Notes from the field, thoughts for the future.


A 2017 retrospective and big questions for the new year

Mighty Ally | Blog | Increase the True Impact of Pro Bono | girls photo

In the midst of a weather-delayed 36-hour journey back to Africa last week, I had plenty of time to reflect on Mighty Ally’s progress in 2017 and contemplate my nascent viewpoint for the social sector in the new year. With just two days left before we flip the calendar, my field notes leave me bouncing between feelings of fulfillment and fervor for more.

I’m thankful for all the growth and learning we’ve amassed in our first (partial) year. And sincerely grateful for those early supporters and allies who chose to join us in this ambitious – but necessary – venture. It’s been a whirlwind, but we have some solid success stories and business model momentum to carry with us into 2018. Not to mention (quick humblebrag here), we hope the feature in Forbes was an early indication of interest in this collective endeavor.

We’ve already worked with a half dozen nonprofits and social enterprises in six countries on three continents – including our own backyard – and unearthed real demand for this offering. We’re proving there’s a special chemistry created in the combination of our business skills with our changemakers' knack for grassroots programs. Reflecting on our initial client engagements, highlights of the year include the strategic consulting work for Agruppa (detailed in this case study) and a heart-warming holiday fundraising campaign for Lwala Community Alliance (see below).

Thanks to our agency allies LS Creative & Ballyhoo Blue Workshop for their excellent work on this integrated direct mail piece and digital campaign for Lwala Community Alliance. Using a theme of growth and real drawings from community children, the effort was instrumental in reaching Lwala's annual fundraising goal.

Thanks to our agency allies LS Creative & Ballyhoo Blue Workshop for their excellent work on this integrated direct mail piece and digital campaign for Lwala Community Alliance. Using a theme of growth and real drawings from community children, the effort was instrumental in reaching Lwala's annual fundraising goal.


To serve our clients, a handful of the most talented agencies in the world have joined us as allies in the fight, validating that a lot of bright minds from the for-profit sector are eager to participate in social impact.

Similarly, we’ve landed a significant brand ally to substantiate our steadfast belief that corporations can, should, and want to be changemakers too. We’re busy working with a $500 million, publicly-traded healthcare company and shaping their history of commendable philanthropy into a concerted and measurable corporate social responsibility strategy. It's a model for future brand allies to come.

These early takeaways are all worth toasting when the clock strikes midnight Sunday. But I’m extremely impatient for all the work left to be done – not only within our own model, but more broadly in the world at large. And I remain ravenously curious about some looming big picture questions as we look toward the future.

Our vision is to help create a society of individual and corporate citizens that prioritizes our most vulnerable and those who serve them. But it’s going to take a herculean effort on numerous fronts to break down existing paradigms and change some deeply ingrained priorities. 

First, will brands follow the lead and prioritize shared value over archaic top-down corporate philanthropy?

The idea of shared value – finding the intersection of social needs, corporate assets, and business opportunities – was coined nearly seven years ago. But in our early days of speaking on the topic and listening to brands, we’re finding that most – especially small cap companies – are still OK with merely cutting checks to charity and giving employees volunteer days as a means toward social responsibility. As Kathleen wrote about recently, these previously laudable efforts are no longer enough – consumers demand more. We need to continue evangelizing the core truth that business has the opportunity to create real change on massive social problems and at the same time achieve economic success. So is 2018 the turning point when brands start to find that elusive intersection of creating both shareholder and social value?

Doing well and doing good are not separate or separable efforts. Every day, everywhere, we compete in the global economy. At the center of our efforts is the premise of service, service to a truth larger than self, a demand more pressing even than this quarter’s earnings. While we are absolutely accountable to our shareholders, we also recognize and accept our responsibility to share our strength-to work, in the context of our for-profit business, for the common good.
— Jeff Swartz, former third-generation CEO, Timberland

Second, will foundations begin to prioritize an equal opportunity for capacity building investments alongside traditional programmatic grants?

