Towards a Practical and Scalable Solution for Saving our Most Precious and Vulnerable Community Systems

If we accept the premise that non-profits are both highly precious and vulnerable, then the obvious question becomes how to save them. Based on responses to my last post, https://marabhuber.com/2015/01/11/why-stability-isnt-always-a-good-thing-nonprofits-as-complex-dynamic-systems/, the complex adaptive systems approach appears to be a useful paradigm that resonates for both the modeling and theoretical community, and those in the trenches involved directly with board governance.

Towards the goal of pushing this notion further, I offer a general analysis with recommendations that are both highly practical and scalable. And although this process should apply to any non-profit system, I will focus primarily on public education since it is particularly complex and urgent with regard to community health and sustainability.

Step 1: Identify the major points of system fragility that require our focused attention and support. A review of “A Mathematical Theory of Sustainability and Sustainable Development” by Ricardo Alvira (2014) suggests that the following might be particularly salient:

  1. Organization of the system– the interacting parts that distinguish the system from its environment

With regard to non-profits this refers to the organization’s programs, structures, and processes that together comprise its unique identity. Alvira notes that adaptive systems move toward dissolution over time, and while there is a need to adapt and change to respond to changes in the environment, systems must maintain some internal stability in order to evolve. How non-profits “hang together” in terms of their various components represents a particular area of concern since they tend to become increasingly complex and rigid over time, due largely to diversification of funding sources and associated expectations.

  1. Co-evolution with the environment. Since environments are also systems that change over time, interactions between the system and its ambient environment can have significant effects on efficacy and sustainability

For non-profits, changes in the environment have significant implications for the work that is done. With regard to education, mandates and programs required or incentivized by state and federal agencies and/or funding sources can have major effects on the operations of school districts and the associated student experiences. In fact, if powerful enough, such mandates can result in entire school systems reorganizing to respond to their changing expectations. How these systems interact and influence one another is a major source of fragility and concern.

  1. Directionality- Adaptive systems move toward some desired state

Although non-profits are influenced by changes in the environment to which they must respond, they are ultimately steered by some aspirational vision set by their leadership. On paper, boards are often responsible for setting the vision and stewarding movement toward the desired state. And yet many boards abdicate this responsibility and control to executive directors or other paid leaders. The relationship between the vision setting and implementation for non-profits is another critical point of fragility to consider and address.

Because these three components interact in complex and unpredictable ways, any meaningful support must address all aspects simultaneously, helping the system move toward an optimal state through which it can achieve stability, nimbleness, and directionality in the face of ongoing uncertainty and change.

Step 2: Identify existing frameworks and/or processes that can offer support related to these specified structural focus areas. Because complex adaptive systems are found across so many domains of study and application, and because we have developed specialized toolkits and frameworks within these individual fields https://marabhuber.com/2015/01/03/unstuck/, it stands to reason that usable framework already exist and can be adapted and brought to scale for our current purposes.

Based on my own experiences in higher education, I would suggest that self-study frameworks associated with program accreditation offer the type of support that we are seeking. Specifically, I would suggest that the original TEAC (Teacher Education Accrediting Council) framework represents a particularly robust and useful paradigm to be explored.

In general, self-study involves a comprehensive examination of system components to evaluate and improve overall efficacy and sustainability. While different professional programs and associated accrediting bodies call for specific learning standards and competencies, they all guide organizations in the self-study process, setting standards for evidence of programmatic efficacy and quality, and offering related support and assurances.

I am particularly drawn to the TEAC framework as it emphasizes the very aspects of complex adaptive systems that we have identified through our analysis. Although these relate specifically to education related programs (associated with teacher education and educational leadership), they seem to hold for non-profits in general and certainly the public education systems that we are addressing. Specifically, the framework examines:

  • Program rationale- how the program “hangs together” with regard to their various components, processes, and assessments. Programs are asked to provide a comprehensive cross-walk connecting all components both conceptually and statistically to demonstrate cohesion, stability, and relevance with regard to environmental contexts. In order to do this successfully, systems must make sense of their respective complexity, unifying programs around common philosophies, themes, and constructs toward greater clarity and stability.
  • Institutional capacity- whether there is sufficient institutional buy-in and support to sustain the program. TEAC auditors meet with institutional leaders to ensure that the vision and mission of the program is supported, and those who are responsible for stewarding and implementing the program have capacity to do so even in the face of ongoing uncertainty and change. This aspect of the process gets at the “directionality” of non-profit functioning, and could address whether boards have sufficient understanding and capacity to effectively steward these complex adaptive systems.
  • Quality control systems- TEAC requires that all programs have functioning quality control systems that allow them to ensure a high level of quality and consistency while effectively addressing any challenges or exceptions that should arise. A required audit forces programs to check the clarity and fidelity of their systems, identifying any issues and making appropriate changes. In the end, the quality control process cuts across all aspects of complexity that we have identified. Unless the system can consistently produce the outputs that it is designed to produce, regardless of the degree or type of variations that might occur, the system cannot ensure fidelity, efficacy, or sustainability.

As someone who has participated in the TEAC process at multiple levels, including co-leading an institutional self-study, participating in a program audit, and serving on the accreditation review process, I have witnessed the impact of the process on the organizations themselves. By simply going through the process, organizations change and tighten their programs and related functions. They become more cohesive, nimble, and effective and better positioned to select the right leaders and staff. If the process is clear with appropriate support mechanisms and staff, virtually any program or system can work through it with minimal cost and disruption, making it a highly practical solution for strengthening and ultimately saving our most complex and vulnerable non-profits.

Step 3: Identify mechanisms for bringing solution to scale.

Even if I could convince people of the value of guided self-study with regard to the stewardship of non-profits, the ultimate challenge is how to bring such frameworks to scale. To be honest, the primary (and perhaps only) reason higher education embraces these processes, is because they are mandated to do so in order to remain accredited or receive important designations that are tied to enrollments or growth. We would be delusional to think that non-profits will voluntarily embrace accreditation or self-study as a means of self-improvement. Nor should we look to regulatory bodies to mandate such processes, hoping that they will get it right and/or utilize these frameworks in an appropriate or idealized fashion.

Instead I recommend that we begin by making these frameworks available to those who naturally see the value, working with foundations that support board governance and community development and who understand the complexity and fragility associated with these areas of focus. By starting as a pilot, we can begin to study the impact of such frameworks on the efficacy of non-profits and the communities they serve.

When we are ready to bring participation to scale we can encourage the active endorsement by key funders, employers, and governmental agencies that offer resources and support on which the non-profits rely. Just as complex dynamic systems inherently re-organize to address changing environmental constraints and opportunities, so too will our community organizations as expectations for internal cohesion, nimbleness, and capacity for stewardship begin to increase.

Ultimately, we as communities and a collective society set the directionality and expectations for our non-profits. Only when we understand the inherent complexity and fragility of their work, and the preciousness of the communities they serve, can we begin to truly support and steward their potential through solutions that are both practical and scalable.

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About mbhuber2013

convener and co-founder of BTEP, instructor for Tanzania Study Abroad course; Associate Dean for Undergraduate Research and Experiential Learning at University at Buffalo

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