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The world is complex. Therefore, to put order to things, we try to become more organized and linear in many aspects of life and existence: In battle: first we send the scouts to check out lay of the land and our enemies’ strengths and weaknesses, then we send in the infantry. In marriage: First, we date, then we have the parents meet, then we get married. In going to IKEA: First we spend 30 minutes finding parking, then we get panic attacks in the lamps aisle, then we get into fights with our partner.
In the nonprofit sector, this linear sort of thinking is pervasive, seeping into every aspect of our work, manifesting in things such as:
- Logic models expressing a direct relationship between inputs, outputs, outcomes, etc.
- Funders not giving funding to organizations until they have sufficient data and a “track record”
- An employee giving campaign requiring organizations to have three or more years of existence as a 501c3 before they can even be eligible for funding
- Hiring managers requiring formal education as an essential qualification (you go to college, then you get a job)
- Funders giving grassroots organizations smaller funds, then slightly larger amounts as they “prove” themselves
- Funders halting giving funds out while they do a strategic planning process
- Rigid 3-to-5-year strategic plans that leave little room to respond to emerging needs
It is not working. In fact, I would argue that this penchant for linear thinking oversimplifies the problems we are trying to solve, and thus in fact are worsening and perpetuating them. The societal challenges we are dealing with are incredibly complex, morphing and adapting all the time; we cannot continue to believe that we can effectively respond to this complexity by being even more rigid and linear and believing that things happen in sequence.
In addition, this sort of linear thinking is inequitable, leaving behind marginalized communities and the people around whom the work should be centered. In every instance of linearity above, marginalized communities are the most affected: Grassroots orgs led by these communities are least likely to have a strong logic model or track record; they are least likely to be able to survive while waiting for funders undergoing hiatus to do a strategic funding process; people of color face more barriers to obtaining formal education, etc.