Philanthropy and Complex Problems, Part I: Being Real about What is Daunting

By Andy Carroll, ASF

In the wake of the recent election campaign, I’ve been thinking about our country being divided, and things being “stuck.” We know that by collaborating we could accomplish big things, but we still don’t come together. Conflict, disagreement, and gridlock are common in our national discourse, at a community level, and also within organizations, friendships, and families.

Sometimes it seems like humanity, in the words of one popular songwriter, is a “bunch of whining, fighting shmoes.”

The important work of many small foundations–to build opportunity, promote health, reduce hunger and suffering, and protect the environment—is often undercut or compromised by disagreements between competing factions. And divisiveness is only one among a set of “complex problems” that ensnarl the work of foundations and the nonprofits they support. Another complex problem is culture that is embedded and resistant to change.

I don’t think complex problems are acknowledged openly enough. Many funders who keep asking how they can have more impact eventually come up against challenges that are too big for them to solve alone.

When small-staffed foundations talk about the following issues, they are talking about complex problems:

  • “We’re funding this very effective training program for people with prior drug problems and people who have been incarcerated. The program faces major government funding cuts, which will only increase recidivism and burden our society with even greater costs.”
  • “We’re funding the training of elementary teachers in this creative, highly effective teaching technique. But we realized the teachers’ class sizes are huge. They’re too overwhelmed to consider the new approach.”
  • “The insurance companies in our state won’t pay for a certain intervention, which we know is proven and effective. We can’t get traction.”

And a very common observation is:

  • “Many nonprofits in our community offer the same or overlapping services–there’s a lot of duplication.”

It is difficult if not impossible for foundations to address these challenges by funding single organizations for short time periods. The traditional approach to philanthropy doesn’t make headway.

Also, the mere existence of big, complex challenges ends up influencing what foundations seek to accomplish in the first place. In steering around a daunting set of issues, it’s natural for funders to choose philanthropic goals that are immediately doable, tangible, and measurable.

But in the process, foundations may limit their vision, reach, and impact.

As a beginning, framing these problems as complex problems would allow us to identify the right strategies to address them. Being real is a first step in finding solutions.

In my next blog post, I’ll explore one way foundations can address these more complex challenges, by revisiting a classic article on leadership in philanthropy. In an era where gridlock seems the norm, the authors’ message is hopeful—that foundations can play a leadership role in making progress amidst the chaos.

In the meantime, ASF wants to learn what complex issues your small foundation faces. What is blocking progress in your mission that you can’t solve alone? Please share in this blog, or e-mail me directly at Thanks!

ASF Senior Program Manager Andy Carroll writes resources, designs workshops, facilitates seminars, and manages a Discussion List for ASF members. Andy has 25 years of experience in nonprofit organizations, and he enjoys talking with members about their questions, interests, passions, and plans for making a difference. Learn about ASF membership.

One thought on “Philanthropy and Complex Problems, Part I: Being Real about What is Daunting

  1. Pingback: Philanthropy and Complex Problems: Being Real, Stepping Into Leadership (4 Years Later) | PhilanthroFiles

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