How not to die of dysentery on the Oregon Trail

Recently, I was cheered to discover my nephew playing a hand-held version of the generation-defining  game The Oregon Trail, a game I first played on the Commoore 64 (or maybe the Apple II? Have I sufficiently dated myself?). The objective of the game is straightforward enough: get yourself and your traveling companions from Independence, Missouri to the Willamette Valley before winter sets in (the specter of the Donner Party was never too far in the background). The game presents you with a series of fateful decisions. You initially outfit your party at the general store spending a fixed amount of money (bankers start with more, farmers with less) on oxen, clothing, food, ammunition and spare parts to repair your Conestoga wagon. Then, you choose when to depart: leave too early and there will be no grass for your oxen; leave too late and you run into winter. Along the way, you use up resources trying to generate other resources: there are opportiunities to hunt for food, which uses up ammunition; and, you can trade for supplies as you go. Game play is essentially solving a series of resource management puzzles. The health of your party depends on some things things over which you have some control, like pace and rations, and some things over which you have much less control, like the weather and broken axels.

I do not play computer games anymore, perhaps to my own detriment, but I certainly make daily use of the skills I developed while playing those early computer games, which were, at their core, turn-based strategic simulations. What I did not appreciate then, but certainly do now, is the extent to which these simulations were introducing me to some of the basic ideas of systems thinking.

The term “systems thinking” can mean different things to different people. It can refer to a collection of diagnosic tools and methods, such as causal loop diagrams, for examining problems more completely and accurately before acting, allowing us to ask better questions before jumping to conclusions. It is also a “mind set” sensitive to the intrelated nature of the world in which we live. Systems thinkers are dissatisfied  observing discrete events and sets of data; they challenge themselves to discover patterns. And, they look to to surface the underlying structures that explain those patterns. Once surfaced, we can then change those structures in ways that will help bring about the outcomes we desire. In the absence of systems thinking, the processes responsible for yielding those outcomes too often remain mysterious and unamenable to change.

The Systems Thinker offers (for free, courtesy of the Omidyar Group) essential works of Daniel  H. Kim, Colleen P. Lannon and Barry Richmond, among other systems thinking notables, since the 1980s. I cannot recommend a set of resources more highly. Much of my own practice involves testing how far the tools and methods of systems thinking can be applying in the world of philanthropy.

What is it that you do, exactly, and why is it worth paying for?

Fair question(s). It cheered me recently to read good answers provided by Ann Carrns in the Wealth Special Section of the March 22, 2018 Sunday New York Times: When It Comes to Donating Money, Whom Do You Trust? It looks like her article is not behind the paywall; but, even if it is, you should probably be subscribing anyway. Hers is a great read that pretty much surfaces all the reasons why you would consider hiring someone like me to help give away your money.

In defense of TPS reports (not really)

If the “right side” of a logic model is concerned with impact, the left is concerned with efficiency. One way to think about efficiency is to see it as a matter of eliminating waste from a system, whether in the form of wasted materials, money or, perhaps most insidiously, time. There are a number of waste management systems (so to speak) many of which were developed with industrial production and distribution in mind. Toyota, in particular, is legendary for the waste minimization strategies it implements throughout its Toyota Production System (TPS).

Fans of Office Space will be familiar with the notion of TPS reports. What is so great about that scene in Office Space is that it illustrates what happens in an organization when ostensibly sound policies and proceedures are bureaucratized to the point that they become complicit in producing precisely the kind of inefficiency they were designed to minimize. I believe the kids call it irony.  A well-functioning TPS would abhor the notion of TPS reports, much less memoranda referencing TPS reports, much less memoranda referencing cover sheets on TPS reports (If you have not seen Office Space, now would be a good time to remedy that).

The generalized version of the principles upon which TPS is based is sometimes called “lean.” Over time, lean production principles have been adapted for the purposes of software development, which is a rather different endeavor than automobile manufacturing. The “Agile” framework is arguably one such adaptation, and my friend Mark LoParco has recently posted an article on LinkedIn sharing his thoughts on what he calls two “flavors” of Agile (Scrum and Kanban- do you not love these words?) I encourage you to check it out, because not only is he more than a little bit of a genius, he is an awfully good writer to boot.

