more like people

helping organisations to be more like people

The way Dan Pallotta thinks about charity is dead wrong

Tuesday, March 12th, 2013

I’ve noticed Dan Pallotta’s ‘The way we think about charity is dead wrong’ TED talk seems to be spreading around the internet quite quickly. The title grabbed me, but the content couldn’t be more off. So I thought I’d weigh in with an alternative perspective.

Firstly, where I agree with him: many of the ways our charities work, stifle innovation.

Definitely. But his approach is to turn the charitable sector into an extension of the free market. Even with an opening in which he acknowledges that human stories can’t be monitized, he goes on to prescribe market solutions for the rest of what the non-profit world should be doing. ‘Philanthropy is the market for Love,’ he tells us, hinting at the lens he views the world through early on in the talk.

But there is no ‘market for Love,’ and markets are not where the solution lies, in my opinion. Two of his specific arguments truly irk me:

1) That more talented people go into higher paying jobs, and thus are put off working in the non-profit sectors

2) That change is best achieved by massive organisations addressing massive social issues.

Mo’ money, mo’ talent?

Just look at the most highly paid jobs in a market economy and how many of them have even a minimal social value? Conversely, how many of them have a sum negative impact on the world? The financial sector (in the broadest terms), attracts those who are primarily interested in making money – to the detriment of all else.

I don’t believe that ‘the most talented people’ the world has to offer are the ones who have laid-off so many workers in the name of ‘staying competitive,’ or who have decided that wars and climate change are simply the ‘costs of doing business.’  These actions require a certain kind of deliberate ignorance, which is not a trait civil society organisations need. Quite the opposite!

As charities begin to reinforce the market logic that you should spend your time making as much money as you possibly can for yourself, it will only reinforce the many social and environmental side-effects that such an attitude has in an unchecked free market.

The motivations that often get people working in a charity or NGO, such as passion for and commitment to a cause, or a better world, more generally, are at odds with this. They see life’s goals as more pluralistic than simply ‘get as much as you can for yourself.’ That attitude is killing our species, our societies and the planet we all call home. Infinite growth, whether for an individual bank account, or a global economy, cannot be maintained on a planet of finite resources. It is the problem.

We need different ways of understanding value and success.

Further, the kinds of university programmes Pallotta describes as producing ‘the best talent’ still seem to churn out private sector MBAs who exchange everything in the world, for short-term profits, and who have been at the core of countless broader scandals and crises. Our ‘Ivy League’ institutions are indeed part of the problem. Some may come out with their moral compass reasonably intact, but the vast majority learn to run a kind of ‘efficient’ organisation that can only see budget lines, at the cost of anything that can’t be measured in money.

Dan Pink has written extensively about costs of trying to link money and motivation, and argued convincingly that intrinsic motivation (like passion for your work) is far stronger than extrinsic motivation (like a bonus, or a high salary). When our systems cater to the latter, lots of bad things start to happen, encouraging a range of ‘gaming’ tactics, in which dishonesty becomes the norm, and the true objectives are sidelined for the short-term targets with personal self-interest attached. Basically, these kinds of motivations (Pink calls them ‘if-then’ motivators) pit self-interest against collective interest, encouraging people to act selfishly, rather than trying to align ‘what is best for me’ and ‘what is best for us.’

Bigger is better?

There’s another idea that ‘bigger organisations are more efficient, and thus more equipped to address big social ills, than smaller ones.’

But this doesn’t hold much water, either.

Big organisations seem far better at producing quantitative results, at the cost of qualitative ones. And to the point where the ‘quality’ can actually be a sum negative impact (rather than just ‘not as good as it could be’ one). Stories abound of big NGOs that have ended up doing more harm than good, as their disconnect from the on-the-ground realities of so many of their own projects, means that for all their ‘efficiency savings,’ they were actually doing the wrong thing in the first place!

Billions and billions in governmental and philanthropic funds are channelled into the sphere of aid and international development each year, but many of the problems keep getting worse. We mean well, but for all our best intents, most of those costly, large scale efforts aren’t achieving what they are meant to.

When it comes to complex social change, context and relationships really are everything. Just because something worked well in one time and place, doesn’t mean it will easily be carried over to another. ‘Scaling up’ – a notion at the core of so many large programmes – is a doomed idea, as tantalising as it can be. Organisations which try to replicate one solution, in another place, often miss the critical non-replicable factors of individual relationships and nuanced context that were at the core of any initial successes.

Alternatively, Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze have advocated ‘scaling across’ – a more grassroots process, in which smaller, local projects can share ideas directly with one another, spreading value where it is needed, without imposing it as a blueprint to be followed to the letter.

‘Scaling up’ comes from the kind of managerialism still taught in many of the institutions Pallotta advocates non-profits get their execs from. It is the notion that distant, well-paid ‘experts’ know better than people who are experiencing an issue themselves, how best to address that issue.

The hubris of this long-standing belief is staggering, and is at the core of why many smaller, local efforts, often do better work than larger organisations – even when appearing ‘inefficient’: people understand their own situations better than anyone else.

If you knock down those two pillars of Pallotta’s talk, I think the rest crumbles with it. What he advocates is more of the same ‘NGOs should be more like the private sector’ approach that has been advocated – and often applied, at considerable cost – to the world of social change organisations for decades.

I say no. ‘More like people’ isn’t afraid to learn things from a range of places, but the lessons Pallotta advocates specifically undermine the sense of humanity that we need more of. If we want to make more of a difference through our organisations, let’s not rely on MBAs, devoid of any ethical grounding, or large scale development projects that have no way of really knowing what’s going on at street level. We don’t have to be puritanical, as Pallotta suggests, to avoid adopting the greed that creates so many of the social ills our organisations work against. We just need to stay in touch with the values that motivate us to create change in the world.

