Boundary problems

Open CoLab

Where one thing ends and another begins. Where we face immovable objects but freedom as well.

This month's theme: boundary problems.

In math or physics, a boundary problem has set values at the edges that shape the solution within the space. Perhaps counterintuitively: the clearly defined boundaries aren’t the problem; rather, they cause the problems in the space between.

In social change, boundary problems are the messes between fixed points. Organizations have borders: inside them, more chaos than we expect. Grants create budgetary boundaries, within which we optimize for results. And a black swan event can create a temporal discontinuity: a fixed point that shifts the political landscape going forward.

A mathematician's boundary problems may be simpler than ours. We face infinite dimensions of movement, and sometimes uncertainty over which constraints are true boundaries. Organizations can be permeable, with ideas and influences flowing across the border. No event, not even a revolution, is a complete reset that allows us to ignore prior conditions.

But still, the idea of a break-point can be useful. It encourages us to recognize that things are different now, and that there’s no going back. Or that certain walls are immovable, and we must work around them. Within those constraints, we have opportunities for action.

Contained within

Berlin wall fragment, iPhone ad. (Photo: Dave Algoso.)

Funding: everyone’s boundary condition

Philanthropic practice can be slow to shift, but both external pressure and internal learning are driving changes.

The National Committe for Responsive Philanthropy’s president recently assessed how far the sector has come since they released their “Criteria for Philanthropy at Its Best”—with benchmarks like spending at least 50% of grant dollars to benefit lower-income communities, communities of color, and other marginalized groups; and at least 50% of grant dollars given for general operating support.

  • Summary: The discourse has changed, but beyond a few notable exceptions, the money hasn’t followed.

Meanwhile, Justice Funders has created what it calls the Resonance Framework—a guide to help philanthropists put justice and equity at the center of their work. It was recently profiled by The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Earlier this month, the Center for Effective Philanthropy held its annual conference in Minneapolis. Kari Aanestad of pointed out the irony that a gathering focused on feedback in philanthropy had very few grantees in attendance—but her critique of CEP’s approach is broader still.

For opening up philanthropy to new ideas, few practices rival term limits for foundation staff. Ruth Levine is wrapping up an eight-year term leading the Hewlett Foundation's global development work. Here's what she’s learned:

It’s also worth reading this look at the evolution of Hewlett’s global grantmaking during Levine’s tenure—including a critical look at their transparency and accountability work (which, full disclosure, I’ve done work on)—from Michelle Sieff in Inside Philanthropy.

On the fundraising side: I’ve long heard the term “frenemies” to describe relationships among like-minded nonprofits that collaborate for change, while competing for dollars. Vu Le gives it a darker name: the Nonprofit Hunger Games. Fortunately, he has 20 simple things you can do to avoid the Hunger Games, from highlighting other organizations’ work to sharing RFPs and grant opportunities.

Algeria and Sudan: the moment after a regime falls

Seeing two North African dictators leave office in the span of a few weeks has echoes of 2011. Here’s what protesters in Sudan and Algeria learned from their Arab Spring predecessors: build broader appeal, stay united, get digitally savvy, and don’t trust the army. (Isma’il Kushkush in The Atlantic)

It’s not just Algeria and Sudan, of course: people power is working across Africa. Among the winning ingredients: nonviolent mass participation; leadership of women; and the eventual support of economic elites, security forces, and regional bodies. (Zoe Marks, Erica Chenoweth, and Jide Okeke in Foreign Affairs)

No laughing matter: Jokes play a powerful role in resistance to authoritarianism. They flip power dynamics and chip away at the sense of a regime’s invulnerability. (Adam Gallagher and Anthony Navone of USIP)

  • Thought bubble: How does this apply in backsliding democracies? Trump uses his own form of humor in his assault on our institutions, while the “resistance” dominates late-night comedy, and both sides have it out on Twitter.

Who’s next? The One Earth Fund tries to predict coups quantitatively, based on economics, regime duration, and even weather. Oddly missing from their model: any measure of movement activity.

But: transitions are long-term endeavors. Earlier this week, protest groups in Sudan called for a general strike as negotiations with the military over a transitional council broke down. In Algeria, protests continue against the interim president and other remnants of the old power structure.