The National Council of Nonprofits defines capacity building as whatever is needed to bring a nonprofit to the next level of operational, programmatic, financial, or organizational maturity, in order to more effectively and efficiently fulfill its mission. Sounds logical, right? But with a third of all nonprofits operating in the zone of insolvency despite hard work and noble missions, something is still missing. The annual survey conducted by Grantmakers for Effective Organizations finds that ¾ of foundations in the U.S. provide some type of capacity building support to nonprofit grantees. That sounds positive, but only ¼ of those same respondents report that they’ve increased their capacity building budgets in the past three years. Further, in our informal findings to date, our nonprofit clients often receive foundation gifts for programs in the hundreds of thousands of dollars with capacity building investments in the tens of thousands. If not less. A cursory online search yields articles like “Is Capacity Building Making a Comeback?” from 2008 and “The Return of Capacity Building” in 2014. That’s telling. Can we turn the page in the new year to once and for all solidify capacity building as a necessary equal?

Nonprofits, just like businesses, need to focus on building the capacity of their entire organization if they want to maximize their social impact. Both board and staff need to dedicate themselves to raising capacity building to the same level of importance and attention as program development and management – to think early and often about strengthening the organization in lockstep with implementing programs.
— McKinsey & Company, Effective Capacity Building in Nonprofit Organizations

Third, will more agencies break out of the pro bono mindset in order to prioritize purposeful ways to activate their time and talent?

In the past couple of months, we met a number of service firms that felt the challenges and risks of traditional pro bono, for all parties involved. Employees are craving more meaningful use of their skills. And nonprofits have countless needs beyond a quick turnaround project job. At the same time, we continue to see agencies propping up their community involvement via annual hackathons or pro bono hours donated to causes that are only important to the CEO or key client. In thinking back to our blog post in October, is 2018 the year we push the conversation past aid toward true accompaniment? Can we help agencies become more productive in the social impact space by recognizing that one-off pro bono work in a silo is only scratching the surface?

Solving a problem in a vacuum is a waste of time and money. When hackathon participants don’t have the right contextual knowledge and technical expertise, they tend to come up with ideas that are neither feasible nor inventive. Everything hinges on the hard, sometimes tedious work of taking a promising idea and making it work – technically, legally, financially, culturally, ecologically.
— Kara Penn, Mission Spark

Fourth and finally, will Americans once and for all increase charitable giving and volunteerism beyond stagnated levels?

The “stubborn 2% giving rate” has been analyzed at length and previous efforts to increase individuals’ share of wallet have failed. And while the United States has a long history of volunteerism (thanks Ben Franklin!), the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that just 25% of individuals volunteer for a cause... down from 29% in 2003. The thought of this apathy often keeps me up at night – as an American people we give just 2% of our gross income and only one in four of us gives our time, despite controlling 42% of the world’s wealth. Wow. But I wonder if we’re on the cusp of a few colliding forces that just might tip the scales once and for all? 2017 was a year of political and environmental turmoil like no other, changemakers have more channels than ever before to tell their story, and millennials are reshaping the worlds of charity and online giving as the most benevolent generation ever. Not to mention recent cuts in foreign aid by the current administration have left a massive gap in the social sector that we as citizens will have to fill. This confluence seems like a recipe for breakthrough. So are we as individuals ready to more formally jump into the good fight too and is 2018 “the year” when it all comes together?

It is prodigious the quantity of good that may be done by one man, if he will make a business of it. It is equally surprising to think of the very little that is done by many.
— Benjamin Franklin

Empathy, growth, and humility – those are the themes I carry with us from 2017. A few months in, Kathleen, Sarah, and I are just plain thankful to be combining our personal and professional passions and growing tremendously with Mighty Ally along the way. And we’re realistic enough to be happy playing our small part in this grand scheme.

Collaboration, hustle, and fight – the tune for the new year. The world’s most pressing social problems need our collective pressing attention. And we’re just bold enough to think we can help lead the charge.