Like what you’ve read? Help publish my book, ‘Anarchists in the Boardroom: How social media and social movements can help your organisation to be more like people’ and pre-order it now!

3 comments

How NOT to Tweet a Good Cause

Wednesday, April 6th, 2011

This is a work-in-progress promotional piece that I thought I’d post for feedback as much as anything. Thinking of making PDF brochures out of an illustrated version, but would love to hear how your less-Twitter-friendly colleagues respond, should you feel inclined to print a copy and share it around your office? Does it just piss people off, or does it start a useful conversation? Thanks! Liam

1. Tweets should always be written in a cold, sterile and impersonal manner.

 

Liam will tell you how NOT to Tweet for a good cause!

Liam will tell you how NOT to Tweet for a good cause! Sketch by Dave Schokking.

Think of them as 140 character press releases, or a text from a doctor’s surgery reminding you of a colonoscopy appointment. This avoids any notion by followers that there are real people with personalities operating your account (which could be disastrous for your reputation!). Better still, add applications that will ‘auto-Tweet’ generic updates about everything else you do online; this helps avoid any temptation by staff or followers to converse via Twitter, violating the organisation’s professional mystique.

Your ranking out of 10?     /10

2. Don’t follow anyone!*

This tells the world that you are important and thus not interested in anyone else’s opinions or experiences. If you do choose to follow any other accounts, make sure it is only a few and that they are all a) newspapers, b) other organisations, and c) selectively chosen celebrities. This reinforces the appropriate power dynamic, telling ‘regular people’ who follow you that you are unconcerned with them or their interests (beyond you).

*If your organisation’s name or profile bio includes terms like ‘participation’, ‘engagement’, or ‘inclusion’, it is especially crucial that you follow this rule to the letter, so people don’t falsely assume you’re interested in talking with them.

Your ranking out of 10?     /10

3. ‘Auto-DM’ all your new followers.

When someone follows you, don’t follow them back (as above), but add an application to your account that will send them automatic, impersonal Direct Messages (DMs or private messages) feigning thanks, which they will be unable to reply to (because you don’t follow them). Again, this establishes the clear power dynamic you’re looking for; they are listening, you are not.

Your ranking out of 10?     /10

4. Only ever Tweet your own materials and information.

Other info or links related to your subject matter must be ignored, and if possible, actively discredited, as they represent competition in the never-ending battle for potential supporters’ mind space, time and attention.

Your ranking out of 10?     /10

5. You must maintain an image of absolute perfection!

Never Tweet anything that might give your followers the impression your organisation is anything less-than-perfect. Asking questions is an absolute ‘no’, unless they are rhetorical and you provide the answer within the Tweet, or the link it contains (to your own website only, obviously). Questions declare a less-than-complete knowledge of the world and such an admission will destroy your followers’ faith in your expertise and support for your work and your cause.

Related to this, you should also never send a Tweet without carrying-out a thorough the cost-benefit analysis of doing so. This helps to ensure you do not say something inappropriate, which you might later feel demonstrates an incomplete knowledge of the subject. It is advisable to stay quiet about major events in the world, until an in-depth policy has been written and published. Several days after the fact you will be able to Tweet the most expert opinion on the matter at hand.

Your ranking out of 10?     /10

6. Twitter is for junior staff to do and senior managers to sign-off.

Put your organisation’s sole Twitter account into the hands of a single, low-ranking staff member, with minimal decision making power in the organisation, and tell them exactly what they can and can’t Tweet.

You may want to develop an appropriate sign-off policy that can precede the sending of all organisational Tweets. At the same time, it is critical that you ban all other staff from Tweeting, as multiple accounts will be harder for you to control. If you cannot manage a complete ban on usage, tell staff they must separate themselves from the organisation via a disclaimer (such as ‘these are my views and my organisation does not tolerate them, but still keeps me around’) and install a web-page blocker preventing unauthorised staff from accessing the Twitter website on work time.

Your ranking out of 10?     /10

7. Never reply or make conversation with followers, unless they are celebrities or senior politicians.

Some Twitter users think they are ‘having a massive conversation’. They are wrong. In the interests of your professional integrity (as your comms assistant might say inappropriate things, if not given a script), it is imperative that you do not engage with the Twitter population in anything resembling off-the-cuff banter. In the event of attempting to lobby a famous actor or Cabinet minister on your cause, Tweets should be written in advance by the most senior member of staff available, with potential follow-up Tweets for all possible responses. This said, they may still treat you as ‘regular people’(i.e. – those not worthy of their time) and as such, ignore you…

Your ranking out of 10?     /10

How do you stack up? If you received more than 1 on any of the measures above, you should probably give Liam at more like people a ring (07775732383), an email (liam@morelikepeople.org), or even a Tweet (@hackofalltrades).

3 comments

Experiential diversity: A new way of understanding equality in the voluntary sector

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010

‘Diversity’ and ‘equality’ are popular buzzwords in the voluntary sector, but how often do we think about what they really mean? Maybe if we were to have an open discussion about difference – in all its more and less obvious forms – we would be in a better place to answer the questions they raise?

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di•ver•si•ty

[dih-vur-si-tee, dahy-]
–noun, plural -ties.
1. the state or fact of being diverse; difference; unlikeness.
2. variety; multiformity.
3. a point of difference.

Photo by Christopher Edwards, Creative Commons

There are innumerable pieces of legislations around the world that exist to balance historical and present-day discrimination. These have, I believe, been created with the best of intent – honest attempts to right wrongs that have existed for generations and still hide in the crevices of our institutions and the subconscious of our minds.

