example… READ MORE…