Colorado Nonprofits Should Think Football, not Golf

Teamwork, not independence, will deepen the investments given to nonprofits

Depending on the source, the number of charitable nonprofits in Colorado stands between 12,000 (says the Colorado Secretary of State) and more than 20,000 (according to the Colorado Nonprofit Association). These organizations garner attention and apply billions of dollars a year to vital work ranging from environmental advocacy and homeless services to addiction recovery, youth support and much more.

But there’s a problem: too often, charities operate in silos. They excel at their chosen missions, but in general do so independently and without enough focus on the bigger picture. 

In comparing this to the world of sports, nonprofits often act like golfers, athletes who, for the most part, operate independently of the competition. They might express their tally in terms of meals served or college scholarships promised, but such metrics are often narrow.

However, when they’re operating independently – though doing great work in their specialties – they don’t have a sense of how they could multiply their impact by fitting their contributions with those of other nonprofits. And, they often fail to see how help from outside strategic coordination and investments could further their impact.

Ideally, charities should operate more like football players. In this scenario, multitalented stars and players work together on an overarching game plan devised by strategists whose job it is to see the big picture, recognize who is best positioned to contribute and then coordinate the efforts of diverse specialists to attain a common goal.

For example, individual nonprofits specializing in nutrition education, health screening or mental health services could boost their overall effectiveness by collaborating in ways that measurably improve the overall health of their clients.

Having contributed to and closely observed nonprofits for decades now, I believe Colorado needs to shake up its focus. This isn’t to replace today’s nonprofits, but rather to identify synergies among existing, focused charities and give grants that empower them to work together for better outcomes.

Without deliberate coordination and strategic collaboration, it’s hard for nonprofits to know just how effective their programs really are in terms of improving the child or teen’s general well-being and long-term prospects – much less how to attain those goals.

I know most charitable nonprofits operate on lean budgets. Funders (rightly) expect results in the focused areas they explicitly operate. Specialists should specialize. And there are unquestionably nonprofits whose work can be done largely independently with great effect: Food Bank of the Rockies comes to mind.

But far more often, individual nonprofits can’t do it alone. By investing to transform this fractured nonprofit landscape into a more interdisciplinary, cohesive whole landscape, one can enhance the returns of billions already being spent on charitable causes. That’s a game we all should want to get into.

Larry Mueller is a founding trustee and treasurer of PIVOT, a 501c3 that he started in 2018 with John Elway and George Solich. PIVOT empowers nonprofits to collaborate for impact and holds them accountable for specific outcomes supporting Colorado youth. He is also the founder and CEO of Cuvée, the Denver-based luxury travel platform.

Categories: Management & Leadership