But many of my colleagues – often those who would check more boxes than I do on an equalities monitoring form – feel that the current approach may intend to encourage diversity, but in fact creates a smokescreen for a more subtle and insidious form of discrimination.

As one colleague – a black man from a housing estate in Southeast London, working in a national charity put it – ‘I went to university to learn to be white’.

Or as another colleague who recently finished a report on race equality in the private sector found, many of the non-white senior managers interviewed admittedly described themselves as culturally ‘white.’

Diversity?

So while there has been a semi-successful trend towards more visibly integrated workplaces, there is still an issue with homogeneity; people who check boxes, but who have either:

a) Lived very similar lives to those who represent the professional status quo (which is still broadly white, middle class, university educated), or
b) Have adopted or adapted to the culture of the professional status-quo, to be ‘allowed’ into that world.

In either case, the result is the same: many workplaces are less diverse than their monitoring forms might suggest. They still hire exclusively ‘professionals’, and what we understand as ‘professional’ is far too closely linked with what we generally see to be white, male and middle-to-upper-middle class. Thus many of our voluntary and non-profit organisations are missing out on the vast potential energy, creativity, perspective and insight that people who have taken a different path than we have, could offer our work and the people we support. They may even have a lot more in common with the people we support than we do, the value of which should not be overlooked. If our organisations want to tap into the diverse potential that exists outside of our ‘professional’ cultures, we can’t just hire people who don’t look, but still very much act as we do.

That said, I don’t want to minimise the importance of the shift that has occurred – that an Asian woman or a young gay man are more able to get into the professional workforce than they were a few decades ago, is of course a terrific victory on many fronts.

However, if that Asian woman or that gay man must either be born into economic privilege, or learn to give-up significant elements of their own culture to be accepted, then, in my opinion, this represents a pretty significant short-coming of the current approach.

The Marxist argument

Point a) above essentially follows a traditional Marxist class argument and while valuable, has been rehashed many times before by others more qualified than I. I would only add that our institutions (on the whole) selectively include people from non-dominant communities, who still fit most of the economic (and, often correspondingly, cultural) criteria typically associated with the dominant community. Which raises questions about the kind of diversity that is (or isn’t) being fostered in many professional workplaces. We can handle the differences of skin colour, sexual orientation, and religion better than we used to, but when it comes to interacting with people who DO THINGS differently from us, we come up with a range of excuses for why they ‘aren’t right for the job’.

Or is it more complex…?

Point b), however, raises a less-unpicked argument; that the ‘DNA’ of the current professional paradigm (across the sectors), is still very much the DNA of a privileged, white, straight, male reality, and that those from outside this reality who rise through its ranks must adopt (to varying degrees) that dominant culture in order to do so.

Basically, our idea of ‘professionalism’ is not something we can honestly describe as culture-neutral.

The opposition

When I’ve posed this hypothesis to others, the negative responses tend to fall into one of two categories:

1) The DNA of the professional world is simply the most effective and appropriate for getting things done, and is not an issue of values or methods associated with any particular group.

2) While the professional ‘DNA’ may be reflective of a dominant community, there are too many non-dominant communities to shift it, so it makes most sense to maintain the current way of working.

‘It’s the best’

The first argument I simply can’t believe; there is too strong a correlation in a) western countries and b) in other parts of the world following periods of imperialism or top-down globalisation, to assume that the structure and modes of working are not associated with a particular dominant group. The ‘Efficiency Drive’ which justifies a vast array of negative practices across the sectors, does not appear to have emerged from, or grown naturally in many other cultures (beyond a traditionally European-descended ‘elite’), without economic or political coercion. The argument that it is simply ‘the best’ verges on discriminatory against the cultures that don’t automatically adopt its methods.

‘There are too many alternatives’

The second argument I usually counter with a less binary option: we need to actively encourage (as some workplaces do) a range of people from non-dominant groups to take more active roles in shaping workplace cultures, in their own images (rather than allowing the workplace cultures to force a shape on them, by default). A workplace culture does not have to be one homogenous entity, but can actually itself adopt elements of the range of influences it allows itself to open up to.

While different understandings of ‘professionalism’, working relationships, hospitality, non-verbal communication and countless other assumed subtleties may not immediately mesh with one another, I feel this is a challenge we are capable of starting to address in the 21st Century. We need to have the discussions about the assumptions our organisations subconsciously impose, within and beyond their walls. We need to acknowledge alternatives, learn from other communities, countries, our own personal lives even, and see how we could involve, say, potluck lunches, events with families of staff, changes to how we hold meetings, design office plans and how decisions get made…

Outreach

There’s also the question of the external image our organisations present. While our traditional definitions of workplace diversity may help foster some sense that our organisations are really ‘for everyone’, this is unlikely to last if those we’ve hired who check boxes on a form are still worlds removed from the experiences of the young people, ex-offenders, refugees or others we may try to support. This is not to say that everyone who works for an organisation should be from its client group, but that this can create a sense of shared experience which tends to make people more comfortable engaging with otherwise seemingly-foreign institutions.

Think of the number of times you’ve walked by an African barber shop, a gay bar, a mosque, a Polish convenience store, and never even thought of going in because the people hanging around were so far separated from your own experience of the world. Maybe this is something you’ve never even noticed, because the idea of walking into such a place is so radical it doesn’t even cross your mind at such moments?

When you’re part of a dominant culture it can be easy to forget that we create these same sentiments amongst others; that when a bunch of us who look, talk and act in similar ways work together, our work may well take on associations of difference to those who do not feel a part of that world. Then add to this difference the power dynamics still so often associated with a dominant group and you’ve got a pretty off-putting combination. If we want to be inclusive to those outside of our organisations, as well as those inside, we need to think about what we mean by diversity and equality. Any real attempts to address inequality must address the less visible issues of difference that continue to drive unspoken wedges between us.

