Context matters: In defense of ‘wraparound’

One of the tensions in the nonprofit world today, especially around questions of scaling, relates to whether our needs are best served through the creation and maintenance of ‘niche’ nonprofits that provide a few core services and do so very well, versus the development of a smaller number of large institutions that are each capable of delivering holistic services in their respective fields.

Do we want many Davids or a few (well-intentioned, of course) Goliaths?

Do we get to scale more effectively by fostering many nimble, ’boutique’ nonprofits, or by directing resources to organizations more equal in size to the problems they confront?

I have thought, though, for awhile, that this might really be the wrong question. That maybe we should be spending more time thinking about whether our services–our response to the problems–are scaled correctly, not whether the particular vehicles through which we’re delivering them–our organizations–are.

Because, when it comes to tackling the big challenges plaguing our society–illiteracy, poverty, gender discrimination, racial injustice, obesity and ill health, growing educational disparities, pervasive underemployment, rampant incarceration–context really matters.

It’s not just that smaller nonprofits with a more narrow profile of services may be ‘outgunned’ in these battles, but that even the service models of bigger organizations, the way that they structure and understand their missions, may be missing some links, too.

But when organizations expand beyond their boundaries–regardless of their size–I often sense considerable pushback, around the idea of ‘mission drift’ or concerns about others’ turf or fear that ‘core’ services (however those are understood) will suffer as the service scope grows.

In Creating Room to Read, the founder describes a very different approach, one where the organization fairly quickly saw that achieving its goals of literacy, especially for girls around the world, would require far more than the initial objective of building schools and libraries. In order to succeed, Room to Read would have to look at the skills that girls need and the contexts in which they often fail to develop, the social supports that can help girls overcome cultural taboos against advanced education for females, and the tangible obstacles they face (including transportation, meals at school, and childcare for siblings).

Importantly, attending to this context doesn’t always mean adjusting the scale and size of the organization itself, since there are other ways to ‘scale up’, and it isn’t perceived as ‘Christmas-treeing’, tacking on anything that seems appealing, without thought as to the distraction that additional services may pose.

Instead, it’s about boxing in our problems in order to attack them.

It’s about wrapping those we’re concerned about in the mantle of all of the essential supports they say they need, and figuring out how to do that through a combination of service expansion internally, strategic partnerships, and advocacy with public institutions.

In essence, then, I guess that I’m more interested in the ‘what’, when it comes to scaling to match our challenges, than I am the ‘how’.

I don’t know that I care, all that much, if we pursue models of many small organizations, working collaboratively, or investments in large and robust responses.

What matters is that we go wide, with our lens, looking at the context in which problems flourish.

After all, it’s only mission drift if you’re moving away from what really matters, or if you’re focused more on the narrow provision of services than a compelling vision of the world as it should be.

Otherwise, it’s just approaching our challenges from different angles.

Until we have them surrounded.

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