Pack Line Philanthropy

2019 Virginia Cavaliers Men's Basketball team celebrates trip to the Final Four in Minnesota.

Positively giddy over the Virginia Cavaliers once-every-thirty-five-year-run to the Final Four, I cannot resist saying a little something about college hoops. You will likely think that I am forcing a pass into the low post here, but it really is my contention that you can learn more than a little about systems thinking by watching a game of Virginia Basketball. Specifically, on the defensive end, you will see a visual manifestation of a system in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Virginia runs, better than anyone else on the planet, a type of ‘sagging’ man-to-man defense known as the Pack Line, developed by legendary coach Dick Bennet, the father of current Virginia Coach (and legend in-the-making) Tony Bennet. Most man-to-man defenses are designed to limit ball movement and force turnovers with intense pressure both on and away from the ball. The idea is to lock up the ball handler and deny him clear passing lanes in order to force a bad pass or contested jump shot. In such a system, you are pretty much on an island with your designated man. If he beats your pressure, little help is to be found. Other players are locked up with their own men, denying the pass, and out of position to help their teammates. Offenses that can break on-ball pressure will find it easy to drive to the basket for a high-percentage shot.

Contrast this with the way Virginia plays defense: At all times, one defender pressures the player with the basketball while four defenders position themselves inside an imaginary line 16 feet from the rim (about 3-feet inside the 3-point line). This is the Pack Line. When the ball is passed around the perimeter, the next defender closes out with high hands to prevent the rhythm shot and then provides on-ball pressure while the defender who was playing on-ball defense falls back within the Pack Line.

The Pack Line forces players to influence ball handlers toward the middle of the floor, which is typically considered to be the most vulnerable part of a defense. But with the Pack Line, the middle is where the help is. Everything Virginia does defensively stems from this concept of middle help.

This system is vulnerable to the three-point shot, to be sure; but, because it allows for help, it is forgiving. The measure of its excellence is how well it recovers when breached at the point of attack.

There are not individual stats to measure your individual defensive performance the way you can on offense. How does one measure helpfulness? So, you need players to put aside individual ego and take pride in measures of overall team defense. Not everyone is willing to do this. You do not necessarily need McDonald’s All Americans to implement the Pack Line successfully. You need smart, unselfish players with sufficient length, athleticism and willingness to help.

To bring it back to the social sector, for many years ‘gap filling’ was seen as a legitimate role for philanthropy to play; today, it seems like so many philanthropic actors would rather score points, so to speak. They want to be Duke. But we know that complex social challenges- like basketball- can be approached effectively in different ways.

Imagine philanthropy designed to help our social systems function more like Virginia’s Pack Line, philanthropy that actively facilitates coordination among agencies and measures success in ways that reward organizations that help one another. This may very well mean funding small, nimble organizations led by men and women relatively devoid of ego. It may mean funding salaries, helping to pay such people what they are truly worth. It may mean funding the underdog. It may mean many smaller grants as opposed to a few ‘big bets.’ It will, certainly, mean long hours ‘in the gym’ getting to know your grantees and figuring out how they can compliment each other’s play. And while it may not get you on the philanthropic equivalent of SportsCenter every night, a patient, gap-oriented philanthropic portfolio can yield immensely satisfying and impactful returns, especially for small family foundations with limited resources.

Go Hoos!

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 Commodore 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.