A colleague recently pointed me to Michael Hobbes’ feature in the New Republic, which has a provocative title: “Stop Trying to Save the World.” It’s a great piece about the challenges inherent in foisting Western ideas (and ideals) on the complex matrix of international aid and development. Hobbes isn’t suggesting we give up our efforts, not at all. But he does suggest the one-size-fits all model is risky. He argues against what he calls The Big Idea, and the belief “that once we identify the correct one, we can simply unfurl it on the entire developing world like a picnic blanket.”
The work I do has to date been almost exclusively with American nonprofits, but many of Hobbes’ ideas apply to domestic nonprofits as well. And while most of their hearts are in the right place, they can do more harm than good (or at least undermine their efforts) if they don’t take into account the Big Picture and the effect their support might have.
One of my clients opens small schools — good ones, with well-trained teachers and a snappy curriculum — in underserved urban neighborhoods. Trouble is, a good school isn’t the only thing these at-risk kids are lacking, and to expect them to thrive there without addressing the rest of their formidable deficits is unreasonable.
So, in Green Dot’s case, they fortify the student’s school performance by providing health care, job placement services, parent training classes, and other supports so that by the time the student reaches one of their classrooms, he or she has addressed even a few of the hurdles that pass for “normal” for such children.
The challenge for nonprofits and good businesses is to zoom out often, to remember the Big Picture, and to acknowledge that the systems needing our philanthropy may be far more intricate than we can imagine. It’s a model akin to nature: alter one part, and the rest of it is affected, too. Hobbes illustrates this perfectly in his article. With this in mind, he says, the best bet is to remember that development moves slowly. “Successful programs should be allowed to expand by degrees, not digits,” he writes.
In these days when every nonprofit wants an Ice Bucket Challenge to answer their financial dreams, it’s actually more effective to invest in a long, slow, fortified outreach strategy, and watch every small change carefully to see how it affects the whole.