Narrow moments: between past and future

Despite collapsing in a matter of months, Occupy Wall Street changed the discourse on inequality in the U.S. But discourse is fuzzy and that story’s been written. This piece does something new by linking Occupy more concretely to present movements via the people who were involved and the organizations they’ve subsequently launched or shaped. The result is a roll call of the progressive front lines: the Fight for 15, Working Families Party, Momentum, Movement for Black Lives, DSA, Sunrise, and more. An amazing illustration of how a critical moment of the whirlwind can having lasting effects. (Emily Stewart in Vox)

If Occupy was a boundary moment for inequality, are we approaching something similar for climate action? When people reach “peak indifference” on a massive problem like climate change, we have a chance to spur action—but we may only have a narrow window to convince them it’s solvable, before they slip into the nihilism of thinking it’s too late. (Clive Thompson in WIRED)

Media: the in-between sector

The new media landscape is leading some newspapers to convert from for-profit to nonprofit status. One of the newer nonprofit newsrooms, The City (focused on NYC, of course), released a diversity report on the day they launched.

How we tell stories matters: Even for someone who didn’t watch Game of Thrones, Zeynep Tufekci’s take on psychological vs. sociological storytelling seems important. In a similar vein, Rebecca Solnit tackled the problem of hero-based storytelling. (Thanks to newsletter reader Katrina Mitchell for sharing this gem.)

What’s the state of entertainment contributing to social impact? That’s the question posed by the State of Social Impact Entertainment (SIE) report, which pairs a detailed mapping and description of the (emerging, ill-defined) sector with commentary on multiple aspects.

Also relevant: Planned Parenthood has been working to improve the way sexual and reproductive health are portrayed on screen, drawing on lessons from the LGBTQ movement. (Jonita Davis for YES! Magazine)

Innovation!: from what exists to what doesn’t

Nesta has released a compendium of innovation methods, breaking down when to use accelerator programs, the four main models for crowdfunding, and more. It’s a bit too focused on case studies of Nesta’s own work, but the descriptions of each method and the links to further resources look useful.

A systems lens on change is a needed addition to “social innovation” training, mitigating the tendency of elite students to hackathon their way through problems they don’t understand. Universities, business schools, and others teaching social innovation/entrepreneurship should prioritize systems understanding over solution pitching, and value lived experience of a problem. (Joshua Cubista and Daniela Papi-Thornton in SSIR; for the longer version, see their full report here.)

Relatedly, from the Department of Unintended Consequences: Plastic bag bans might not be a net positive for the environment. (Sharing this article, systems coach Rob Ricigliano commented: “A reminder of the difference between a solution at scale and systems change.”)

Finally, “admitting failure” has become the nonprofit sector’s kombucha: it’s supposed to be good for you, but it can leave a sour taste—and it’s mostly for white folks. (Another from Vu Le.)

Eight practices for strategic agility

I have a new piece on strategic agility in the summer edition of SSIR. It doesn't quite fit with the theme of boundary problems, but we can shoe-horn it in by noting that every organization has certain non-negotiables. That might be your vision or mission, your membership, or your core values.

For most of us, our strategy isn't one of those fixed conditions. We want our strategies to flex: they're the solutions that we're trying to match to the problems. Yet too often, we take a set-it-and-forget-it approach. This piece explores how to keep strategy relevant by making it more agile. It draws on my direct work with clients, as well as research into how other organizations have approached strategy.

(Note: SSIR's print articles are behind a paywall online. If you don't have access, just let me know and I'll send you a copy.)

Et cetera

Broad brushstrokes throughout are good. Avoid having the African characters laugh, or struggle to educate their kids, or just make do in mundane circumstances. Have them illuminate something about Europe or America in Africa. African characters should be colourful, exotic, larger than life—but empty inside, with no dialogue, no conflicts or resolutions in their stories, no depth or quirks to confuse the cause.

- “How to Write About Africa” by Binyavanga Wainaina (RIP)

In real life

Speaking of boundaries, I’ll be crossing an international one next week to attend the Open Government Summit in Ottawa. Will you be there? Let’s connect.

You probably didn’t notice that this newsletter was a few weeks late this month. I’ve been getting more efficient at crafting these, but client work and regular life get in the way sometime. I’ll try to keep to the monthly schedule.

If you got this far, pick an option 1-10 below to let me know if you liked it. (It’s not a gimmick to get you to forward it: I just value the feedback.)



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P.S. Bonus item: A job posting from the all-around fantastic team (and, disclosure again, long-time clients of mine) at the Open Contracting Partnership: Manager and Coach, Impact Program. Ideally in DC but flexible; apply by June 10.