The Pollyanna Principles: Chapter 3

The following is excerpted from The Pollyanna Principles: Reinventing ‘Nonprofit Organizations’ to Create the Future of Our World. To read these chapters from the beginning, head here. The Pollyanna Principles will be officially released on January 25th.


Chapter 3: The Origins of Nonprofit Systems and their Effects
Moving forward from the path of human history, we begin to see what has led to the path of the current systems in the “nonprofit” world. It has been a relatively short time – a matter of decades, not centuries – that the work once associated with churches and perhaps a few handfuls of private charities and community benefactors has become a multi-billion-dollar economic force with millions of employees and an even larger volunteer force. Just a few short decades ago, this massive force for community and global change did not exist.

Instead, as the quality of life in the developed world grew beyond survival needs, one by one, individuals and small groups who cared took action.

Had the “nonprofit sector” begun with intent, someone might have looked up and said, “Hey, we’ll need some tools to do X or Y – let’s craft those!” But, of course, what happened instead is that individuals used whatever tools were available. Folks doing Community Benefit work did their best to adapt those systems to their own needs and goals.

So what tools and systems has the path of our history led us to use? What were the origins of those systems? From those origins, what assumptions and expectations were built into those systems, and what effect do those historic assumptions have on the work we are trying to do today?

A brief look at the two most common sources of the systems used within Community Benefit Organizations – Old-World Charity and the Business World – will help clarify the past that has led to our present. From there, it will help us see more clearly what the path ahead must be, if we intend to create a better future.

The Old-World Charitable Model
Charity has been around since there have been people who care about each other. There is not a holy book of any faith that does not mention charity in some form. The habits formed from this part of our history have been long-held indeed.

The origins of the current charitable model lie in several places. First and most obviously, there is religious charity. In addition, the current model stems from private philanthropy, which grew dramatically during the Industrial Revolution, when certain individuals gained enormous wealth and wanted to provide some of that wealth for the greater good.

Both religious charity and private philanthropy helped the less fortunate, and both have also traditionally been significant patrons / supporters of artistic and educational endeavors.

The assumptions in the Old-World Charitable Model hold true whether the work originates from religious or private philanthropy. Those assumptions include the following:

Assumptions re: the Role of Assistance: The Old-World Charitable Model assumes the role of assistance is to help one individual or one family at a time. Even in circumstances where many thousands of people are helped, they are helped one person or one family or (usually in crisis circumstances) one village at a time.

Assumptions re: The Role of All-Knowing Benefactor: Private philanthropy generated by the successes of the Industrial Revolution expanded upon another assumption of the Charitable Model – that the benefactor knows what is best for the party receiving the gift, choosing what to give and how to give that gift. Whether the benefactor was granting his/her gift to a direct-service organization who then provided service to individuals, or the benefactor was delivering that service him/herself, it has been assumed that the party doing the giving (whether that party is giving money or direct services) has wisdom and knowledge the recipient does not have. After all, if the recipient were as wise as the grantor, the recipient would be in the same position as that grantor – he/she would have wealth and power (or in the case of religious philanthropy, divine wisdom)!

Assumptions re: Limited Resources: The Charitable Model assumes there are only a few individuals and institutions with the financial wherewithal to assist those in need. This not only leads to the assumption that their own philanthropy is a scarce resource, but also reinforces the assumption that resources overall are scarce. This reinforces the social distance between the grantor and the recipient, between service provider and client. From there, the scarcity assumption reinforces a sense of dependency, as the many who need such resources clamber around those “few” who will share what they have.

From these assumptions, tools and approaches rooted in the Charitable Model will measure results against questions such as these:

How many people will it help?
How much will it help them?
Are some recipients more deserving than others?
Are we being accountable to our benefactors’s wishes?
Is it better to help a lot of people with a little bit of help, or a few people more intensively?
How can we prove to our funders that our programs work?
Where can we find professional expertise to deliver our services?
How can we get our share of the scarce resources being offered?
What will we do when the money runs out?

Next excerpt: Assumptions inherited from the world of Business. Find that here.


Over the next week, you can preview the whole first section of The Pollyanna Principles here at Creating the Future. If you want to be notified when the next installment is posted, let us know. And please, link here to learn more about the book, and to review the table of contents (as well as all 6 of the Pollyanna Principles).

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