Mixing it up…

How can we bring pieces of Ghana, Vauxhall, Pakistan, Peckham, Poland and Dagenham into our workplaces, without subsuming them in a still broadly Oxfordian establishment (which I feel most of us not of that ilk must conform to ourselves, even if it’s a more subtle shift)? I know that making a list from the aforementioned place names and putting them on a form with check boxes beside them is not the way to do it. It is not simply about including more people in the established protocols of the day, it is also about ensuring people can be included without having to take on the traits of those they have never shared true equality with. It’s about the system changing for the people, not simply the other way around. If the systems aren’t changing, what kind of diversity are we trying to foster? Is this a manifestation of true equality, or does it just allow us to see enough difference to stop asking the uncomfortable questions about power that we might not want to admit still need asking?

3 comments

Facilitating organisations?

Wednesday, October 13th, 2010

If we seem to know we do better when we aren’t just being told what to do, why do we keep telling each other what to do? Wouldn’t a supportive atmosphere be a more effective way of getting things done? Many of us have seen this work in learning environments, why not learn from it in working environments?

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Image fr/ www.create-learning.com/

A few years ago I was running community training courses fairly regularly. At some stage, I had a realisation that many before me had also had: that people seemed to learn the best when they were doing stuff, not me.

Thus, I began to embrace the art of facilitation: how much can you help a group of people walk down a path they’ve never been, without giving them the directions?  What combinations of well-timed, targeted questions, suggestions and anecdotes, will enable people to learn what you (broadly) want them to learn, in the way that they want to learn it (and ideally remember it)?

Old news

The same debate I was having with myself had been had many times previously and had led to some fairly significant shifts in non-classroom-based learning, as well as numerous alternative school movements.  The move was away from the concept of a single expert, putting lots of information into the heads of their less-qualified pupils, towards one where everyone played a part – not only because we all remember better when we do, but also from a firm belief that we all have something to contribute, given our unique experiences.

Like so many things, some old Chinese folks seemed to have figured this out many centuries before myself, or the countless ‘radicals’ who gradually started to see the problems with traditional training/teaching in the 1960s and ‘70s:

“Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.”

Several hundred years later, some of us in the West realised they were probably right. Sadly, many of our learning institutions are still clinging to a perceived supremacy of the old ways…

Facilitating organisations?

Yesterday I was reading about some ‘radical’ management ideas… many of which seemed to echo this thinking from the world of education, namely, that people do things better when they are given the chance to do them themselves and that people from all ‘levels’ of an organisation have contributions to make at all levels of that organisation… (if ‘levels’ are even an appropriate form of organisation in their own right…)

Theorists, consultants, and yes, even managers themselves, from Henry Mintzberg, to Frances Westley, to Ricardo Semler, have for decades been saying things like:

“We have this obsession with ‘leadership’. It’s maybe intended to empower people, but its effect is to disempower them. By focusing on the individual, even in the context of others, leadership can undermine a service of community… When [former IBM CEO Gerstner] heard of the initiative [to get the company into E-business, from a programmer], he encouraged it. That’s all. Instead of setting the direction, he supported the direction setting of others… What should be gone is this magic bullet of the individual as the solution to the world’s problems. We are the solution to the world’s problems, you and me, all of us, working in concert.” [Leadership and Communityship, Henry Mintzberg, Financial Times, October 23 2006]

“When social innovations take flight… the innovators are influencing their context while their context is influencing them in an endless to and fro. Decisions are made, actions are taken but it is not always clear how they came about. There is a wonderful sense of collective ownership: all who are involved feel this is their project, their cause, their time to change the world. [Getting to maybe: How the world is changed, Frances Westley et al, Vintage Canada, 2006]

“Most of our programmes are based on the notion of giving employees control over their own lives. In a word, we hire adults, and then we treat them like adults… Outside the factory, workers are men and women who elect governments, serve in the army, lead community projects, raise and educate families… but the moment they walk into the factory, the company transforms them into adolescents. They have to wear badges and name tags, arrive at a certain time, stand in line to punch the clock…” [Managing without Managers, Ricardo Semler, Harvard Business Review, September-October 1989]

‘Is facilitation the new management?’

Trendy buzzword headlines aside, I can’t help but notice an emerging pattern here towards a more facilitatory approach…

What if, instead of managing organisations, we facilitated them?

While, as others suggested when I put this idea on Twitter yesterday, I’m not keen to create new jargon, I do think ‘facilitation’ provides an understanding of getting things done in group dynamics that is fundamentally different from most of that which we have dubbed ‘management’ in recent centuries.

But rather than provide more quotes from my endless reading into the geeky world that is management philosophy, in the spirit of this post, I’d be keen to hear yours;

Is the facilitation/management distinction a useful or counterproductive one?

  • Have you been involved in something you might describe as facilitation in a workplace?
  • Did you feel there was practical value in this approach?
  • Did it create unexpected problems for anyone involved in the process?
  • How would you aim to convince someone who practiced ‘traditional management’, that there was a better alternative in facilitation (whether calling it that or not)?
  • Anything else you might have thought of while reading this?

4 comments

#Ask4Change: Making better use of our ‘cognitive surplus’

Friday, October 8th, 2010

Imagine if, as Clay Shirky has suggested, a fraction of the time we spent collectively pissing around on the web, could be channelled into constructive, positive and relatively easy actions for social change…

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Twitter Revolution

Image by Patrick McCurdy

Ed Whyman and I have been bumping into each other at events and on the street for at least six months. The first time we met – in the company of David Pinto – we mulled over the idea of a piece of social technology that could match-up small tasks related to good causes, with people a) interested in that particular good cause, and b) with the skill set required to easily do that small task.

