Embracing Complexity: A Guide to Navigating Today’s Charitable World
During the last decade, the landscape of philanthropy in the United States has changed profoundly. Some of these changes, like the increasing demand for accountability among individual donors and institutional grantmakers, have been gradual. Others—driven by the ripped-from-the-headlines developments of the recent past, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, COVID and the growing awareness of the climate crisis facing humanity, to name a few—have been more sudden and, seemingly, more consequential.
All of these new dynamics pose multifaceted challenges for the philanthropist seeking to make a meaningful impact and have important repercussions in terms of both what their donations are funding and how these decisions are made and implemented. In order to help its readers better understand this evolving context, Worth has asked two experienced advisors in the philanthropic sector, Eric Nonacs and Ehren Reed, to share their views on how to navigate the shifting sands of today’s charitable world.
Among the topics they will address over a series of articles that we intend to publish monthly during the coming year are the definitions of success (specifically, who defines them), the asymmetry between grantors and grantees, and how philanthropy is inherently an exercise in cognitive dissonance. Their inaugural piece addresses the disconnect between the complexity of the problems facing society and the simplicity of our solutions—and proposes a mindset change to avoid this common pitfall.
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In April 2021, thousands of boba tea drinkers were in for a surprise when they stepped into their local coffee shop or tea house. The latest in a series of global supply chain shortages meant that their favorite chewy black pearls of tapioca came with either a higher price tag or were unavailable altogether. Simplistically, the lack of boba—as with similar shortfalls in microchips, building materials and rental cars—resulted from the ongoing COVID pandemic. However, the full story is far more complex.
There was, in fact, plenty of boba in the world. The problem was that it was having a hard time making it out of Taiwan, where much of it is produced, and across the Pacific to thirsty tea drinkers in America. If you widen the lens from any of the current shortages, you see a broader systemic challenge involving everything from a huge uptick in online shopping in the U.S., to a global shortage of shipping containers, and a scarcity of dockworkers at major ports.
In philanthropy, such complexity is ever-present. Systemic racism, climate change, income inequality, homelessness and the many multifaceted challenges we face as a society are a testament to this. Operating in a complex world often leads philanthropists to focus on one part of a system, in the belief that focusing on a single organization or a single solution will allow greater control and permit easier attribution and accountability. This quest for certainty, definitiveness and simplicity, while understandable on a human level, carries with it a significant risk that, as philanthropists, we narrow our vision to a particular issue, intervention or grantee, and lose sight of the broader, interconnected system in which our work unfolds. That narrowing of perspective is a well-documented cognitive trap called ‘bounded awareness,’ in which we tend to overlook or ignore important information readily available to us because we have focused our attention within self-described, and often arbitrary, boundaries.
Bounded awareness is a particularly vexing problem for philanthropy, as we so easily become overly focused on the problem or approach we have chosen and we fail to see key, related factors that fall just outside of the borders of our definition of an issue or of our chosen strategy.
This is true whenever you…
- Overfocus on a few chosen metrics in your dashboard, at the expense of other relevant indicators that you opted not to include;
- Celebrate the performance of your grantee, and miss the emergence of a new organization with a different approach that yields better results; or
- Search for strategies within the bounds of a specific issue area, when the necessary solutions may exist in an adjacent one. For example, a primary factor in poor health outcomes might be houselessness, and chronic hunger may be the underlying cause of poor education results.
The solution to bounded awareness is to embrace the complexity inherent to the problems you are aiming to solve as a philanthropist. The complexity scientist Dave Snowden pioneered the Cynefin framework, which posits that your process for decision-making should be tuned to the context in which you are operating. The Cynefin framework describes four distinct domains: simple, complicated, complex and chaotic.
Imagine baking a simple cupcake. Without too much effort, you can perfect a recipe, share it with others and they will be able to produce the same result. While far more complicated, imagine launching a rocket to the moon or performing open heart surgery. These may involve more steps and greater room for error, but it is still possible to discover and replicate proven pathways to success. In simple and complicated scenarios like these, the system is stable enough to be knowable and there are high expectations of replicability: If you do X, you can expect Y.
Those same rules do not apply however when you move into realms of greater complexity, where the system is more dynamic and unbounded. Consider raising a child. There is no right way to do so, and no replicable pathway by which you could guarantee the same results. There aren’t even shared definitions of what success looks like! Cause and effect is not always knowable and expectations of attribution slip away: We all know who is responsible for the cupcake, but who gets credit for a child’s artistic prowess? When working in situations involving complexity, the emphasis shifts from the pursuit of a proven solution (static) to a perpetual solving (dynamic, iterative and adaptive).
In philanthropy, we too often apply language and approaches suited for simple and complicated domains—consider the obsession with scalability, replicability and the other buzzwords that currently dominate the charitable landscape—when, in reality, most of our work unfolds in conditions of complexity. Evolving our mindsets to be more comfortable with complexity will yield a more accurate and holistic understanding of the world, as well as more effective strategies to bring about change.
Eric Nonacs is the principal at Golden State, a Nashville-based strategic consultancy. He draws on over 30 years of international experience in the nonprofit and private sectors in providing advisory services to philanthropists and entrepreneurs as they navigate the strategic, leadership, communications and operational challenges associated with moving their ideas from conception to implementation.
Ehren Reed is an independent advisor to nonprofits, funders and social enterprises, helping them better understand their work and developing tools and processes that enable quicker and more informed decisions. He brings more than two decades of experience in evaluation and impact assessment, with a particular expertise in the evaluation of complex initiatives, such as those aiming for policy change, systems change or movement building.