Tag Archives: governance

Another Argument for Diversity

iqoncept, via Flickr

Social workers talk quite a bit about diversity, really. Our Code of Ethics has strong language about respect for marginalized populations, and our Council of Social Work Education’s standards for courses include pretty strong language requiring inclusion of diversity. In my course evaluations every semester, students are specifically asked if I’ve done enough to include content on diverse populations.

And that’s all absolutely good and important.

But, lately, I’ve been thinking that we maybe rely too much on “it’s the right thing to do” kinds of arguments, when talking about the importance of diversity, instead of coupling that moral imperative with a discussion of the wisdom of diversity, as a matter of group performance and organizational excellence. After all, we know from advocacy that we make the best arguments when we appeal to both heart and head–why this is the right thing and why it’s the smart thing–and, in pushing our profession and our organizations to reflect more of the diversity around us, maybe that parallel track approach would help too.

Because we need some work, honestly. Again, we talk a good game, but the truth is that our profession and the organizations in which we work still don’t fully embrace the full range of the diversity we serve. We still, too often, relegate the perspectives of people of color, people from other language backgrounds, people of diverse sexual orientations, people of different abilities, to a “special”, side track, rather than completely accounting for what we still need to do to be the diversity we so value (because, yes, that means aggressive Affirmative Action programs and targeted recruiting practices and lots of other initiatives that take money and hard work).

In the book, The Wisdom of Crowds, which I picked up because you know how much I super-love crowdsourcing, the author presents some really fascinating research about how calculated diversity within groups does far more than just look good on an annual report: it absolutely helps the group to make better decisions.

The book is worth reading, especially if you like reading about psychological experiments (!), but, essentially, in terms of this topic, what the research he presents finds is that a group of people, working on a problem from their own diverse perspectives, can come up with better solutions, most of the time, than any one individual (even a really smart one with a lot of knowledge about the problem), or, usually, even a group of really smart people from the same perspective.

A lot of the reasons for those results align with the moral arguments social workers make about diversity: people are shaped by their own backgrounds and experiences, which make them approach problems differently and reach different conclusions. So, bringing people together who come from very different backgrounds and different interests can, in and of itself, increase the likelihood of getting a good decision.

But this kind of diversity doesn’t just mean checking off different boxes for race or ethnicity or gender. We’re all embedded in our social context, after all, and that can mean that, even if we come from different places, spending a lot of time together can start to make us converge on the same (even if really bad) decisions.

And we can’t afford those bad decisions. We’ve got to figure out how to best support low-income working mothers, what kinds of housing options work best for those leaving homelessness, what kids leaving foster care need to succeed. Solving those problems will mean approaching them with fresh minds, not foregone conclusions, and there are too many examples, from social work and beyond, of tightly-knit groups of rather similar people being blind to considerations that influenced their decision, sometimes with tragic results.

That means that, if we want real organizational excellence, then we have to continually solicit the participation of new people, from new perspectives. Certainly some of our volunteers and even the general public can be part of this process, but it seems fairly obvious that developing a good system for endowing our clients with real decision-making roles is the surest way to institutionalize the kind of diversity that can lead to success.

Of fads and sunlight

Reason #1 million and something why I love my students: they keep me intellectually honest!

So I write in December about how we need to beware of the temptation to follow the next shiny new thing and then I write last week about how excited I am about the transparency movement (I have a category of “My New Favorite Thing”, of all things, so obviously I’m vulnerable to this same temptation), and a former student and I then begin a conversation about the limits of transparency and, in fact, its drawbacks.

And that led me to dig out an article I’d been carrying around since before Christmas (written, interestingly, by an advisory board member of the Sunlight Foundation),

Towards a New Framework for Nonprofit Financing

I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about the state of the nonprofit sector during the past couple of months. And I’m obviously not alone; the creation of the Obama Administration’s Social Innovation Fund, among other developments, has sparked some widespread soul-searching among nonprofit leaders (both providers and donors) about the future of the sector and necessary reforms.