On Wednesday afternoon, after a couple of hours at the Centre for Creative Collaboration, conversationally moving between abstract ideas and practical ways of applying them, Ed and I (with the valuable technical input of Andy Broomfield) revisited the idea we had tossed around several months before.

Cognitive Surplus

A few months ago I saw Clay Shirky speak at the RSA on his new book, Cognitive Surplus. His thesis is basically that more and more of us have loads more leisure time than we used to and that the internet is gradually enabling our collective free time to connect with others to do things that we wouldn’t do otherwise, whether sharing YouTube videos of cats doing cute stuff, or giving away stuff we’d otherwise throw away.

I didn’t immediately put the pieces together, but yesterday, Ed and I’s conversation made me think about how this concept might apply to our idea of a still-to-be-built social wotsit…

The social wotsit we were thinking of

Imagine if you were a campaign group or a charity, working around:

  • Human rights
  • Youth violence
  • Drug addiction
  • Cancer treatment
  • International conflicts
  • Etcetera…

And you needed:

  • A database cleaned
  • A legal letter written
  • A venue for a meeting
  • A speaker for an event
  • A CSS edit to a website
  • Etcetera

Now imagine if you were a person (difficult, I know), who had a particular interest in [insert cause from above], and had [insert relevant skill or asset associated with listed need] and had a particular amount of time on your hands, whether five minutes, or five days… and said charity or campaigning organisations was able to easily get hold of you and let you know (with no obligation) that they could use your help… Is there a chance you might do it?

Crowd-sourcing a Twitter app?

So we (Andy Broomfield’s technical knowledge was of great help here) started thinking about this as a Twitter app… we’re continuing the conversation on a Google Doc… and are wondering if anyone with some of the relevant skills or further ideas would be interested in helping make this happen? Or if something just like this already exists and we don’t have to bother?

We are working on an ‘everyone does something that we can all feel good about’ kind of basis, so no money will change hands, but credit will be appropriately shared around… Check out the Google Doc if you’re interested in taking part!

Cheers!

Liam

11 comments

Rationally changing how we feel about giving?

Tuesday, October 5th, 2010

Charities that support cuddly animals invariably receive more than their fair share of the public donations pie, given their contributions to society (compared to say, a refugee support group or a rape crisis centre). But is a ‘charity ranking system’ a good way to shift this imbalance? If our giving choices are indeed ‘visceral’ and ‘irrational’, is a measured, rational system likely to change them?

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New Philanthropy Capital logoOn Wednesday, Martin Brookes, CEO of New Philanthropy Capital, spoke at the RSA on ‘The Morality of Charity’, arguing for a charity ranking system to help the public decide which organisations are more worthy of their donations than others.  At the core of his speech, he said, were moral judgments on:

  • the value of particular causes over others;
  • the ability of some organisations to deliver more effectively on those causes than others.

His hope was a system that could divert sparse resources to the most deserving, rather than the most popular causes.

On one level, I can appreciate the sentiment here; those who know me know I often bemoan the vast reserves sitting in the bank accounts of a small number of ultra-large national organisations.  However, there seem too many trade-offs associated with the proposal, trade-offs which may deeply undermine public trust in charities, as well as the sector’s broader independence and individual donors’ right to choose.

I’ve purposely avoided the question of practical difficulties, as I feel Sophie Hudson has already summarised the argument, but also because I’m keen to avoid the rhetoric of ‘let’s not do it because it seems ‘impossible’.  My approach looks at the risks I see as inherent in making such judgments about the value of the truly vast range of charitable efforts, and the complexity of their contributions to society.

All causes were not created equal…

Martin makes the example of charities that have traditionally delivered services which, retrospectively have been deemed damaging (cigarettes for soldiers, blood letting, etc), as a justification for a ranking system, to discourage money from reaching such groups.  However, he didn’t mention the examples of charities which were ‘ahead of their time’ and whose services may not have been formally recognised as critical when they were established, but have since come to be seen as integral in their field.  A ranking system, without the benefits of hindsight, would only have current ‘fact’ – that which is already ‘proven’ (versus that which is essentially being trialled by a charity who strongly believes in a new approach), on which a judgment could be passed.  This creates an imperative for organisations to stick to established methods, shunning risk and innovation, for fear of lowering their ranking with a yet unproven means of delivery. This seems like a formula for the calcification of a sector, de-incentivised to push beyond established practices, due to concern over lowering their ranking, and thus, their income.

What about politics?

While I would agree that there is an unfair allocation of resources towards ‘sexy’ – and broadly widely agreeable causes, those who are most in need (if I can indeed make such a judgment) are often those least likely to receive public donations.  Undercutting this reality, as uncomfortably as it sits with much of the charity world, is politics.  People won’t agree on the most deserving causes because their underpinning political beliefs will answer this question differently.  Refugees and asylum seekers are often among the most harshly treated groups in the country, yet many will argue against their right to be here at all, let alone to have money to support them.

As long as political divides exist, we will view different charities as differently ‘worthy’, regardless of what information we are given about their value.  If we don’t talk about politics, we are unlikely to get very far in this discussion.

Conversely, if we do acknowledge political differences in such a system, it seems we will end up with either rankings that reinforces the political status quo (a dangerous choice, as discriminatory as it is), or a system so watered-down, that only donkeys, cancer and football will qualify for support, as the only causes not (arguably) steeped in political baggage.

Campaigning?

