True friends have an uncanny ability to drop into your life and give you insights when you least expect it. This happened last week when I was catching up with Sommer Neff, a longtime friend and colleague (and a hell of a grant writer, if you need one). We were catching up and somehow she mentioned the “The Parable of the Long Spoons.” You know me – as a Texan I’m a collector of tall tales, but this one was new to me. Originally written by Rabbi Haim, a traveling rabbi in Lithuania who used this parable whenever he entered a new village, it depicts two versions of the same banquet. In the first banquet, guests had a table full of amazing delicacies, but they were upset because they could not feed themselves because their spoons are too long. As a result, they could not enjoy the wonderful banquet and, eventually, they starved. This represented the rabbi’s version of hell. In the second banquet, guests had the same food and the same spoons but figured out the trick – they scooped up the delicacies and fed each other in turns. At this banquet, folks laughed and shared stories. This represented heaven. Heaven and hell had the same conditions, but the difference was clear – the way people treated each other. Rabbi Haim made the point that we suffer when we only think of ourselves, but we thrive when we understand our interconnectedness and work together toward the common good.

In 2022, we are dedicating our Nonprofit Trends post to global interconnectedness. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we are all connected – what happens in one part of the world impacts us all. It also has brought many challenges to the forefront – income inequality, climate change, labor relations and public health challenges.

On September 25, 2015, the United Nations (UN) asked businesses, nonprofits, individuals and government agencies around the world to collaborate on solving society’s biggest global problems by 2030 and sign a joint outcomes document, Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (see the goals and the agenda).

Similar to “The Parable of the Long Spoons,” the UN made a universal promise to leave “no one behind” in achieving a peaceful and prosperous world by 2030. It was ultimately signed by 193 nations.

The global blueprint has 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) with 169 detailed targets and 242 indicators. For an in-depth explanation by notable figures, we love this video. The goals are organized into the 5 Ps – people concentrates on ending poverty and hunger and promoting health, equality and education; planet refers to protecting the earth now and in the future; prosperity aims to ensure that all lives are prosperous and fulfilling; peace focuses on just and inclusive societies; and partnership elevates the mobilization needed by all in achieving these ambitious goals by 2030.

While this may seem lofty, its predecessor, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were the world’s most successful anti-poverty measure and raised 1 billion people – 14% of the world’s population – out of poverty. Here are some shifts that are essential for thinking about these goals within our ourselves and our own communities:

Interconnectedness vs. Collaboration

As the parable suggests and the pandemic has taught us, we all do better when we understand that we are all connected. The more we connect the dots between our work and think about system change, the more successful we will be at accomplishing the SDGs. And it takes more than just talk. It requires a concerted and comprehensive effort to build bridges between sectors, industries, generations and hierarchies. It requires us to move beyond short-term thinking toward creating shared value and long-term success for our collective community. For example, in 2017 the city of Los Angeles launched a comprehensive effort to advance SDGs by measuring their progress toward the goals and building partnerships to advance action. In 2019 and 2021, the city published its first Voluntary Local Review, which maps local efforts against the goals, to ensure accountability.

Impact Accountability vs. Impact Measurement

Impact accountability is an elevated standard of not just creating and measuring goals and values that connect to organizational success, but also creating stretch goals, such as the SDGs, that connect to community and even global success. For a great video to help you map your goals to SDGs, we highly recommend this one. High-performance organizations also have goals that are principled, which means they are clear, motivating and actionable, reinforced through internal accountability practices and reported on through a third-party process. To help with this transition from measurement to accountability, the Center for Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University has released a free online training for global enterprises and investors on impact measurement and management for the SDGs. Through this new online course, anyone can learn how to improve their organization’s practice of impact management and align their impact activities and reporting with emerging global standards.

Stewardship vs. Ownership

Stewardship is the responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care. While we may “own land” or “own a company,” stewardship goes a little deeper and places a heightened obligation on the owner to properly steward the asset now and in the future. Many companies are now using the SDGs to be good stewards of not only their companies, but also for the greater good. For example, Volkswagen has a goal to be climate neutral by 2050. Social sector organizations should do the same and consider issues beyond their mission, such as living wage, environmental practices and ethical behavior. In a past blog post that I co-authored with CEO Joanna St. Angelo of the Sammons Center for the Arts, we shared some specific examples of how nonprofits can be better stewards of finite resources.

Impact Investing vs. Donation

Impact investing illustrates the power of investments to impact social, environmental and financial systems. Increasingly, social sector organizations are looking at a range of options – beyond just donations – to show how social issues have an impact on long-term social and financial progress to gain access to new forms of capital, including program-related investmentssocial impact bonds and venture capital. And foundations and individuals are investing based on their values. For example, the Gates Foundation is one of the world’s largest impact investors and uses all its resources to impact change.

Community-Driven System Change vs. System Change

We have written a lot about system change, but the best system change happens in partnership with the community. Recently, funders and system change experts have made this even clearer by redefining system change as “community-driven system change.” Community-driven systems change is “an approach to development and social transformation that emphasizes the insight, leadership and ownership of the people who are living and experiencing issues at the community level, and their work to create lasting change in the systems and root causes that underlie the critical issues they seek to address.” This bottom-up approach is a fundamental component of social entrepreneurship that often gets missed, but it one of the most important.

The pandemic was a wake-up call for many of us. We are not alone in our work and, to make a sustained difference, we not only have to be good stewards of finite resources, but we also need to think deeply about how our work can be more impactful. As we approach Global Goals Week 2022 (January 15-22), we encourage you to pick 1-2 goals and talk about how your work connects with them. And, even better, pick 1-2 goals outside your mission and tackle them in 2022. For example, I have one client that is addressing living wages in their nonprofit and another that is asking all departments to assess and then reduce their environmental footprint.

If you missed our nonprofit trend posts from the past nine years, please check them out! We welcome your feedback on these or others. Future posts will delve further into each of these topics, and, as always, if you loved what you read, pass it on to others.


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