Honesty and incremental reforms in the nonprofit sector may be the keys to solving difficult social issues

Poverty, ineffective education and violence have no easy solutions and many organizations over promise to achieve results.

Carlina Teteris - Getty

“We know what works to build safe and healthy communities.” So declares the American Civil Liberties Union. How many nonprofit organizations have uttered similar words over the years? In making the case to donors and policymakers, many nonprofits advance what amounts to a straightforward argument: “We know what works, and the only problem is that politicians lack the will to implement our proposed solutions.”   

If only it were that simple. 

The hard truth is that we do not know how to solve complicated problems like poverty, oppression and violence. Indeed, people of good faith have been debating how to solve these wicked problems for generations – and will likely continue to do so for generations to come. 

Unfortunately, it can be difficult for nonprofit organizations to speak this particular truth to power. 

The professional imperatives of the nonprofit sector often point away from honest communication. We speak here from personal experience. In order to generate political momentum and raise money, whether from individuals, foundations or government, it is often necessary to overstate both the problems that you are trying to address and the solutions that you are offering.   

Between the two of us, we have played a part in writing hundreds of grant proposals and pitch letters over the years. They almost always begin with an attempt to frame the problem at hand in the most urgent terms possible – and end with an overestimation of the likely impacts of changing policy. The result of all of this end-of-days rhetoric and ungrounded overconfidence is to increase public cynicism and undermine public trust in nonprofits.  

There are no easy answers when it comes to addressing issues like economic inequality, ineffective education and chronic homelessness. Indeed, as economist Thomas Sowell has argued, there are no solutions – only trade-offs. 

Values like quality and quantity, safety and freedom, and privacy and transparency are typically in tension with each other – more of one will usually mean less of the other. COVID-19 has been a powerful example of this, as efforts to combat the virus through lockdowns and other measures brought with them real costs to our social cohesion, mental health and the education of young people. Getting the balance right is all but impossible if we refuse to acknowledge that there are trade-offs.  

Nonprofits must be more honest in talking about the limitations of what we know. Their default setting should be to admit the obvious: Our problems are big and our brains are small. If we knew how to solve difficult social problems, we would have done it by now. 

More than a decade ago, when we were both employed by the Center for Court Innovation, we worked together on a project that sought to promote greater experimentation within the criminal justice system. As part of our inquiry, we talked to dozens of leading criminal justice scholars and practitioners. One of our favorite conversations was with the late Joan Petersilia, the winner of the Stockholm Prize, the Nobel Prize for criminologists.  

One reason we wanted to speak to Petersilia was that we had noticed that some criminal justice reform efforts that had been launched with a lot of excitement seemed to peter out over time, leaving a sense of disillusionment in their wake. When we asked Petersilia about this, she said that there was “a long history of over-promising and under-delivering” within criminal justice. She went on to say: “There’s nothing in our history of over 100 years of reform that says that we know how to reduce recidivism by more than 15 or 20 percent. And to achieve those rather modest outcomes, you have to get everything right: the right staff, delivering the right program, at the right time in the offender’s life, and in a supportive community environment. We just have to be more honest about that, and my sense is that we have not been publicly forthcoming because we’ve assumed that we would not win public support with modest results.”

Some may greet this news with dismay. But we don’t. It is estimated that two out of every three startup businesses ultimately fail. Why would we expect the success rate in the world of social policy to be any different? Indeed, for many years, the field of criminal justice labored under the cloud that “nothing works” – that it was effectively impossible to rehabilitate those who had committed criminal offenses. Even seemingly modest results like a 15% reduction in recidivism should be celebrated.   

Seen in the proper context, the improvements that Petersilia describes are not insignificant. Experience indicates that marginal reductions in reoffending, if sustained over enough years, will eventually lead to marked improvements in public safety. In this way, incremental reforms can, over time, add up to the kinds of major change that most nonprofits want to see in the world. 

Nonprofit organizations may not have any silver bullet answers to the social issues that continue to plague us, but they are well-suited to playing the long game. Unlike editorial writers or politicians, nonprofits are not driven by the demands of the 24-hour news cycle or the relentless rhythms of the electoral process. They can, and should, think about change over a time horizon measured in decades. 

This is the ultimate answer to the question of “what works?”: a relentless focus on alleviating human suffering that almost always requires years of incremental improvements in order to yield significant results.

Greg Berman is the co-editor of Vital City. Aubrey Fox is the executive director of New York City’s Criminal Justice Agency. Together, they are the co-authors of Gradual: The Case for Incremental Change in a Radical Age (forthcoming from Oxford University Press).

NEXT STORY: Finding the joy in social change