Why Stability Isn’t Always a Good Thing: Nonprofits as Complex Dynamic Systems

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When it comes to the future of our communities, nonprofits should be of considerable interest and concern. Since we rely heavily on their associated outputs, especially for our most vulnerable communities and social sectors, we have a responsibility to ensure their continued viability and efficacy.

Our primary mechanism for monitoring and optimizing nonprofits is through board governance. Whether via boards of directors, trustees, school boards, or advisory committees, we expect these groups of highly qualified individuals (however measured) to ensure the continued effectiveness, efficiency, and sustainability of organizations, making necessary decisions, adjustments, and investments while monitoring the nonprofit’s health via ongoing assessment and evaluation.

By assembling what we perceive to be highly competent boards comprised of well-educated and/or respected individuals, we believe that our organizations are in good hands. And when it comes to assessing and monitoring their effectiveness, we assume that their efficacy is reflected largely by their ability to obtain funding and sustain their respective work. Since grants and direct contributions are the primary sources of funding for community organizations and nonprofits, they must continually make a case for their viability, complying with funder expectations and demonstrating the quality and need for their work via programmatic outputs and impacts. Accordingly, if an organization is able to thrive and continue to support its respective efforts, then it must be a doing a good job, and should be viewed as an important community asset worthy of ongoing support.

This thinking is both circular and dangerous, given the prominent role that nonprofits play in our communities and larger society. Clearly, fiscal stability is often an important indicator of organizational success. Yet when it comes to the world of nonprofits and social needs, organizational stability, in its traditional manifestations, can actually inhibit optimization of impact.

In order to explore this assertion, we must step into the fascinating world of complex dynamic systems, a field of inquiry that draws on insights from diverse fields of study including biological systems, computers, AI, cognitive science, and other domains towards the goal of understanding and modeling approaches that yield optimal performance and efficacy.

If you think of nonprofits as systems, with inputs, outputs, and internal programmatic functions, you might assume that they are largely self-regulating. If the organization is doing a good job and fulfills its purpose and mission, then it should thrive and remain relevant and robust. Conversely, if its mission and work are no longer effective or in alignment with the needs of the community, then its ability to sustain itself should be compromised, favoring emergent states of adaptation and nimbleness through sensitivity to both internal and external factors, and an ability to flex and pivot as needed.

However, rather than programmatic pivoting, organizations have a tendency to layer themselves in complexity. Even though they may start with a clear and simple mission, they tend to become increasingly complex over time. Because of their inherent need for self-funding, which is largely tied to specified programming, their ability to grow or sustain themselves often leads to new layers of programmatic and staffing complexity.

On a systems level, we rarely see parameter setting for the number or diversity of concurrent programs. In other words, the notion that adding new programs inherently necessitates the cessation of existing programs is rare at the policy or leadership levels. Instead, the assumption is that existing programs are important and necessary, and should be maintained if at all possible. Accordingly, the need to self-sustain and grow becomes the functional focus of the system, with leaders and boards selected and maintained based on their ability to meet this expectation.

By definition, as organizations become more complex from an infrastructure and programmatic standpoint, they become more opaque and less sensitive to internal and external changes. This in turn can make them more rigid and unable to adapt. Although when viewed through the lens of community needs, this tendency should trigger concern and a sense of vulnerability, it is not necessarily perceived or treated as such. Because we have not developed sensitivities to these types of metrics or systems-level fragilities, notions of stability and fiscal health remain our proxies for efficacy. As long as our systems are able to feed and sustain themselves, we can enjoy a false sense of security associated with this notion of stability.

In the end, organizational leaders and the boards that sustain and steward them are ultimately responsible for the future of our community organizations and nonprofits. Perhaps by adopting new levels of programmatic discipline and restraint we can force our organizations to be more nimble and responsive, and less susceptible to the dangers of layered complexity.

Unstuck

The state of being stuck is depleting. When we are unable to move, to stretch our talents and actualize our potential, we become frustrated and demoralized. Like car wheels spinning in the snow, our ruts grow ever deeper as we exhaust our resources  yearning for change.

If our individual stuckness is a condition, then our collective paralysis is epidemic. As individuals we may feel restless and underutilized, but as we expand our lens outward, the implications become even more profound. When people are underutilized their talents go untapped. But when the systems that are designed to develop, support, and connect talent to the bigger world, are themselves stuck and out of alignment, our communities become dangerously compromised. And since the world and surrounding contexts in which we live and work continue to change at an accelerating rate,  vulnerabilities become further strained, necessitating increasingly more resources to hold it all together.

