Thursday, May 24, 2018

Last week I went to the monthly ReCity Roundtable. The speaker was Julie Wells, the Executive Director of Partners for Youth Opportunity in Durham, NC. Her talk centered on the assumption that there were far too many nonprofits in Durham (roughly 4500) and that over time funders have invested in these nonprofits because Durham was a city that needed that support, had a wealth of University resources and drew the attention of national nonprofits. However, the argument she made was that we are likely to see diminished interest from funders, volunteers  and other supporters because things are too confusing and there are simply not enough solutions emerging to solve some of Durham’s biggest challenges. I agreed as I sat there, listening. 


Julie talked about three key steps to solving the problem of a market saturated with nonprofits; building organizational stability through leadership development and organizational capacity building, asking funders to engage more deeply with nonprofits, and challenging volunteers to integrate into what is already happening within the organization. She dove into these three topics and challenged us to think about these things. So, I did.


After a couple of days of pondering, I agreed and believe everything she said, and I felt like something was missing. One of Julie’s statements really stuck with me. She said, “Make sure the response matches the need and that we are not about simply taking an idea to action.” When I think about the needs across Durham, the Triangle, and North Carolina, I get overwhelmed. Then I remind myself that complex problems can not be solved by one sector alone. That was the thing that was missing from the talk for me. The steps presented are on target with regard to the nonprofit sector. The solutions are things that we in the nonprofit sector can control and work toward. However, that led me to these questions:

  • Where was the challenge to government?
  • Where was the challenge to the private, for-profit sector (and I’m not talking about corporate philanthropy)?
  • Where was the challenge to the universities in our community?
  • Where was the challenge to social entrepreneur’s who are all about creating new ideas? 


Complex problems are more than complicated, they are “wicked problems.” Horst W.J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, professors of design and urban planning at the University of California at Berkeley, described wicked problems in a 1973 article in Policy Sciences magazine. They are not wicked because they are evil. They are wicked because the environment in which these problems exist continues to change. The number of stakeholders in these types of problems is large and the values they hold in what the solutions might be are incredibly diverse and can give way to disagreement. What is even more frustrating is that there is no one right or wrong solution. Solutions are based on the judgments of the planners and are likely to be implemented by the stakeholders with the means to implement the solutions. I wonder if there is equity in that?


So, I have ideas and thoughts about many of these issues. Having been a development director, executive director, a funder, a volunteer in the public sector, and engaging with the corporate sector, I have lots of thoughts and I’m going to share them over the coming weeks. However, I also began to wonder, what if we could mobilize the 4500 nonprofits to flex the muscle that it represents in the community? Is that enough influence to challenge government, the for profit-sector, the universities and the entrepreneurs? Is there a way to use the three key strategies presented last week as a means of saying to these other sectors, we are the leaders in helping solve some of these social challenges, we are becoming stronger, and we invite you to work with us.


Special thanks to Julie Wells for her comments at the ReCity Roundtable.