The Pollyanna Principles: Chapter 4

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.

In Chapter 3, we examined the roots of the systems used by Community Benefit Organizations – Old-World Charity and the Business World. Today’s excerpt considers the results of those roots – how they affect what organizations are able to accomplish.


Chapter 4: The Present Created by Our Past
The past has created the present. What, then, has the path of our history meant for all these groups who have wanted to change their part of the world?

The Path of Human History
As a planet, we have thousands of years of “that’s the way it’s always been,” with a long history of increasing ability to conquer our natural world. But because we have not seen such evolution on the social side, we believe the Culture of Can’t to be fact – that humans will always be greedy, selfish, competitive, violent; that that is simply human nature. Visionaries who try to lead us toward our potential, while revered after their deaths, are often treated with the opposite of such respect and honor while they are alive.

The Result
As a result of the Culture of Can’t, community organizations do not aim their efforts at the vision of a compassionate, vibrant, resilient planet. Instead, we react to what is troubling us, rather than aiming to create something extraordinary. We seek to end what we do not like about today, rather than seeking to attain what we do want for tomorrow.

The Path of Old World Charity
Along the path of our history, Old-World Charity provided systems for helping one individual at a time. It assumed that scarce resources are provided by a relatively few benevolent parties of significant means, creating competitive systems for acquiring those scarce resources. Approaches developed under the Old-World Charity Model assume the people doing the helping are wiser than the person who needs the help – whether that recipient is an individual poor person, an artist in need of a stipend, or an organization asking for the dollars with which to serve others.

The Result
Programs (from the arts to human services and everything in between) focus on helping one individual life at a time. Evidence of this one-at-a-time approach is apparent in the recent surge in “Blueprints to End” this or that, whose provisions include ensuring all food banks have enough supplies to feed all individuals in need (“ending” hunger), or that every individual homeless person would have a roof over his/her head (“ending” homelessness).

Such programs are typically developed by the staff of social change organizations, with little to no participation from the individuals who will avail themselves of the services, rooted in the assumption that the organization’s staff knows best. (In one case, a board member was incredulous at the suggestion that the staff ask community members about the issues that affect their community. “What if we ask them and they’re wrong?”)

Communities are seen as places of abundant need, with few who have the wherewithal to assist. That sense of need is confirmed by Needs Assessments that assume “need as reality” in their very line of questioning, and then, not surprisingly, find the need they are seeking.

From that sense of need, positive forces such as the arts are seen as a luxury for those of means. Arts groups work to re-focus their message and their work on the power of the arts to build upon the strengths of people otherwise seen as needy. Yet even the language of the arts continues to reflect a history of elitism, where a supporter is called a “patron,” with all the history that word implies.

Programs rooted in Old-World Charity are not funded upon a model of equal partnership between funder and grantee. They are funded by “benevolent benefactors,” leading to a sense among grantees that funders create hoops through which organizations reluctantly jump, to be able to compete with others who also wish to qualify for those scarce resources.

The Path of Commerce
Business Model systems weigh decisions against a financial bottom line, with a strong focus on organizational strength. Systems build upon the Business Model see demand as opportunity. Such systems assume both resources and investors are scarce and that we must therefore compete for them.

Results of the Business Model are seen primarily in an organization’s infrastructure, with a strong emphasis on organizational capacity and survival, and significant attention to a bottom line of financial viability. Decisions at such organizations often favor organizational and financial viability to the “bottom line” of community results.

Business-focused discussions often reflect “profit center” thinking, asking questions such as, “How long will that program take to pay for itself?” A program that does not pay for itself is often said to be “subsidized” (i.e. supported by general operating revenues). Regardless of its value to the community, a “subsidized” program in a business-focused organization is less likely to be supported than one that carries its own financial weight.

Under the Business Model, organizations lament the need to compete aggressively with others who want the same end results for their community, as they assume competition for scarce resources (funding, clients) is the only reality.

The Business Model has strong influence in organizational board rooms, where volunteer board members are often business people in their “real” lives. Boards spend considerable time addressing financial matters, as they are encouraged to hold themselves primarily accountable for the organization’s fiscal well-being.

Business assumptions influence “strategic” planning, with short-term goals and a strong emphasis on organizational capacity as the end goal of many such plans. As organizations examine opportunities and threats in a situational analysis, demand is an “opportunity” (despite the fact that increased demand for child abuse services may not be a good thing), while increased numbers of organizations addressing that demand is a “threat” (despite the fact that more people addressing that need may indeed be a good thing).

Organizations who are most adept at using business tools are often exalted with awards for “excellence” and a local reputation for being “the best” – the best fundraisers, the highest profile, the “best” boards (defined by the participation of powerful community leaders, many of whom enjoy raising money).

Tomorrow’s excerpt: The Conclusion of the Excerpts – Moving Forward


For the rest of this week, you can preview the whole first section of The Pollyanna Principles here at Creating the Future.  And please, link here to learn more about the book (and to purchase it!), and to review the table of contents (as well as all 6 of the Pollyanna Principles).

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