Speaking of politics, what about if an organisation is working to influence broader social or governmental forces?  Their impacts may be much harder to see than those exclusively delivering services.  In many cases, the broader influencing work will be ultimately more important, holding the key to changing a systemic injustice creating the need for services in the first place, but how could this be ranked alongside groups whose efforts are based totally on addressing immediate, visible need?

It’s a complex, complex world…

Martin Brookes, CEO of New Philanthropy Capital

Martin Brookes, CEO of New Philanthropy Capital

We live in a complex world in which an arts charity may be vastly improving the life prospects of cancer patients and a youth football project may be significantly reducing local violent crime.  This means that many of the best organisations cannot be categorised according to (as Martin suggests as an option), Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (with food and water as the base, and arts and leisure activities at the peak).

Maslow’s hierarchy doesn’t address the complex inter-relationships between work affecting different parts of the pyramid described above. Parallels to the arts or football examples above likely exist in every voluntary or community organisation that doesn’t supply food and water to sub-Saharan African villages, making classification a broadly meaningless activity, which would likely just encourage groups to distort their categorisations to rank more highly than they otherwise might, in the interests of maintaining the impression of public value. Much like currently imposed systems of monitoring and evaluation, groups will find ways to fill in the forms to give themselves preferential results. And this would be a completely understandable thing to do, if you knew your future income was dependent not on your work, per se, but on the perception of your work you were able to create amongst donors or funders.

Valuing ‘effectiveness’

I feel I mostly addressed this one in May when NPC’s work in this area first came to my attention.  Any system which attempts to make a blanket evaluation of the overall effectiveness of different organisations, will inevitably lose the nuance that makes a cattery different from a rape crisis centre, or youth music programme.  If the currently established systems of organisational evaluation are anything to go by, they will not begin to capture the full value offered by most charities.

Even on an issue as seemingly straightforward as how money is spent and overhead costs, these lines can be incredibly blurred, depending on the how distinctions are drawn between frontline staff and management, or if fundraising budgets can be justified, based on their cash return, though they might look disproportionate to the objective outsider.

Better allocation of too few resources?

As for this bigger question, I wonder why we are asking it the way we are.  Would we try to regulate who people become friends with, because there are some people who don’t have enough friends in their lives, and some who have many? Those with the most friends may be popular, funny, but ultimately, less reliable as friends than some of their less-popular alternatives; but will this stop people from gravitating towards them?

It’s not ideal, but systems are notoriously bad at addressing these things on any scale.  Charity is a deeply personal issue for many people and outside information is unlikely to sway someone’s visceral response to an issue they have come to care about.

Further, if we try to do so, we run the (I feel) inevitable risk of:

  • alienating or confusing current and future donors who feel judged for the issues they support
  • encouraging dishonesty from organisations looking to find ways to boost their ranking
  • devaluing the critical work that is done by charities to influence broader systemic change
  • reinforcing the status of large charities with specialised staff to address grading requirements
  • wasting vast sums of money to cram complex issues into insufficiently complex categorisations

For all of Martin’s reminders that people are not rational in their giving habits (he is a self-confessed donkey sanctuary donor), he seems convinced that a rational system of ranking is what is needed to convince us to give differently.  If it is feeling and instinct that drive our current donations, why not look at how feeling and instinct could help to shape new ones, rather than creating a system which tries to undermine these things?  Not a challenge any easier than NPC’s, but maybe one with a greater precedent for success?

The sooner we can dispel the institutional myth that you can count, measure and rank complex social efforts, as you would a football league table, or a budget deficit, the sooner we can get on to really understanding the value they do or don’t provide.

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The Possibility of Trust

Tuesday, September 7th, 2010

We write-off good ideas when they seem too far removed from our current realities.  Unable to immediately comprehend the practicalities of such drastic shifts, we categorise the good idea as ‘impossible’ – and discredit it. But if we don’t start to challenge the seemingly impossible problems we face in the world, how will we ever move beyond them?  On this note, what if trust was realised in every aspect of the voluntary sector?
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'Trust me' by SFview on FlickrFollowing on from my blog on Paul Story and ‘The Honesty Edition’, there were loads of comments, Tweets and real-world conversations that made me want to follow-up on the idea of applying ‘trust’ to a range of voluntary sector activities/processes.  Namely, in relation to funding, people said things to the effect of: “a funding relationship will never be trusting, because there’s money involved”.  This drew me to one of my favourite quotes from one of my favourite books: “Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed”:

“Change—surprising and sometimes radical change—does happen.  The world does turn on its head every once in a while. And what seemed almost impossible looking forward seems almost inevitable look back.” (Getting to Maybe, viii)

With this quote in mind, please indulge in the possibly Utopic fantasy which follows.

The Trusting Place

Once upon a time, there was a distinct space that existed between the greedy hedonism of the private sector, and the soulless bureaucracy of government. This space was known as ‘the trusting place’ and was built-on an entirely different set of values than those of its counterparts; a place where trust was at the core of how and why people did what they did…

…I’ll skip the fairy tale hyperbole…  But let’s think for a minute about what some of our sector’s relationships might look like if they were based on trust (rather than a range of contractual compliance measures)… All I ask is that rather than going to the knee-jerk ‘that won’t work because…’ response, take a minute to think about how much better than the realities you are used to dealing with, these options would be.  If we can collectively acknowledge that there could be significant gains made (reaching new people, improving staff morale, discovering new social solutions, etc) from placing a higher premium on trust in our work, *maybe* then we can start to get passed some of the obstacles that have kept it from happening thus far…

Staff

  • What if managers and the staff they managed got to hold each other accountable on a range of mutually-agreed aims and objectives, rather than this process-happening in one-direction?
  • What if we felt we could admit our mistakes, shortcomings and poor judgment calls to those above and below us, without fear of some kind of retribution, backstabbing or disciplinary?
  • What if we only addressed problems as they arose, with the people involved, rather than filling reams of paper with ‘what to do in case of worst-case scenario’ policies?