Despite what we tell ourselves, stuckness is not an inherently temporary state. Instead, it becomes its own point of stability, making our lack of movement increasingly difficult to budge. Because it exists across so many levels and systems from micro to macro, change does not automatically transfer or morph into larger areas. And as we become increasingly frustrated with our state of stuckness, anger and emotion can exacerbate our patterns, resulting in polarization of perspectives and further deepening our collective dysfunction.

But the good news is that change is within reach. The very condition of being stuck offers directionality for getting unstuck.  And the fact that our condition manifests itself at so many levels, translates into multiple access points and lenses through which we can redesign. At the individual level we can identify points of fragility and leverage, re-engineering our approaches for greater movement and alignment. Or instead, we can begin by envisioning a more nimble and actualized version of ourselves, then working backwards to make the necessary tweaks and adjustments. Or conversely, we can begin with our larger systems or social infrastructures, imagining fully functioning communities and societies and identifying the associated processes and structures that would allow us to thrive and contribute.

This exercise of mapping upwards and downwards, from macro to micro, will lead us through multiple paradigms and domains. From education to healthcare, to workforce and social support structures, all systems interconnect and weave to create the communities we seek to build, and the individuals who will live in and support them. Since our stuckness does not exist in isolation, but instead permeates virtually every facet of society, we need to be maximally flexible in our solutions. Luckily, there are so many toolkits and paradigms from which to choose. From engineering and architecture, to technology and computers, cognitive science, business and strategic planning, and even spiritual realms, each offers a unique perspective and agenda.  But collectively they all embrace the idea of shaping and redesigning structures and processes to actualize goals and potential. And through the mere act of broadening our lens to look at stuckness in its entirety, we gain access to the full range of design metaphors. Let’s face it, we can no longer rely on the art of specialization for our future viability.  Instead, we need to knit these frameworks together toward a maximally robust and powerful approach.

Clearly, it’s hard work ahead, but do not be daunted. The benefits of nimbleness and flexibility are far greater than we could ever imagine. Whether you are focused on your own professional growth, or building healthier businesses or communities, we all have a part to play in a much bigger system- either one that is strong and robust or deeply dysfunctional.  And as we ready ourselves for the year ahead, we should ask what the world- our world- would look like if we were all unstuck, moving within our full range of motion, with not a drop of talent wasted or untapped.

What Will You Offer, What Will You Seek? Finding your place in the new Community Commerce paradigm

Forget about money, just for a second, I promise we’ll come back to it later.  For now it’s all about what you can offer.  Anything of value is fair game.  And by value I mean anything that is perceived to be of use- certainly any skills associated with your work or profession, but don’t stop there.  You can offer any hobbies, talents, or resources that could be wanted or needed by those in your community.

People are ready, they are waiting for what you have to offer.  They search the website often, browsing through postings of resources and services, carefully reading bios and community reviews.  As with other posted services, costs for yours will be nominal, but note that they won’t go directly to you.  Instead, they will be paid to the community organization of your choosing, either in the form of a donation or service.  So cost will be no obstacle, your services will be accessible to all who can benefit.

Why will you participate?  Perhaps you are craving a community connection and seeking an avenue through which to serve and contribute.  But chances are that even if you see the humanitarian value, you are looking to leverage your services toward paid opportunities.  By occasionally posting on the site and foregoing any direct fees or payments, you know that the advertising potential is vast.  Since you can self-promote and provide links to professional sites and materials, each in-kind offering could yield significant future sales.  And since you can try out new offerings and ideas, you can use the portal as a low-risk incubator, helping to develop your offerings and brand.

It gets better. As a contributor you will earn community credits to be used both on the site and towards local services and educational opportunities.  Credits are determined based on the yield of your own offerings, so the more you earn for your designated community organizations, the more you can spend on your own growth and development.  Or if you prefer, you can designate your credits toward growth opportunities for others which in turn will earn you special designation on the site.

Clearly, it’s all about community development.  But because the costs for all featured services are kept low and information about providers and recipients transparent, the site attracts a large and diverse audience, and becomes a magnet for advertisers.  To be featured however, sponsors must highlight their own community service credentials, with their support dollars used to fund mentoring and seed grant programs, which further build out the site and surrounding community.

With virtually no overhead or infrastructure costs, the Community Commerce portal represents an exciting model for community and economic development.  It can be replicated in virtually any community across the world. And perhaps the most amazing feature of the model is that it is built entirely on the answers to two simple questions….

What will you offer, and what will you seek?