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.”