Funders

  • What if funders and organisations saw themselves as partners, aiming to openly learn from their respective experiences and achieve social change together?
  • What if organisations were supported to trial some new ideas before throwing all of their efforts into one approach, helping learn what really works before deeply investing?
  • What if funders and trustees supported innovation and the kinds of (often risky) practices that foster it, rather than requiring a predetermined outcome and stressing heavy-handed accountability messages?

Volunteers

  • What if people who wanted to help a good cause could just show up and be put to work?
  • What if organisations encouraged volunteers to take-on high-level roles or define their own roles, rather than simply offering a ‘one-size-fits-all’ voluntary position?
  • What if volunteers made collective decisions on the issues that affect them, rather than having them imposed by management or trustees?

This is clearly a polemic piece…

Some larger voluntary organisations have broken through some of these barriers effectively, and many have not.  My instinct is that if a big organisation (and their relevant funders) could put this whole picture into action, the gains would be truly immense.

Anyone agree?

If you do, let’s not get hung up on ‘why it will never happen’, and start thinking about ‘what steps are needed to make it a real possibility’!

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Trust works for business, why not for charity?

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

Paul Story in Edinburgh

Paul Story in Edinburgh

I met Paul Story in Edinburgh during the Fringe Festival last week. Paul is an author of fiction. I admittedly don’t read much fiction (Kurt Vonnegut aside), but when I met him, he was handing out hard copies of his novel ‘Dreamwords’, having dubbed them ‘The Honesty Edition’. Here’s how he describes ‘The Honesty Edition’ on his website:

“I ask people to help themselves to a physical copy of Dreamwords Book One on trust. They should pay only if they wish to see the rest of the series published. Book Two is complete but it needs to find its readers before it is able to survive. By trusting people to be honest I hope that future fans of the series will father the next book by paying for the one they have just read. Furthermore, honest readers who do not respond to the story are honour bound to find someone else who agrees to the honesty deal. This way, and with luck, each copy will have a chance to find its own champion. In an ideal world, I only want those people who enjoy the book to pay for it.”

Sounds a bit naive, doesn’t it? Giving people you’ve never met the product of your labour, on the trust that they will send you some money, some time down the road? Traditional economics and much old school psychology would both likely toss the idea before giving it a chance to breathe. Paul Story ignored them, maxed out a credit card and printed 10,000 copies to give out on the streets of Scotland.

“There are no tracking chips in the spine, no check-out tills nearby, no security cameras or guards monitoring the display and no legal documents to sign. The Honesty Edition has been designed so that the reader is free from any pressure to pay beyond their own sense of honour. My bet is that most people are trustworthy and that enough will enjoy the story to make this crazy idea work.”

Bias declared: I loved the idea from the moment I read the sign Paul had set himself up with in Edinburgh. That said, when he outlined some of the early outcomes, I was still very impressed:

  • He has made more on the books he’s distributed so far (from the money people have sent him online), than he would have if he’d sold them in stores;
  • The 1st thousand distributed copies of ‘Book One’ of the series have (I believe) gone ½ way to paying for costs of the entire run;
  • If he is paid the suggested £7.99 for less than ½ of the total 10,000 copies, it will subsidise the costs of both Book One and Book Two. Anything more pays his rent.

Post-Web?

Dreamwords cover

Dreamwords Book One

I see Paul Story’s ‘Honesty Edition’ as a ‘Post-Web’ experiment – taking the ideas underpinning the ways we’ve come to use the internet (to share, discuss and work together for mutual benefit on a mass-scale) and bringing them back into the ‘real world’ again.

Paul has trusted each of us who have taken a copy of the book to be both its funders and distributors – much as countless independent bands have done online in recent years – but primarily through people we are in human (rather than exclusively web-based) contact with. The internet will play some role in its potential success (it’s how payments are sent, people may Tweet/blog about it, etc), but this will be secondary to directly passing the book along to someone you think will appreciate it.

Much like how Shinobi Ninja, Steve Lawson and countless other musicians use Twitter and other social platforms, Paul Story lets the fan do his marketing, promotion and distribution, based-on the sense of value they/we get from his work. What’s most interesting to me is his structured experiment to see if the same behaviours will carry-over at a comparable scale in the non-online world…

Trust works

The key lesson I’ve taken from ‘The Honesty Edition’ is that even in the seemingly impersonal and self-motivated context of business transactions, trust works! As James Surowiecki, looking at the growth of successful Quaker-run businesses in eighteenth-and-nineteenth century Britain highlights, “as Quaker prosperity grew, people drew a connection between that prosperity, and the sect’s reputation for reliability and trustworthiness” [The Wisdom of Crowds, p. 119].

Dan Pink summarises a similar theme from Clay Shirky’s latest book, Cognitive Surplus, demonstrating the issues with creating untrusting structures in our workplaces, businesses and elsewhere in society:

“when we design systems that assume bad faith from the participants, and whose main purpose is to defend against that nasty behaviour, we often foster the very behaviour we’re trying to deter. People will push and push the limits of the formal rules, search for every available loophole, and look for ways to game the system when the defenders aren’t watching. By contrast, a structure of rules that assumes good faith can actually encourage that behaviour.”

In another recent piece, Pink writes: “Like any valuable relationship, the ones we have in business hinge on trust. And trust depends on openness, respect and humanity.”

What are voluntary sector organisations doing about trust?

So what have leading voluntary organisations and non-profits done with these ideas? My experiences have found very little, as many of us have clung to the traditional idiom that trust is at-best a naive guiding principle, and have structured our organisations accordingly.

