Part 1 journeyed into nonprofit smokescreens.
These were the old serial habits and processes that stop organizations from pursuing innovation. Sometimes those habits just come with the territory. Fear stops us from exploring a little so that we can become real powerhouses of possibility. The potentials for what "might be" excites, yet the uncertainty paralyzes.
Or, we protect our assumptions: That the problem is already "known," the right answer just needs to be "created."
Recently, Dan Pallotta defied convention and dealt a heavy blow to one of the biggest smokescreens of them all – public stereotypes about nonprofits, risk, and capital.
But there's also another problem that should be addressed.
One can have all the capital in the world, but what tools do nonprofits need to make sense of the massive changes in various marketplaces and cultures. Rather than wrestling against emerging paradigms, how do they evolve in parallel with them?
You might've seen a previous article here detailing how to re-evaluate your nonprofit business model. This is just one tool that can help.
But before resorting to tools — because there's plenty — we need to talk about awareness:
- New government policies
- Big data
- Shifting marketplaces
- Evolving technologies
- Evolving communications
- Changing attitudes and preferences from donors, clients and constituents
None of this is real news. But what is news, is the fact that many organizations are unaware of how these paradigms trickle down and affect the total scope of their mission. Think about how many organizations find later on that their mission and objectives have become misaligned. And how well did they play catch up?
One assumption to banish right now is to think that none of those paradigms affect them. Because they do. Our mission frontiers have shifted indefinitely and they'll continue do so at a rate that we cannot control. The underlying events of these paradigms make up many fluid layers of complexity that cross and redefine each other. This is a vast ocean that every organization, for profit or otherwise, must inevitably navigate and make sense of.
An example and an exercise in assumptions and complexity
It seems like every week on the Stanford Social Innovation Review or on TED that someone brings forth an exciting new idea.
But ideas can be more volatile than we expect. Sometimes, they shine a candid light on how we thought a problem should've been solved. And no one really wants to raise their concerns to their colleagues for the fear of backlash or being placed on "the list."
Last month, the BBC published a news article titled "eLimu: ‘T' is for tablet computer." So many startups have opened up shop to improve the delivery and accessibility of education in many African countries. Kenya, for example, had always faced "overcrowding in classes, inadequate teachers, and a lack of learning and teaching materials," as John Temba of Kenya’s Ministry of Education reveals.
But some wonder why technology wasn't as disruptive of an innovation as first perceived. Improving delivery with tablets and laptops just makes sense, doesn't it?
But despite the rapid and progressive advances in technology, there had always been tech initiatives in Africa to expand accessibility of education – ever since the 1960's.
So the crux of the issue: What if there is too much focus on technology as the answer? What if it's just a part of the answer?
In short, the article highlights the greater scope of the challenges. So instead, how might we also:
- Transform the previous culture of learning?
- Translate gadgets into actual learning?
- Adapt current pedagogy to the new gadgets and materials?
- Create a steady flow of content that's "locally relevant"?
- Adapt current programs in the national curriculum to the new technology?
The lessons learned uncovered an unavoidable subset of new challenges. These types of challenges, or problems, sometimes make up what we call "wicked problems."
Wicked problem is a phrase originally used in social planning to describe a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. The term ‘wicked’ is used, not in the sense of evil but rather its resistance to resolution. Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.
While eLimu et al. are awesome initiatives, this isn't to criticize them. The point is to briefly demonstrate the scope of some of these immense challenges that other organizations must also face.
What does this mean for the nonprofit sector?
Of course, this example focused on startups. And not many organizations have the capital to pilot such projects.
But the concern is the same: Awareness and internal collaboration process.
Is your strategic planning process adaptable to these multidimensional challenges? What if we were to shift from standard strategic planning to include creative strategic thinking and problem finding (or reframing)? To shift from just delivering to designing social impact from the start?
A different set of capabilities is needed to do this. The kind of capabilities that help make sense of the environment, identify the opportunities, and put new ideas and insight into implementation. Up ahead, we'll clear away more smokescreens about internal collaboration, creativity, and process, but in the context of the nonprofit.