Monday, May 7, 2012

Emergent Design for nonprofits I: problem statements

For a while I've been frustrated with certain aspects of the work I do. I feel increasingly less effective, work increasingly more, and itch for something completely different. Having read half of the article "Emergent design and learning environments: Building on indigenous knowledge" by D. Cavallo (from IBM Systems Journal, v.39, no.3&4, 2000. pp.768-781), I feel not-so-much-qualified but at-least-enabled to start talking about this. Among other things, Cavallo points out that educational reforms often get lost because of the "grammar of school," by which he means the ways of talking about and understanding what an educational/learning environment is officially supposed to be. He lays out some principles (which I'm not finished reading) and gives some concrete examples of a different approach he calls Emergent Design.

In my work (nonprofit social service programs), I think we face the same issue: stuck in the grammar of nonprofits or the grammar of social services, we are increasingly less effective as the need goes up and thus the amount of work and organizing goes up - while at the same time there is an illusion of scarcity of resources & increased competition for financial resources via grants and contracts. Maybe it's time to think differently. This is my way of trying to think about this. If anyone reads this, and if anyone reading this works in a similar field or is familiar with emergent design, please feel free to comment on this.

I'll start by naming some of the concerns I see:

1. Perception of Diminishing Resources: Money is less available to nonprofits. Individual donors are giving less. Foundations have less resources. Government budgets are shrinking. Yet with unemployment higher, more people with more skills are looking for work, and/or for opportunities to keep their skills current, and/or for a switch to a more meaningful career. Additionally, monetary wealth is still being generated and it's going somewhere.

2. Increasing need: Higher unemployment, noticeable increases in the price of basics like food, gas, and housing. Greater numbers of people falling below the poverty line. Workers taking on increasing workloads as staff size shrinks. This results in, for example, reduced quality of services, reduces responsiveness to shifting or individualized needs, increased risk of staff burnout, an often frantic work environment, etc. See Laura van Dernoot Lipsky w/ Connie Burke, Trauma Stewardship, for example.

3. The Volunteer Problem: How to find, train, retain, and create a feeling of fulfillment for volunteers. This occurs within a system where some people are paid to get volunteers to do unpaid work. There is a perception of unfairness in this system. It also potentially undercuts the happiness of the volunteer unless there's a good process for matching volunteer talents, skills, and desires with the needs of the volunteer position. Not to mention that there is a cost for the volunteer - in transportation, for example, and loss of time spent doing something else economically productive. Not to mention that volunteers are feeling the same pinches I've already mentioned.

4. The EBI Paradigm: While evidence-based interventions are an important component of service delivery, the underlying assumption is that an intervention is a template that can be overlaid across a broad array of organizations - a top-down approach that may or may not work, based on the correct alignment of all kinds of factors within an organization.

5. The Professionalization of Social Services: Let's be clear - I benefit from this system. I applaud the approach that pays people to (in my view) do the work of our society. I believe that our moral/ethical duty as a society is to care for those who are (a) unable to care for themselves due to disability, injury, etc.; and/or (b) need assistance because they are on the receiving end of social ills like labor exploitation, racial injustice, and the like. I believe that we as a society are in - or nearly in - a position to provide basic services like food assistance, medical care, etc. to those who for whatever reason need it. In the same way that we hire fire fighters, teachers, and others, we hire social service providers to do the work of the collective community. However, as we do that, we have created a professional class of providers which can set up a structure that can be inaccessible to consumers/clients by creating a "grammar of social services" and a set of unquestioned ideas about how social services should be run. I'm not saying this is all bad, but it does seem to have some unintended negative outcomes.

6. The Provider-Client Paradigm: Similarly, the professionalization sets up a dynamic where there are providers and those who receive the service. Like nearly all dualisms, this creates a lopsided power dynamic. Such a power dynamic, coupled with some of the other things above, can make a pretty hot mess. Including power struggles, superiority complex, perceptions of dependency, and all kinds of other manipulations on both sides. Let me be clear - I'm not blaming individuals within this system. This is a problem with the system itself and people, regardless of their good intentions, can sometimes fall victim to this stuff because everybody is really just trying to get by the best way they know how. Consumers and providers are just trying to get their needs met. Yes this doesn't excuse individual abuses, but I want to keep my focus on the system right now.

That's what I'm thinking about, as I'm reading. Feel free to pass along suggestions. I know I'm not the only one - and judging by the date on the article, I'm coming rather late to the game here.


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