From Social Service to Social Justice: Adjusting our Focus from Organizations to Impact

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“We have to get the annual report out to our donors ASAP.”

“How are we going to fund the program coordinator role next year?”

“The board meeting is in three weeks — time to focus on the materials, food, and seating arrangements!”

If these statements sound familiar, you’re in good company. Running social service nonprofits is hard work. To tackle the challenge, we earn degrees in nonprofit management, attend endless trainings, and battle for funding to cover general operating costs.

Amidst these realities, we are trying to make a difference. But the legal structures that shape nonprofits focus primarily on finances and not on impact.

We have to ask ourselves: why do nonprofit leaders have a fiduciary responsibility to organizations and not to the people they serve?

While nonprofits have a legal mandate to sustain themselves, no such law exists that requires them to listen and respond to their beneficiaries, or even to operate in a way that maximizes their impact. Our laws ensure these organizations have a broadly-defined “charitable” goal and that they do not exist for individual benefit. That’s it. We are left focusing on what these organizations are not (for-profit), than what they are: for-purpose.

In a sector that spends $2 trillion annually (National Council of Nonprofits, 2019), we must have an explicit commitment to use our resources to design programs and define impact in the most effective way possible. Social service nonprofits must collectively commit to holding themselves accountable not for keeping the doors open, but to measurable change. This means placing service recipients and their communities at the top of the proverbial organizational chart, making nonprofit leaders accountable to the clients they serve. Our budgets and staffing patterns should then be aligned to what will be most impactful, rather than starting with maintaining the status quo and structuring programs around the organization’s capacity and finances.

With no legal mandate to focus on impact and beneficiaries, and in fact requiring leaders to focus on sustaining the organization, we are susceptible to losing sight of community needs and solutions, instead focusing on staffing, contracts, budgets, and funders. This article suggests strategies for avoiding this pitfall, and concludes with a call to establish a new accountability structure in the nonprofit sector.

A Missing Responsibility

Codified in state laws, the sector’s legal mandates include three primary responsibilities of nonprofit boards of directors:

  • Duty of care: directors must stay informed and make decisions about the organization
  • Duty of loyalty: directors must act in the organization’s best interest, not in their own
  • Duty of obedience: directors must comply with the law and the organization’s governing documents (Hopkins and Gross, 2016)

While in practice some boards are more active than others, the fact remains that they have been anointed by the government as the keepers of nonprofits. Despite this immense power, our laws say nothing about ensuring that boards communicate with the people they are meant to serve or continuously improve services until they achieve meaningful results.

This is perhaps most troubling in the case of nonprofits that exist to serve people in low-income communities. The shortest pathway onto a nonprofit board isn’t lived experience with the cause, but access to resources. Boards are typically full of people who want to share their time, talent, and treasure to make the world a better place. They are also typically populated with people who have access to much-needed funding, and therefore they, by necessity, are not representative of the communities they serve. Moreover, nearly 60% of low-income Americans are people of color (Urban Institute, 2009), whereas 90% of board chairs and nonprofit executives are white (BoardSource, 2018). This doesn’t mean they don’t intend to serve their constituents well, but it may create a disconnect in understanding the lives and needs of the people who rely on their organizations. Unless we shift power to communities and hold ourselves accountable to them, we risk running programs designed by well-meaning leaders, funded by well-meaning foundations, that may not have the impact needed as defined by the people who we intend to serve.

Adopting a Fourth Mandate

Though the law does not bind nonprofits beyond the duties of care, loyalty, and obedience, we can and should adopt a set of practices that ensure we achieve real impact, driven by the communities we serve. This Duty of Equity can be achieved in a number of ways:

  • Include members of the community served as members of the board, welcoming them to an inclusive space (which may require training and culture shifts) with meaningful authority to lead the organization’s work.
  • Use planning strategies such as root cause analysis and liberatory design to question structures that reproduce oppression and design interventions that treat core systemic issues, not their symptoms.
  • Hire from the community you serve, valuing lived experience as much or more than academic and professional backgrounds.
  • Establish a flexible talent structure through which you can engage the expertise and skills needed for each program, service, and activity rather than structuring work around maintaining a predetermined headcount.
  • Engage in participatory evaluation, allowing constituents to help shape the outcomes to be tracked and to assess the organization’s performance.

We know each of these practices on their own, or even in combination, are not sufficient to disrupt systemic oppression. True equity requires eliminating disparities, shifting and sharing power, and creating communities where all can thrive. However, these practices are within organizations’ control, and hold promise to create space for progress.

There are numerous examples of organizations already engaging in these practices. For example, the Partnership for After School Education (PASE) has written into its by-laws its commitment to a minimum number of board members who represent youth services agencies, the primary recipients of PASE’s capacity-building services in NYC. Girls Leadership, which provides both direct service and professional development related to working with young women nationally, uses liberatory design to create programs with girls, not for them. CN Guidance and Counseling Services, a regional nonprofit delivering substance abuse treatment programs, requires staff to have “relevant life experience” with substance abuse, mental health, or living with a disability so they can effectively model behavior and aid in clients’ recovery. And After School Matters, a Chicago organization that facilitates apprenticeship programs for young adults, hires participants as evaluation interns to develop surveys, analyze data, and organize focus groups with peers.

Take the Pledge

If these practices sound familiar, or if you would like them to, your organization is ready to take the Duty of Equity pledge. Leaders might use the pledge as an opportunity to start, or reignite, a dialogue within their organizations about how to put people, power, and purpose at the center of their work. Strong organizations are the backbone of important, and in many cases life-changing, programs, but they are a means to a more important end, and it’s easy to get mired in making payroll and hitting output targets without an active commitment to the bigger picture.

To take the pledge, and receive resources to help you bring the Duty of Equity to fruition in your organization, visit


The title of this article invokes the work of Paul Kivel (2017), who wisely reminds us that when, for example, “emergency food [becomes] a substitute for a decent job [or] tutoring a substitute for adequate public schools,” we have to pull back on delivering services and focus on changing conditions that lead to structural, scalable change. To be clear, the challenge that this article highlights is with the law and our common understanding of nonprofit leaders’ responsibilities to their fiscal management rather than to the mission, not with the hard-working leaders and staff who dedicate their lives and livelihood to their work. Nobody in the nonprofit sector today created these laws that gave more value to organizational sustainability than to impact.

Keeping the lights on to run programs is critical, but not sufficient, to bring material change to people’s lives. In this spirit, the Duty of Equity reminds us to hold ourselves to a higher standard than the baseline set by the law. Together, we can deliver social services and strive for social justice.

Reference List

BoardSource. (2018). Leading with impact. Retrieved from

Hopkins, B. R. and Gross, V. C. (2016). “The legal framework of the nonprofit sector in the United States” in David O. Renz, ed., The Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management, 4th Edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kivel, P. (2017). “Social service or social change?” in INCITE! Ed., The Revolution Will Not Be Funded. Durham: Duke University Press.

National Council of Nonprofits. (2019). Economic impact. Retrieved from

Urban Institute. (2009). Racial and ethnic disparities among low-income families. Retrieved from

Written by

Jen is CEO of Change Impact, a social impact consultancy that supports mission-driven agencies to achieve meaningful outcomes.

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