Reality TV seems to be dominating television lately. I have to say upfront that I’ve never been a fan; it’s just not my ‘thing’. However, I happened to catch a clip of ABCs Shark Tank last week and was intrigued so I went on-line to learn more about it. Being a bit of an out-of-the-box thinker myself, I can relate to the entrepeneur-hopefuls that go on the show. And of course, I’m always looking for connections; ways that one concept can be translated or applied to another field and things that can be learned from the lessons of others.
My first thought on watching this program was what my ‘next big business’ idea might be if I were to go on the show. But I quickly realized that this would probably never happen. It’s not that I don’t have a few ideas playing hopscotch through the neurons in my brain. It’s more about the fact that I’m way too invested in the non-profit mindset to pursue something like this.
So I made the obvious leap to asking myself, “what would this look like if the goal was to provide a platform for people to launch the latest, greatest idea for a non-profit?” What if the ‘contestants’ were people who had identified a passion based on societal need and were seeking technical and/or financial assistance to translate their idea into a successful non-profit?
There are many reasons to start such a program. Perhaps most significant of all is the fact that with the current economic climate, most non-profits are seeing a decline in charitable giving. This is particularly problematic given the expectation by many that non-profits will provide the necessary supports to those adversely affected by the pervasive ‘downsizing’ in businesses and sadly some closings, both large and small. Many politicians, including President Obama, have identified the non-profit sector as the venue that will bridge the gap between public supports and needs in communities. However, this sector, although negatively impacted by the economy, has not been part of the now infamous ‘bail-outs’ that are the hallmark of the last few years. Hence, despite the fact that the needs are greater, the resources and supports are declining. But I, no doubt, am ‘preaching to the choir’–anyone in the non-profit world is aware of this harsh reality.
This is where Reality TV (and my serendipitous intro to the program, Shark Tank) comes into the picture. Imagine if you will, a program where a panel of leaders in philanthropy, non-profit management, and/or business are introduced to forward-thinking, civic-minded individuals who want to pursue a ‘higher calling’ and start a non-profit agency targeting a specific need. The panel (or judges) would listen to the ‘pitch’, make an on-the-spot evaluation of the viability of the concept, importance of the issue, level and type of need, and likelihood of success of the ‘would-be entrepreneur’. They then consider a specific request made by the individual (or group of persons) for technical and/or financial support. It may be that the person needs help with the logistics of setting up or identifying a dynamic board of directors, pursuing fund-raising activities, mobilizing a community, or building the capacity to carry out their mission. The panel/judges would then decide whether to grant the request, make a counter-offer, or decline the proposal. They would have the benefit of being identified with an ‘up and coming’ organization and possibly provide leadership in fulfilling the mission and vision of the cause. The program could offer a venue for leaders (both panelists and the entrepreneurs) to shape the non-profit landscape and improve the quality of life for hundreds, thousands, or even millions of potential beneficiaries of the products and services provided.
This scenario could be expanded to include established non-profit agencies that are struggling to stay afloat. Anyone in this field knows that numerous organizations have merged or closed despite their continued need in communities. Leadership from these organizations might present their ‘case’ for receiving technical and financial assistance to redefine their roles in order to continue to fulfill critical missions.
Given my experiences, I think of all the advocacy organizations that have either downsized, merged, or closed entirely, leaving a significant void in the representation of vulnerable populations and worthwhile causes. These are voices that deserve to be heard, as much as oil companies or financial institutions (if not more), and yet they are gradually declining or disappearing altogether because of the economic climate. As philanthropic organizations struggle to fill widening gaps in basic infrastructure types of activities, such as the services provided by food banks and health care facilities, advocacy organizations have largely been left with shrinking donations and fewer options for pursuing support. (This is not to say that the direct services provided by the non-profit sector are doing well–because they aren’t.) These existing organizations might compete, along with potential new non-profit solutions, to make their case for support so desperately needed. In my non-profit Shark Tank, the panelists or judges might offer technical support to redefine an organization’s mission and structure, identify new funding strategies or donors, or provide direct financial support.
Of course, the added benefit of this concept is the increased exposure to a very large audience of potential ‘sharks’ (aka, TV viewers) looking for ways to improve their communities or great ideas to support. There likely are many people, and companies, who were not even considering making donations or supporting a non-profit agency that might be inspired to do so as a result of watching the “Non-Profit Shark Tank”. So what do you say ABC? Could this be the next great reality show?