When Saving the World Isn’t Too Ambitious

For years, Share Our Strength, which is devoted to feeding the hungry, and KaBOOM!, which creates recreational spaces for kids, have been widely viewed as two of the most successful nonprofits around.

So why did the founders feel they weren’t doing enough?

At all too many nonprofits (including for a time at their own), “change is incremental, not big or bold enough to make a lasting and transformative impact,” Bill Shore and Amy Celep of Share Our Strength and Darell Hammond of KaBOOM! write in the most recent issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review. They fault a “failure of imagination or the fear of failure that leads us to the easier, less expensive solution rather than the solution that addresses the underlying problems.”


Instead of just feeding a lot of people or building a lot of playgrounds, the two groups formulated grander visions. Share Our Strength launched a campaign to end childhood hunger in America by 2015. KaBOOM! set the following goal: “All children, particularly the 16 million children living in poverty in the United States, get the play they need to become successful and healthy adults.” The authors write that both have been thriving as a result. “We must find the courage to aim for the harder-to-achieve long-term outcomes that will solve social problems,” the authors conclude. “Good is not good enough when people are suffering.”

The question of how high to set your sights is one Peter Drucker often discussed. “The public service institution needs a realistic statement of goals,” he wrote in Innovation and Entrepreneurship. “It should say, ‘Our job is to assuage famine,’ rather than, ‘Our job is to eliminate hunger.’ It needs something that is genuinely attainable and therefore a commitment to a realistic goal, so that it can say eventually, ‘Our job is finished.’”

That said, Drucker may well have seen the goals of Share Our Strength and KaBOOM! as striking a good balance between ambition and achievability. Making sure that kids don’t go hungry, for example, is more often than not a matter of connecting children to already-existing resources.

If there was a rule of thumb, it’s one we’ve noted: Create goals that are a stretch, but not unrealistic. “A plan can usually cover no more than 18 months and still be reasonably clear and specific,” Drucker wrote.

How do you decide whether a nonprofit has a realistic mission?