There is a myth that has been perpetuated for decades and likely for more than a century. It is a myth sustained by a phrase that is widely known, commonly used and accepted as true, and handed down generationally to inspire others to learn and become more educated.
Now, on the surface, one would think that the ability to inspire someone to learn more and achieve higher levels of education with one simple phrase would be a phenomenal thing. However, I contend that in this case, it is definitely not a good thing. Unfortunately, I would venture to guess that all of us have either; used this phrase ourselves, heard someone else use it, had someone tell it to us, or some combination of the three. Therefore, the falsehood continues to be perpetuated. That phrase: “knowledge is power.”
I contend that knowledge, in fact, is NOT power. Now, I know what you’re thinking, ‘what do mean knowledge is not power?’
Well, my argument is that knowledge simply equates to information. While the myth does have some aspect of truth, I believe there is another paradigm to consider. Simply attaining knowledge does not equal or grant power. But, attaining knowledge creates an opportunity to use that information, which CAN create power.
Thus, this argument begs two questions. What is knowledge? And, what is power?
According to the Oxford Dictionary, knowledge is: “Facts, information, and skills acquired through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject.” According to the same source, power is: “The ability or capacity to do something or act in a particular way, the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events.”
So, with these two definitions, we can put the common myth to rest. The mere act of attaining facts, information or even education does not guarantee that one will act in a particular way, be able to direct others, or, influence the course of events. I believe the most important factor in creating power is the ACTION that one takes over simply attaining knowledge. It is putting that knowledge into action that produces the ability to influence behaviors and/or events…Power.
To be fair, there was a time in the past when attaining knowledge or information did, in fact, equate to having power. So, for some of you, if in the past your grandparent or great-grandparent told you to study hard because knowledge is power, they were absolutely right. That time has long since passed, thanks to the Internet.
In the distant past, knowledge was power because so few had access to information, to facts and to education. Now the Internet has made facts and information ubiquitous, and portable. With an internet connection, you can find the answer to any question in almost every language spoken in a matter of seconds. Today nearly everyone on Earth has the same information at their fingertips, yet not everyone possesses power.
So what does all of this have to do with the nonprofit sector? When you think of a “nonprofit” what do you think? Most people likely think of a group making a difference in the community. Maybe you think of large organizations, such as the Make-a-Wish Foundation, Boys & Girls Clubs of America or Habitat for Humanity; or perhaps you think of a local animal shelter or food bank.
There are 29 types of nonprofits that are tax-exempt under Section 501(c) of the U.S. code. These organizations are engaged in every community by working to protect the environment and animal rights, to shelter the homeless and feed the hungry, to heal and comfort the sick, to educate and develop professionals, to nurture our bodies and spirits. These organizations are making a difference every day by championing our beliefs to improve our communities and our society.
There are more than 1.5 million nonprofits in the U.S.A. Most people look very favorably on the work that legitimate nonprofits perform and millions of Americans volunteer to help advance the missions. Nonprofits typically are reliable sources of information (knowledge) about their respective focus areas and demographics. There are many nonprofits whose sole purpose is to gather data, to provide access to aggregated information and identify and track trends, all to help organizations and contributors achieve maximum results for their efforts and resources.
Approximately 12% ($43 billion) of the $358.38 billion* donated to U.S. nonprofits by individuals, foundations, bequests, and corporations go to human services organizations. Respectively, 32% and 15% of the total contributions go to religious organizations and educational institutions.
So, there are a lot of nonprofit organizations in this country that are very knowledgeable about the issues our communities face, and maintain the information about the results achieved. The many individuals that do this work are highly engaged on a daily basis and supported by all stakeholders. While there is always a need for more money, $358 billion can go a long way towards resolving some of society’s complex issues. This scenario seems like an awesome formula for massive success, but there is a problem.
With so many well-informed and well-funded nonprofits, so many engaged funders and workers/volunteers actively pursuing solutions to society’s most complex issues, why do we continue to see the disparity in education based on zip code? Why do we see U.S. academic achievement overall continue to lag that of many other countries? Why do we continue to see more children and families living in poverty, while the wealthiest individuals increase their net worth exponentially? Why do we continue to see the gap widen between those that are economically mobile and those that are not? And, why are American drug/alcohol addiction and mortality rates continuing to increase?
I believe that while many of the 1.5 million nonprofits do fantastic work, truly massive results for individuals, communities and thus our society can only happen when we have not only informed and engaged organizations; they must be connected in a meaningful way. When that meaningful collaboration happens, nonprofits are uniquely positioned to take action and leverage their collective power to create sustainable change and transformative solutions to remove the barriers to opportunities and eliminate some of our most complex social issues.
The power that an informed, engaged and connected coalition of nonprofit organizations wields can be a mighty force for good.
By utilizing the power of collaboration, nonprofits can create cross-sector ecosystems (policymakers, educators, public/private businesses, religious organizations, community activists, students, parents) which are necessary to solve our most troublesome social issues. When these ecosystems are created, opportunities multiply by leveraging collective ideas, capabilities, expertise, and capacity to solve systemic problems with systemic solutions. These solutions are never achieved under the prevalent operating model for this sector which consists of silos and is largely redundant, fragmented and inefficient.
How do you encourage nonprofits to collaborate more and create these powerful ecosystems? The reasons behind the lack of meaningful collaborations are numerous, yet there is a simple two-fold answer. One, funders must incentivize their grantees to be more formally connected and work collaboratively instead of furthering the current culture of competition. Two, the nonprofit organizations must put ego behind and put the mission first. When this radical shift happens on both fronts (it is currently in the very early stages), you will begin to see the results of the power created by an informed, engaged and connected nonprofit community. From that scenario, we all benefit!
*National Center for Charitable Statistics – 2014 data