The Power of Shared Purpose: A Core Concept of Extraordinary Small Nonprofits


November 12, 2015; Poynter

Size and impact are not always correlated as far as nonprofits are concerned. There is always something impressive about a small nonprofit that punches well above its weight class. What creates that kind of magic?

Peter Senge and Charles Kiefer, whose work was later associated with the concept of the “learning organization,” used the term “metanoic organizations” to describe this dynamic of building “the extraordinary power of a group of people who, securely rooted in their individual creative power, bond together to collectively bring into being a vision that none could accomplish alone.”

A metanoic organization is one that has undergone a fundamental shift of orientation, going from the individual and collective belief that people are responsible for their individual lives, duties, and responsibilities and are, in the extreme, working in siloes without connection to others in the organization and community, to the conviction that they are building a collective vision—not merely to make money, but because it is consistent with their own life’s purpose. Consequently, the vision held in a metanoic organization is not only worthy of each member’s highest personal ideals and commitment but also of constant communication of progress and problems so all stays aligned.

The Poynter Institute traveled to The Lens, the small but influential nonprofit news operation in New Orleans, as part of a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation to identify methods of success other organizations can replicate. Poynter will showcase its findings during the Poynter Nonprofit News Exchange on January 20–22, 2016, in St. Petersburg, Florida.

At first glance, the chances of the tiny Lens staff of eight producing award-winning journalism may seem unlikely. The nonprofit is located in a nondescript industrial park in uptown New Orleans where the office doors are protected by burglar bars and furniture is an eclectic mix of plastic furniture bought at area thrift shops. But in 2015, The Lens received the prestigious Edward R. Murrow Award in partnership with ProPublica for their investigative reporting in “Losing Ground.”

As Katie Hawkins-Gaar of the Poynter Institute visited The Lens, she noted the strong sense of purpose and unity in the newsroom as well as a shared understanding of what stories were worth covering. Each individual was empowered by the organization’s mission “to engage and empower the residents of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast by providing the information and analysis necessary to advocate for more accountable and just governance.”

As readers will note, this mission establishes the ways The Lens will work toward its goal. But perhaps not all missions would work out the same way. Both the process and the goal are about participation towards collective ends; if they were unable to model internally what they want to create externally, the organization might not be so vibrant or productive.

As the Lens demonstrates, organizations experience a fundamental shift in orientation when they embed their mission into their daily as well as long-term objectives and goals. Once so embedded, the staff is empowered and connects the mission to their position duties and responsibilities. One opportunity is during agency and department meetings, when time is set aside for clients to tell their stories or for direct service staff to share. These opportunities are referred to as “mission moments.” Other options are for administrative staff to receive opportunities to directly engage in mission work by taking on other responsibilities for a short period of time. This concept of redundancy, often dismissed as less than fully efficient, can be used across an organization to create depth, open opportunities to adjust ways of working, and eliminate vulnerabilities.

As the organization achieves the plan’s objectives, the entire organization celebrates together. Leaders highlight each individual’s role equally. Board members, other volunteers, and donors are included as well. The celebration further engages all team members and energizes the entire organization around the mission. These activities also empower donors to be more generous and discuss the work with other potential donors.

But not every organization can bring this off. It takes a different orientation toward leadership and personal agency. As Charles Kiefer wrote in “Leadership in Metanoic Organizations”:

A metanoic organization is one that has undergone a fundamental shift of orientation from the individual and collective belief that people must cope with life, and in the extreme, are helpless and powerless, to the conviction that they are individually and collectively empowered to create their future and shape their destiny.

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“Property of” No More: Nonprofits Help Sex Trafficking Survivors Remove Markings


In the United States, the trafficking of human beings is a billion-dollar industry. Criminals profit because crimes go unreported and underreported. Since the risk of being caught is low, pimps and gangs engaging in sex trafficking are becoming more brazen and violent. Many use tattoos to mark women as property. Women escaping the brothels have more frequently turned to nonprofits and generous donors to fund procedures to cover the markings of the world they attempt to escape.

Sex traffickers entice their victims with promises of illegal drugs, luxuries, high-paying jobs, and romantic relationships. Once trapped in their web, victims are subject to crushing control, physical and emotional abuse, sexual assault, and isolation. Victims are treated as property of the pimp or gang. Tattoos are systematically used to identify ownership as well as status as “best” provider of sexual acts. Tattoo artists live in crack houses, often tattooing women between “customers.” Markings include gang symbols, sexual slang words, dollar signs, “Property of X” and, increasingly, bar codes that can be scanned by smartphones. These tattoos are placed all over women’s bodies, including on their breasts, legs, eyelids, and gums.

Less than two years ago, Jennifer Kempton was part of a very different life. She was considered the “property of” a gang of thugs in Columbus, Ohio. The horror began after her boyfriend sold her to fund his own addiction and eventually directly to the gang. While part of the gang, she was branded four times including a tattoo marking her “property of Salem.” Mandated to sell her body for a daily quota of $500 to $1000 from six to ten men every day, Jennifer tried to commit suicide. When the attempt failed, she escaped the gang and eventually founded Survivor’s Ink. The nonprofit organization partners with a local tattoo artist to cover up and transform the tattoos abusers use to mark women into images of hope and recovery.

In the six months since the project began, donors have funded seven scholarships. Andrea was one of the first women funded by Survivor’s Ink. She was the victim of a dysfunctional childhood and later became addicted to drugs. Her abusers accused her of stealing and pistol-whipped her immediately before tattooing a heart and her abuser’s initials on her breast.

Outside of Chicago, a tattoo artist started the INK 180 ministry. The nonprofit began by engaging youth in creating murals to cover gang graffiti. By working with youth, the founder learned how difficult it was for former gang members to begin new lives. Many employers would not hire a former gang member due to the gang tattoos on their bodies. Quickly, activities grew to also include sex trafficking survivors. The organization works with law enforcement to identify survivors, and markings are covered completely free of charge.

According to the International Labour Organization, in 2012, an estimated 20.9 million victims around the world—1.5 million in North America alone—were exploited in the trafficking industry. Ninety percent of victims are entangled by individuals and businesses. Of those, 68 percent are forced to participate in the exploitation of their labor and 22 percent are exploited for sex. Three-quarters of the victims are adults; men and women are roughly equally taken advantage of (55 percent women; 45 percent men). Trafficking occurs in every state, but the three states with the most cases are California, Florida, and Texas.

Perpetrators of the sex trade are exceptionally violent and pursue younger victims. Girls Educational & Mentoring Services (GEMS) estimates that there are 300,000 American girls involved in the industry at any given moment and the average starting age is 13. The National Runaway Safeline estimates that within 48 hours of leaving home, one third of all runaway teens are approached by traffickers.

Survivors struggle to escape their captors. They are isolated with few resources and are unfamiliar with their surroundings—even the language. Thanks to the pimps and gangs that use them, many women have criminal felony records for drug possession and prostitution. In many states, through nonprofit advocacy efforts, there has been a shift in prosecution, creating court procedures to help survivors clear their names.

More and more, nonprofits are focusing on alleviating demand as well as providing services to survivors. Many victims of human trafficking are vulnerable to exploitation, but the laws of supply and demand dictate the industry’s profits. Human trafficking is driven by the demand for cheap labor and commercial sex.

Once their bodies are clear of the violent physical reminders, survivors continue their fight to rebuild their lives and hope for the future.

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