Philanthropy and Complex Problems: Being Real, Stepping Into Leadership (4 Years Later)

More than four years ago, our Andy Carroll penned two blog posts on the role of funders in addressing complex problems. Struck by their relevance still today, we re-run them here for those who have joined our community since then. Read other posts in our series on philanthropic leadership >>

Original post
by Andy Carroll, Exponent Philanthropy, November 16, 2012

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 funders—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 their philanthropy 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.

For example, when funders 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 funders 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 funders 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, funders 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.

Excerpt from the December 19, 2012 follow-up

Funders are uniquely positioned in our society to take on complex problems. This is what a classic article 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 funders 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 leverage

The authors call this approach “adaptive leadership.” They believe funders 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 challenge 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, funders can take a leadership role in solving difficult problems.

Read other posts in our blog series on philanthropic leadership >>

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.

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