Has your organisation bucked-the-trend? The voluntary sector should be leading the charge in this shift, but I’ve yet to see evidence that this is the case…

I’m hoping you can prove me wrong!

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Talking ‘Human Institutions’ w/ Graham Allcott

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

I was recently invited by Graham Allcott of ThinkProductive, to record a conversation about some of the human institutions ideas I’ve been kicking around.  If you get past my moderately frantic body language (does anyone else get this excited about management structures???), I think we managed to pull out some good ideas on where bureaucracy comes from (even in the most well-meaning public and voluntary organisations) and what we can each do in our workplaces to find alternative ways of getting things done.

If you’re interested in finding-out more about the human institutions concepts, we’re running a workshop in London on July 22nd (Pay What You Can/ Pay What You Think It’s Worth) and we’d love to have you along! Click the yellow button below to sign-up:
Register for Seeds to Grow a Human Institution: Keeping People at the Core of Your Organisation in London, United Kingdom  on Eventbrite

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The Growing Anatomy of a Human Institution v0.1

Thursday, June 24th, 2010

growing human institutions‘Human institutions’ are groups that have come together in significant numbers for a common social purpose and maintained a collective focus on the human relationships (within and beyond their limits) that have helped them to flourish. Most of the institutions we know – whether in the public, private or voluntary sectors – seem to have buried these relationships under an array of forms, policies, chains-of-command, jargon and other often-counter-productive formalities, claiming such structures are needed to enable growth. Too many have lost track of the ways people – unmitigated by institutions – interact amongst each other, inadvertently pushing away those less-familiar or comfortable with such structures and preventing new ideas from emerging within their ranks.

Some, however, have managed to strike the delicate balance between growth (financial, geographic-reach and otherwise) and the combined value, passion and diversity of the people that make them up.

This blog is an ongoing attempt to capture some of the recurring themes which seem to be at the core of organisations that have been able to maintain their human element, while still expanding their staff, their income or their remit.

Through the contributions of all and any who are concerned with ensuring the institutions affecting our lives are innovative, adaptable and inclusive, this document will expand on the basis of your feedback and get regularly re-posted in its latest incarnations, gradually taking on the ‘wisdom of the crowd’…

Here are the first 5 traits of a human institution I’ve chosen to highlight:

1. Flexibility
A rule is only as useful as the willingness that exists to break it, when needed. Sadly, this sentiment is often lost in organisations. The tendency to standardise everything – often benevolently, in the name of equal opportunities and fairness – creates a system that seems to prevent anyone having any advantages over anyone else, but which ends-up excluding people on the basis of its rigidity and the inevitable diversity of potential users’ circumstances.

Though rules are invariably created for good reasons, they all have their limitations. Human institutions recognise these limitations and ensure their staff are empowered to have significant flexibility to adapt to peoples’ circumstances as needed, even if that sometimes means cutting against standard protocols.

2. Mutual trust-based accountability
Accountability is far too often a one-way process that is tied to existing power-dynamics (between funders and funded groups; managers and staff, etc) which seem to assume the worst of the people told to prove their worth. Micromanagement attempts to prevent any method someone could imagine to cheat a system. As more regulations are imposed, people’s ability to work/deliver objectives is hindered by the time spent justifying how their time is spent. So they find alternative (sometimes less-ethical means) of satisfying those imposing these regulations… and no one wins.
Alternatively, being trusted gives people a strong sense of ownership and responsibility over a situation. As does a power shift that allows those traditionally held to account, to also hold their counterparts to account simultaneously. In strong human relationships (the kind that provide the greatest results, in both personal and professional settings), accountability is both trust-based and mutual. In human institutions this is also the case.

3. Autonomy
Linked to the concept of ‘trust’, is that of autonomy. The assumed practice of hierarchical management structures makes it far more difficult in most organisations for people to pursue creative and new ideas. Though a balance must be struck to achieve organisational objectives, rarely is the space given for staff to work autonomously, towards the organisation’s broader aims, but along a newly-emerging path.

Like with trust, those who feel they have room to determine their direction, often give more than those who have their direction pre-determined by someone with superior rank. Broad organisational objectives give staff more space to work to their strengths, than narrowly-defined outputs and outcomes which too often ignore the involved individuals’ passions and abilities.

4. Experiential diversity
Diversity is important from more than an equal opportunities perspective, and applies to organisations beyond the more-easily measurable differences of race, gender, religion, etc. Having an experientially diverse staff and volunteer team (of individuals who have taken different paths to ending up at your organisation) is crucial to a human institution in two other significant ways:

1) To give newcomers approaching the organisations from the outside, the sense that both people like them and a range of different people are welcome and accepted;
2) To provide a greater range of opinions and internal debate, than a group of people who have had very similar experiences in life tend to, encouraging new ways of working.

As James Surowiecki explains in ‘The Wisdom of Crowds’, even if a minority opinion in a group proves incorrect, “the confrontation with a dissenting view, logically enough, forces the majority to interrogate its own positions more thoroughly.” This has in itself, been found to improve decision making processes in human institutions.

5. Plain communications
The language we use to communicate and promote our work has huge consequences for the people who take it in. Many organisations seem all-too-keen to create new words and phrases and see if they can push them into circulation, without recognising that each additional piece of jargon can serve to push away someone not already ‘in the know’. Human institutions realise that effectively communicating messages and ideas is more about simplicity, than it is about complexity.

If you’re interested in discovering what you can do to create a human institution in your workplace or organisation, register for our new 1/2-day workshop in London, ‘Seeds to Grow a Human Institution’!
Register for Seeds to Grow a Human Institution in London, United Kingdom  on Eventbrite

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