Philanthropy and Complex Problems—Being Real, and Stepping Into Leadership

By Andy Carroll, Exponent Philanthropy

Problems caused by divisiveness, political gridlock, or competing interests and values often slow – or stop – the work of funders and their grantees. Examples of complex problems include government cuts to human service programs, which only exacerbate needs and costs, and overlapping and duplicate services by nonprofits.

Foundations are uniquely positioned in our society to take on complex problems. This is what a classic article called “Leading Boldly” by Ronald Heifetz, John Kania, and Mark Kramer reminds us. Let’s take a look at the ideas and opportunities it offers.

Heifitz, Kania, and Kramer divide problems into two categories: technical vs. adaptive. Technical problems are well defined, have solutions that are known, and implementation that is clear. Technical problems can be addressed by a single organization. Adaptive problems, by contrast, do not have known solutions. Adaptive problems require innovation and learning among the interested parties. And, for solutions to be implemented, they require a change in attitudes, priorities, and behavior. No single entity has the authority to impose a solution.

For foundations to address complex, adaptive problems, the authors lay out a set of actions; these include:

  • Spotlighting the problem to get people’s attention, and framing it so the opportunities and challenges are understandable
  • Helping the stakeholders clarify what matters most to them, and identify trade-offs
  • Encouraging, cajoling, pressuring the parties to work on solutions together, and overcome conflicting values and beliefs
  • Provoking debate and consideration of new approaches
  • Providing incentives or pressure to keep the parties working – using the foundation’s leverage

The authors call this approach “adaptive leadership.” They believe foundations are well-suited for this kind of leadership because they have an unusual combination of money, reputation, networks, knowledge, and most importantly—a broad perspective and a remarkable degree of freedom.

The authors offer several examples of how foundations have used adaptive leadership successfully. In one story, three foundations in Pittsburgh suspended funding, in a very public way, of the school system after years of gridlock and dysfunction in the local school board. The foundations’ bold action to spotlight the problem, their role in helping set up and lead a mayor’s commission to reform the schools, and their promise to restore funds under certain conditions—all were successful in catalyzing change.

The first step in being real about what is daunting, according to Heifetz, Kania, and Kramer, is to look carefully at the difficult problems you’re trying to solve, and assess if they are problems that defy strategies that are known.

If a problem is adaptive, recognize it will require more than grants to single organizations, and probably a lot more than money. The problem will require a kind of leadership that your foundation may be very well equipped to take on. Joining forces with other funders will make your adaptive work stronger, and offer you mutual support to weather the ups and downs.

The opportunity is that you will be using every asset your foundation holds, to make change and impact on a scale far beyond your size.

“Leading Boldly” challenges us to look at our communities’ issues with a sober eye, and assess what will truly change the things we really care about. It offers hope that by taking stock of all our assets, and shifting our approach, foundations can take a leadership role in solving difficult problems.

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Andy-CarrollSenior Program Director Andy Carroll writes resources, designs workshops, and facilitates seminars for funders. Andy also dedicates a significant portion of his time to managing our Leadership Initiative that defines, validates, nurtures, and celebrates the many ways philanthropists lead. Andy has 25 years of experience in nonprofit organizations, and he enjoys talking with funders about their questions, interests, passions, and plans for making a difference. Follow Andy on Twitter @andycarrollexpo.

One thought on “Philanthropy and Complex Problems—Being Real, and Stepping Into Leadership

  1. Nicely written summary of the Leading Boldly article Andy. There’s one point that the Leading Boldly article makes that I would like to add. What the Leading Boldly authors make clear is that all social problems have both technical components as well as adaptive components. The first step, really, in looking at any new social problem is to tease apart the technical components from the adaptive components. In this way appropriate interventions can be found for both. Why treat both? As the Leading Boldly authors point out, if you focus on one component to the exclusion of the other, you could actually make the overall system that holds the problem worse, not better. I think that is a good caution to keep in mind. And what if your foundation only funds technical solutions? Then the Leading Boldly authors would suggest that your foundation partner with a foundation that can fund the adaptive side of the equation.

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