A Confederacy of Dysfunctions
A system rife with dysfunctions that prevent us from making the kind of population-level change and reduction in disparities we desperately want to achieve.
A system rife with dysfunctions that prevent us from making the kind of population-level change and reduction in disparities we desperately want to achieve. That’s how I characterized what I and others call the Nonprofit Industrial Complex in my previous blog post. These dysfunctions in the massive mix of nonprofit organizations, foundations, school models, and government programs rear their ugly heads in the work we do at every single point along the Pathway to Lifelong Success from healthy birth to a quality education, to a good-paying job, and healthy and sustainable aging – a pathway all people deserve to get on and be able to stay on. I don’t know a single person who has worked in our sector myself included who won’t recognize these dysfunctions and who hasn’t been a part of at least some of them.
Over the next year, I will explore these dysfunctions in detail along different parts of the pathway to illustrate how we’re failing and what we need to do differently. I aim to show you examples of how they stymie even our best efforts and most commendable programs and initiatives. You will meet people who have hit brick walls in the form of these dysfunctions that have forced them to reverse gears and compromise what’s best for the people we serve. You will also learn about examples of where they’ve been overcome usually only in part, but in ways that point to what others might do and to how we might be able to tear them down altogether.
Before all that, though, I want to present to you what I think is a nearly complete list. I do not claim this list being perfect far from it. Perfection is not my objective; rather, I’m aiming for a useful list from which we can all learn something and begin to consider new ways of working that prioritize getting people moving along the pathway. I’ve given names to these dysfunctions, but there may well be better ones to serve that objective. I’ve separated ones that perhaps ought to be wrapped together as one and, vice versa, I’ve probably combined some you might think ought to be pulled apart and discussed separately. At the end of the post, I ask for your help in making the list stronger.
First and foremost, of course, is the persistent failure of our sector to come to a consensus on what constitutes lifelong success and along with that to agree on the basic needs that must be met so people can get on and stay on a pathway to that success. I wrap this up in shorthand: what sometimes seems like an outright refusal to ask this question about everything we do: To what end? This is part and parcel of a near-total failure to address things from a big-picture level, even if some people seem good at talking about it. All the other dysfunctions feed this failure and refusal, flow from them, or both.
Inseparable from this dysfunction is what I call blindness to disparities. At best in our sector, we talk aspirationally about reducing disparities in the abstract but concrete action is almost always about the all: everyone should have access, everyone should be served, our funding needs to touch everyone. When we’re focused on a particular outcome, we seldom take the data we might have about the work we’re doing and disaggregate it in terms of race or gender or geography the very starting point for figuring out whether money and effort are being allocated in a way that will reduce disparities. It’s glaring and persistent, and I can’t help but wonder whether this failure to turn the abstract into the concrete isn’t a form of implicit bias that we’re not willing to confront.
At best in our sector, we talk aspirationally about reducing disparities in the abstract but concrete action is almost always about the all: everyone should have access, everyone should be served, our funding needs to touch everyone.
This failure to see the big picture, to ask the to-what-end question, and work deliberately on reducing disparities, plays out in other ways, especially if we consider the pathway to be the ultimate big picture. When we as a society, and we in the Nonprofit Industrial Complex, are busy advocating for universal pre-kindergarten, have we thought about whether that’s of any use for kids who have already been stamped for lifelong failure in the first 36 months of their lives? What good is free college if high school students who will then be able to attend are unprepared academically to do college-level work? I could go on and on with questions like these, but hopefully, they display the interconnectedness of the work we do.
The negative consequences of this dysfunction are massive. It hurts people. Just about every organization and program within the Nonprofit Industrial Complex is working on its little piece of a larger puzzle, rarely integrating or even talking about its work with anyone else. I refer to this with two reinforcing dysfunctions: lack of communication and policy/service silos. On their best days, these dysfunctions lead to tremendous waste on their best days such as in the schools I know of where multiple outside organizations are working essentially at odds trying to provide the same support to the same group of students!
Other dysfunctions speak directly to how our sector does its day-to-day work. Measurement dysfunction has two aspects. One is that while our sector has gotten better in general at measuring, we measure for compliance, not to use data and evidence as a way to inform continuous improvement of the quality of whatever work we undertake to improve lives. People in the field are measuring what they need to comply with their managers; those managers are measuring so they can meet compliance requirements in their funding streams.
The other aspect concerns our persistent use of misleading measurements. For instance, a program to improve graduation rates might tout a great increase in a given high school, but what does that tell us about success along the pathway if the student is not prepared academically or based on social determinants of health for post-secondary education? The answer: it tells us nothing at all, while at the same time potentially sets people up for failure.
