- An abundance of wicked, persistent challenges.
- A number of non-profit organizations formed with the intent of addressing those challenges.
A cynic -- I used to be one, so I should know -- says that the employees of organizations don't want to put themselves out of a job and that is why the challenges persist. But if you spend any time at all with leaders (both staff and boards) of non-profit organizations you know that the vast majority devote their lives to the challenges. Most could make much more money (if that is what motivates them) doing something else in the for-profit world. To suggest that they care more for themselves than for their cause is simply wrong and offensive.
Yet, the paradox and the challenges persist. Why?
Increasingly I believe it is a reflection of how we try to make sense of our environment. Karl Weick said we are inclined to insert vestiges of orderliness to make sense of our lives. And organizations create a sense of orderliness. Organizations have mission statements and organizational charts that assure us that they are able address the challenge at hand.
In communities with significant resources, the ability to create organizations to address challenges appears limitless. There are now more than 1.5 million nonprofits in the United States, and sometimes it seems there are that many in the philanthropy-rich region where I work.
High-performing organizations can indeed address complicated challenges facing our communities. But the wicked, persistent challenges are complex -- that is their solutions emerge not from an organization but from the interactions of many organizations, individuals and institutions that make up the complex system that is at the heart of the challenge.
We can create all the organizations we want to improve educational outcomes, for example, but ultimately educational outcomes at the community level are determined by how well all of those organizations, and so many others that make up our "education system," interact with each other.
Why do we keep creating organizations to address complex challenges? I believe it is because we do what we know. We are taught by organizations. We work for organizations. We are all familiar with organizational charts; we encounter them in first grade and many of us cannot go to bed at night without knowing where we are on the chart. Funders work in organizations, too. Ideally, they want to know the outcome before the check is written and organizational charts and linear logic models all help.
But as the great Kathy Merchant, former head of the Cincinnati Foundation, so wisely puts it: "If you're looking for linear, find a new line of work." Bringing change to complex systems is anything but linear.
But we are all trained in linear. I had a biology teacher in high school who tried to introduce me to complexity (by having us read Aldo Leopold) and it wasn't until just a few years ago that I realized what he was talking about. And while I can be more obtuse than most, I don't think I ever really encountered complexity again throughout my schooling and my professional career until a mentor helped me understand its relevance to my work in regional economic development. When I speak to leaders I often ask how many are comfortable with complexity. Rarely do more than a few in a large crowd raise their hand.
This is why we keep creating organizations. It's what we know. If we understood complexity better -- and understood how the organizations we created our part of complex systems -- then we'd spend more time creating the capacity to understand how our systems perform and why, and less time creating new organizations unable to address the challenges they were created to solve.