It Ain’t What You Give, It’s The Way That You Give It

This book, by Caroline Fiennes, was given to me by someone in the philanthopy game whom I very much respect right when I was starting to take the idea of philanthropic strategy seriously. It has never been out of reach since. In my previous post, I worry that I may have come across as somewhat dismissive of Logical Framework Analysis (LFA). As a tool, I think that LFA is almost indispensable. The process of subjecting ideas to such analytical rigor is rarely itself a bad idea. It is just impractical for most people who do other things than philanthropy for a living. What Caroline Fiennes manages to do in this book is give you a primer on LFA that will actually inspire you to put some of these ideas into practice immediately. It’s well-written, conversational and useful. Not a bad set of adjectives.

It’s not free, so before committing to the purchase  you might consider this nice review in the Guardian by Michael Green (himself a very interesting cat) and this interview with the author by the Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania.

(Don’t) Blame Canada

My Canadian friends insist this is not true, but I am convinced that Canadians are by nature just a little bit better than us. After all, they gave us the great Bruce Cockburn. And Loverboy. Another case in point is Outcome Mapping (OM).

The Bible of OM was authored by Sarah Earl, Fred Carden, and Terry Smutyl in 2001. OM itself was developed by Canada’s International Research and Development Centre (IRDC) to address perceived shortcomings of Logical Framework Analysis (LFA). As you will discover, the Program Monitoring and Evaluation community (PM&E, of course) has never met an acronym with which it has not fallen in love.

If you have dealt with a big foundation, especially one that has a hand in international human development, then you have undoubtedly encountered LFA-speak and its obsession with the “ballistic” term impact. People who obsess themselves with impact assessment are fundamentally skeptics. They wish the social world was more like the world of the natural sciences, a world in which we think we can know things for certain. They lament that we rarely have discrete, measurable, predictable and straightforward relationships between the programs we support through our philanthropy and the world we wish were true. OM starts from a different place, where the fact that human beings are not machines is to be celebrated. OM sees development as characterised by long-term, open problems, and accepts that ‘social change’ is really shorthand for many changes in many actors over a long period of time. Acknowledging that there are limits to a program’s influence, OM encourages a focus on the contributions that the actors and organizations with which you work directly can reasonably make not only in the communities they serve but also in the ways in which they go about their work.

For most, fully implementing an OM program is too expensive and probably overkill. But, the principles on which OM is built are worth appreciating and engaging with. The good folks at the Outcome Mapping Learning Community (OMLC), a registered not-for-profit organization in Belgium, have made a trove of resources available to us. This is a rabbit hole down which you will be rewarded for diving.

“Building is not Buying”

George Overholser is another “alpha dog” thought leader in the world of philanthropy. He is a founder of the Nonprofit Finance Fund, co-founder of Third Sector Capital Partners, and is generally a superior example of the human species. I was fortunate enough to have caught a presentation of his back in 2009, and my ideas about philanthropy have never been the same since. Basically, George challenges us to distinguish  “equity-like” and “revenue-like” investments in the social sector. His report Nonprofit Growth Capital is seminal and absolutely required reading.

Best. Blog. Ever.

White Courtesy Telephone is the blogiest blog that ever blogged a blog. It is a production from the beautiful mind of Albert Ruesga, someone with whom I actually have had the good fortune of spending a little time while he was president and CEO of the Greater New Orleans Foundation. Albert is the smartest guy you know; he can write better than you, is funny and has a heart the size of Montana (at least). He also has great legs. If you can dig what Albert is dishing, then you are way ahead of the game. If you want a place to dive in, I am especially fond of How to Cause Things in Philanthopy. Gracias, Albert. Gracias.

Tactical Philanthopy: An Appreciation

One of the most formative resources for me when I first started out in philanthropy was Sean Stannard-Stockton’s Tactical Philanthopy blog. Sean has since moved on to other things, but he is gracious enough to keep those old posts available to us. I cannot imagine a better introduction to “strategic” philanthopy, its promises and perils. While I have never had the good fortune to meet the man, my sense is that he’s someone with whom I could hang.