14 July 2010

Why Does it Keep Happening?

Update: @ithorpe asks a great question after seeing this post, “I wonder how market forces can be brought to bear to weed out bad ideas?” Any thoughts on his question?

Update 2: Penelope writes a follow up to this post on her blog.  I fee that in many ways it is a continuation of this and a further refinement of the points which I made.  She is correct to point out that there needs to be some risk when starting NGOs.  What is important to remember, is that  there is a difference between jumping in without any thought and taking a well considered chance on a project.  This is a must read as a follow up to this post. http://penelopemc.wordpress.com/2010/07/28/on-entrepreneurship-and-ngos/

Update 3: Alanna wrote about the pros and cons of large and small NGOs in May of 2009 that should definitely be considered a part of this discussion: http://bloodandmilk.org/?p=1322

At the start of the year, Good Intentions are Not Enough said this:
Would you want your child operated on by a doctor whose work was never evaluated, even when it appeared that the way the surgery was commonly done may contribute to avoidable illness or death?
J. over at Tales From the Hood has used the simile as well, but I cannot a place to link it to other than this confirmation (maybe someone will have better luck finding a link). I had been thinking of similarities to doctors and aid workers.  I knew that it was not an original idea and tracked down where the original thought came from.  While Saundra is the one who planted the seed of this idea in my mind, I am sure that the comparison between skilled professions has existed for awhile.

The comparison extends from Saundra’s question to ask: why do we then allow people to enter (profession of choice) without the proper training?  There are too many possibilities to begin to list that can be inserted into that question.  The point is that why is it that the non-for-profit and NGO world is one where people can just feel that they should jump in?  1 million shirts proved what can happen when a person jumps in without any significant thought or consideration. 

The point is not to harp on Jason, he has been discussed enough, it is to look at what culture or atmosphere allows for people to continue doing what Jason did.  To credit Saundra again, there are 1 million Jasons out there.  What I have noticed is the exasperation by the aid blog community that this keeps happening.  Granted, I am much closer in my present standing to Jason that the professionals who have years of experience in the field.  So, I have the advantage (and disadvantage) of being green.
What is so clear to me is the fact that people feel that the non profit world is one that can be entered with ideas, energy and good intentions alone.  We hear stories of Greg Mortenson and Geoffrey Canada and imagine that we can do what they did.  The power of the individual.  Every teacher will have their ‘freedom writers’ or will become the next Mr. B (PS 22!).  The successes of the few people and ideas I listed should not be discounted, but must be evaluated and considered in a complete manner.  Canada knew the community of Harlem, Morenson make a lot of mistakes and hit a ton of luck.  They both have found success but through two entirely different paths.

There are parts of these people to champion, but the take away cannot be the simple-minded idea that any single person can create change.  First off, it is right that a single person can create change, but the focus should be on positive change not just the amorphous idea of Obama change.  By boiling down a series of events and circumstances into an ethos, we forget (or just plain ignore) what it is that lead to the given outcome.

Circling back a bit.  Do we all think that we can become a MLB pitcher just because Billy Wagner can throw faster that what was thought to be possible for a shorter guy?  No, we understand that he has an innate talent.  To be more truthful, Wagner is a freak.  What about writing novels, or designing bridges, or constructing cars?  Can every person excel in those fields?  Call me a pessimist, but I think it to be no.
There are ways to contribute to each of those fields.  Think of a bridge.  There needs to be an architect who plans it, engineers who determine the feasibility, construction workers who assemble it, the steel has to be shaped, rock cut, road paved, lines painted, lights installed and it keeps going.  I am not onto something new here at all.  We know this. 

If we would not set out to build a bridge alone and with no experience, why would we do the same when constructing an INGO?  Is the work of the builder any less valuable than the architect?  I say no.  So how about we all start to think of ways we can contribute rather than just jumping in to what we do not know.
Rather than start an orphanage, contact orphanages in the area and see if they can take the children you have seen.  If they can’t, find out if they are willing to expand or if there is an organization already in the area who can continue the work they are already starting.  The money needed to run projects is finite.  Why compete when you can strengthen an already successful endeavor?

In the end, use the same rationale you apply to other sectors when considering non-for-profits.