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The Empowerment Paradigm

Redefining Transformative Impact for the Social Sector


In the social sector, the norm is a problem.

Most nonprofits affect and measure broad sweeping changes rather than transformative impact. We know this because statistically speaking, key indicators of poverty like educational achievement, economic mobility, relational security, rates of incarceration, and health vitals for vulnerable populations have remained mostly unchanged for the past 50 years despite billions of dollars spent on more and more programs. This is true even while we have all seen countless annual reports claiming huge successes in terms of program activity and popularity.

There’s a disconnect.

Something’s not working. Fundamentally, we think it’s this: When we treat people as averages and problems we create dehumanizing cycles of dependency instead of humanizing cycles of empowerment. This faulty premise guiding the majority of output in the social sector is the most urgent problem we need to solve.

It’s a paradigm shift, to be sure – moving from control to empowerment. What does that mean? An empowerment paradigm is a way of seeing and treating people according to their dignity and potential, rather than their deficiencies or circumstances. It is based on a foundational belief in people, which runs counter to the predominant modes in society and the social sector.

Consider this contrast:

“We have to reorient ourselves away from pleasing funders and towards serving customers. We have to start thinking about how our entire industry builds, what I would call a ‘better social economy.’ And as we build that better social economy, it’s going to rely far more on local, personal, and proximate knowledge of what’s actually working and what might work. We gotta take more risk on and enable people to take more risk on what’s working and not working.”

– Evan Feinberg, Executive Director

Many best known, well-intentioned social services, like soup kitchens or shelters, were patterned after factory-style models of efficiency and scale. [expand this section to include a broader variety of examples and add positive belief about intentions while prompting a curiosity about what innovation or more individual care could look like in our present day]

The empowerment paradigm holds that when barriers are removed and talents realized, people become capable of extraordinary things. This is our north star: Every person empowered to transform their lives and contribute to the lives of others.

With this shared vision, hundreds of nonprofit leaders are innovating to solve our country’s toughest challenges faster and more effectively than ever before. We call these organizations Catalysts for the way they demonstrate the principles of empowerment and affect transformative impact in communities.

Creating A Better Social Economy

The principles of empowerment define a broad and urgently needed revolution of the social sector to more intentionally prioritize:


The Stands at the Sheraton Dallas Hotel in Dallas, Texas.

Dignity-based approaches

Elaborate on belief in people and their potential Key Question: Are you making decisions based on people’s potential and talents? Values: Dignity, Self-Actualization


Customer-first impact

Traditional metrics for nonprofit success have more to do with activity than outcomes – counting butts in seats rather than increases in personal agency or self-actualization Key Question: Are you measuring the success of your program by prioritizing the use of customer feedback? Values: Openness, Bottom Up


Proximity-led innovation

Elaborate on bottom up v. top down Statistics of Catalyst orgs where founder has personal experience with the issue/problem to solve – ie proximate knowledge Key Question: Are major decisions in your organization being informed by those closest to the problem? Values: Mutual Benefit

Signals of an empowering culture operating within an organization include:

  • A culture of principled entrepreneurship in which every person can contribute their unique talents to solve problems they care about;
  • A practice of customer-first measurement through regular surveys to assess and understand transformative impact;
  • An ongoing integration of Principle Based Management with every level of staff and stakeholder

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