This report, produced out of a gathering convened by the Alliance for Children and Families, Deloitte LLP, and the Hillside Family of Agencies (large nonprofit in NY, like $180 million annual budget large) earlier this spring, echoes a lot of that thinking. There were some very good pieces included in it, and it seems that, given the relationships that many participants have with congressional and administration policymakers, the group might have some momentum to enact some of their proposed changes. Still, I was very glad that they included pictures of the participants convening (in the historic Rockefeller family estate, no less!), because it was glaringly, painfully, offensively obvious that the effort is not representative of the overall nonprofit sector, which to me should color (NO PUN INTENDED) any discussion of their conclusions.

In the pictures, there were absolutely no people of color, and very few women. Going by the attendees’ names, I’d generously say that no more than 5 of the 21 participants were women. If we’re going to have a high-level meeting about the future of nonprofit financing and try to break out of the patterns of how things have been done during the previous decades to imagine a new day, shouldn’t it be a diverse group having that conversation? Um, yes.

Okay, then, what did these mostly male, middle-aged white people conclude about what needs to change in nonprofit financing? 🙂

First, what I liked the most: the group seemed to emphasize that the future of nonprofit human services MUST include significant, even increased, funding support from the federal government. They didn’t have any of this ‘work smarter, public/private, new economy’ stuff that so many of these conversations have substituted for the difficult political work of getting government to do its job and take care of the American people. Yay!

The report has three main themes: reform the ‘dollar in, dollar out’ method of government financing; encourage integration and break down programmatic silos; and innovate new mechanisms to promote the long-term financial stability of productive organizations within the nonprofit sector. Much of the last point parallels the discussion in Uncharitable, although this group came up with a few different approaches to the same stated problem. Here, they propose a human services investment bank to support mergers and acquisitions and venture capital and to finance new programs, but they recommend that the loans would be repaid, so to speak, by outcome performance, not in cash through enhanced fundraising efforts (as Pallotta proposes). They also suggest that this bank could function to underwrite lending directly to social service clients (sort of like a Fannie Mae for social services).

Many of the recommendations to address the first two areas, though, seemed to be inadequately developed in terms of strategies to overcome the primarily political nature of resistance to change. Yes, I can agree that the government’s current method of cost-reimbursement contracting is ill suited to long-term planning, innovation, and capacity-building. I can empathize with nonprofit executives who struggle to meet multiple, often conflicting requirements for reporting to different granting entities. I see the shortsightedness of taking whatever money we can get from the government and then cutting other programs to fill the gaps, without ever making the necessary capital investments (in technology, infrastructure, physical space, staff training) to take our organizations ‘to the next level’. I get it that pooled government funds and paying organizations for performance and reforming the rules of nonprofit accounting to allow for separation of capital budgets and cash flow would free nonprofit organizations from many of the constraints that currently compromise their long-term efficacy while encouraging innovative replication of promising interventions. I like the idea of ‘super waivers’, to open contracting and increase the transparency of the funding process (even as I fear, a bit, anything with ‘waiver’ in it, since that’s often a euphemism for something that exchanges a bit more flexibility for rather dramatic cuts in funding).

But what I don’t really see is a strategy for how we would begin to get there. There’s little discussion about the need for better outcomes data in order to judge the performance for which nonprofits are theoretically going to be paid. There’s even less analysis of the ideology behind the devolution which has contributed mightily to the fragmentation of the sector. And, while it seems that they plan to address the issue of vested constituencies for each ‘silo’, I don’t see a plan for how you corral these interests into a movement for change.

We didn’t get to the state in which we find ourselves by accident. And it really isn’t because we think it’s the greatest situation that we perpetuate it. Articulating the problems and pointing out what would be better does not, unfortunately, lead us neatly to a new reality. What we need, even more than technical know-how and lists of great suggestions, is the political power to bring about a transformation in the way that the nonprofit human service sector is viewed…not as charity but as a core part of our social contract and an investment in our collective future.

And that gets me back to my first critique. I don’t see how you build a movement without bringing in more of the essential voices that comprise today’s, and, perhaps more importantly, tomorrow’s, society. I applaud many of these ideas, and I concur with the dire assessment of the status quo. And I hope that this is another pebble dropping in the pond, until it spills over and we achieve the kinds of fundamental reforms that would make the nonprofit sector a real player in human progress.

I hate to be cynical, but I’m just not sure that the revolution starts in Rockefeller’s living room.

Financing Human Services Report