Speaking of funding, there are three dysfunctions directly about money or tied to it in insidious ways. First, a profoundly counterproductive fragmentation of funding streams foundations, federal and state governments, and donors inevitably lead our sector’s efforts in directions are often at cross-purposes because each funder has its stipulations regarding how the money must be spent. On top of that, there’s the power dynamic that typically manifests itself in the form of extremely wealthy individual funders having ideas about how to solve this or that problem and essentially buying programs or schools. Our sector needs their money, and so off we go, down paths that may well have involved the least consideration of the to-what-end question than in anything we ever do. One executive director recently told me about a donor that refused to continue his funding if they sent students to a different program better suited for them and thus made the numbers served to go down.
Speaking of funding, there are three dysfunctions directly about money or tied to it in insidious ways. First, a profoundly counterproductive fragmentation of funding streams foundations, federal and state governments, and donors inevitably leads our sectors efforts in directions are often at cross-purposes, because each funder has its own stipulations regarding how the money must be spent.
And then there are the counterproductive rules and regulations, linked to benefits, that are imposed on recipients of those benefits but that keep them from taking advantage of opportunities to get on or stay on the pathway. These are the things that lead to the criminalization of poverty.
There’s a group of dysfunctions that are strongly connected under what could be called self-perpetuation. The bureaucracy of our Nonprofit Industrial Complex has a strong inclination to keep doing things the way they’ve always been done which means replicating failures again and again. But this comes naturally: after all, leaders executive directors, foundation program officers, government program officers, and others have been around long enough to internalize that if they try to change the status quo, it could call into question their programs, their jobs, and indeed the very survival of their organizations. That’s a powerful impetus for stagnation.
Linked to this is the all-too-common behavior of the workers in the Nonprofit Industrial Complex who are in the field and/or below the managerial level at organizations and institutions. We’ve essentially become an industry that places these workers, mostly young people, on a career track. By making doing good a profession, we’ve created a generation of people who end up all too often and quite predictably taking action based on what’s needed to protect a career rather than based on why they chose that career in the first place. My observation is that having to work that way sucks out their initial passion pretty quickly, and the only way to avoid the reminder of that loss is to keep working that way.
And then there’s the feel-good dysfunction, a big part of what drives self-perpetuation. Volunteers, donors, nonprofit CEOs, and lots of others involved in our sector are certainly doing what they hope will do good, even if making themselves feel good, accruing honors and accolades, rallying around the next fad, and having great stories to tell at cocktail parties are the only real benefits. In her book Hoping to Help, Prof. Judith Lasker writes of people giving back in this way and states: But we must still ask whether these mostly well-meaning efforts improve people’s lives.
This self-perpetuation dysfunction explains why the name Nonprofit Industrial Complex is so apt. That name comes from the Military-Industrial Complex, the mass of defense contractors, financiers, and hawkish politicians that have long conspired to keep a gigantic and hugely profitable arms industry humming along in the United States. The key characteristic of that complex is also self-perpetuation through the overall motivation of our sector is undeniably to do good and help people.
Finally, there’s the dysfunction I used as an example in my last blog post. Its the doing for, not doing with dysfunction, so named by Susannah Morgan of the Oregon Food Bank in a blog post last May. It’s the persistent insistence whether explicit or implicit that we in the Complex know better those we aim to help: that we know better than them what they need, that we know better than them which of their problems are paramount, and that we know better than them how to solve those problems. To be clear, I am not advocating that we simply give people what they say they need (although we should consider just giving them money; see my series of posts on UBI, beginning last June), but that we must see them as partners in our work, from planning to implementing and to measuring.
The more I think about all these dysfunctions, the more I’ve come to realize that this one and the first two I mentioned asking the to-what-end question and coming to consensus, and focusing on reducing disparities are bookends with doing for, not doing with. Even if we were to find a way to eliminate all the others, the persistence of these would leave our sector just as ineffective as I think it is today at meeting basic needs, getting people on the pathway, and helps makes sure they can stay there, over the entire course of their lives.
I realize this paints a bleak picture. But believe it or not, I am optimistic. Why? Because we all have reason to be proud of the work we have done and are doing today. What we’ve built up that we now have to work with is vast. But these dysfunctions are real, and the first steps to addressing and eventually eliminating them are to name them, discuss them, and begin working in new ways to overcome them. This blog post is a small contribution to that effort.
I realize this paints a bleak picture. But believe it or not, I am optimistic. Why? Because we all have reason to be proud of the work we have done and are doing today.
In my upcoming blog posts, I’ll be returning to these dysfunctions, again and again, bringing in voices from our sector to help understand them more and learn from others what we might do about them. Meanwhile, this imperfect list could be improved. I would love to hear your thoughts not only on your suggestions about the list itself but also your examples of where you’ve seen these dysfunctions doing their harm or how they’ve been overcome. I encourage you to contact me directly here. In part two of this post somewhere in the not-too-distant future, I hope to use your feedback to revise the list, explore some of the examples you provide, and make this even more helpful as a way to get more people on the pathway to lifelong success.