Philanthropy and Complex Problems

By Andy Carroll, ASF, originally posted in Philanthrofiles, the Association of Small Foundations’ blog on 12-19-12.

Problems caused by divisiveness and political gridlock as well as 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.

The irony is that 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 offered by “Leading Boldly.”

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.

You can read “Leading Boldly” on Stanford Social Innovation Review.

ASF Senior Program Manager Andy Carroll writes resources, designs workshops, facilitates seminars, and manages a Discussion List for ASF members. Andy has 25 years of experience in nonprofit organizations, and he enjoys talking with members about their questions, interests, passions, and plans for making a difference. Learn about ASF membership.

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