Re-Thinking Sector Stereotypes

I wrote another piece for the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog about the need to re-think our stereotypical views of each sector. Our preconceived notions of the sectors hinder collaboration and limit the full potential of society to produce social outcomes. I use my work with UnSectored to show that we have some pretty backwards views of what the sectors can accomplish, but some are bucking stereotypes and using sector frameworks in new ways.

Check out the post here.

Efficiency vs. Equality in the Social Sector

eqaulityWarning: This post is adapted from one of my papers for my cross-sector collaboration and management class. It is quite theoretical and may only be only interesting to nerds like me. If you believe yourself to be a nerd like me, read on.

In the last few decades, there has been an increased focus on “efficiency” in the social sector. Efficiency in the social sector can mean a lot of things–sometimes its about cutting costs, sometimes its about using business practices to better deliver social services (here I’m using “social sector” to refer to both nonprofit and government sectors), sometimes it’s about both cost reduction and business processes unified under the mantel of “entrepreneurship.” In the “entrepreneurial” model of the social sector,  public servants fill the role as service providers for citizens (consumers) that react to market forces. This approach to governance is exemplified by Al Gore’s mid-90s National Performance Review that recommended reforms on how to get better results out of our government.

In this entrepreneurial social sector, public servants use efficient means to deliver better and more responsive services to their constituents. Basically, the role of a government/nonprofit employee is to deliver better services in a more timely manner for less money. Everyone’s happy, right? Well, unfortunately, researchers have shown that this bottom-line-focused approach to public service excludes vulnerable members of our society. By looking only at efficiency, they ignore the promise of equality that our government promises.  This tradeoff between efficiency and equality is well established in social science literature–and it makes common sense: If you’re focused on costs and the best way to provide services, you are going to ignore the most disadvantaged, because they have the most problems and are usually the hardest to reach.

But, the tenants of entrepreneurship and equality are by no means inconsistent. In fact, there is a growing movement to encourage civic engagement through entrepreneurship. The Points of Light Foundation has started a “civic incubator” that supports enterprises focused on building community wealth and citizen engagement. They have supported organizations such as Fuse Corps, which connects professionals with city governments for a one-year fellowship aimed at solving a large-scale challenge, as well as Moneythink, which teaches financial literacy to urban high schoolers. The Rockefeller Foundation launched a “100 Resilient Cities” challenge for cities around the world to compete for resources to strengthen their civic infrastructure. Of course, all of these examples fit into to the broader “social enterprise” movement, and social entrepreneurs around the world are using businesses practices to serve some of the most vulnerable.

One could argue that these social enterprise leaders are themselves public servants, using the tools of efficiency and entrepreneurship to engage with citizens and serve their needs. I believe this is the case, but I’ll save that for another post. Instead, I will focus on the role of “classic” public servants. Classic public servants (that is, those working in government agencies*) can also use the tools of social entrepreneurship to serve the public. By harnessing the power of these social entrepreneurs and serving their needs, the public servant is employing the tools of entrepreneurship through the method of service to create stronger communities, and therefore increase equity. (This assumes that a public servant has some degree of accountability and would not support social enterprises actually end up hurting the community more than they help. I think this “do no harm” assumption is a fair one.)

Taking this view of entrepreneurship, equity and service morphs the public servant’s role to one of facilitator and social infrastructure developer. The public servant works with on-the-ground social entrepreneurs to grow their programs and solutions, through connections as well as resource support. This leads to stronger communities and a more engaged citizenry. In this way, public servants can serve, be efficient through entrepreneurial means, and create a more equitable society. There is no need to make a tradeoff between any of these concepts.

And everyone is happy!

Photo credit: Emily Hoyer

*The role definitions here can get confusing when you realize that both nonprofits and for-profits can be social enterprises.

The Digital Civil Society

connectionIf you haven’t yet read the recent reports from Stanford’s Digital Civil Society Lab, do it. Now.  Then come back and read this–or don’t. This post is way less important than those reports.

They came out of the research done by Lucy Bernholz and Rob Reich through their #ReCodeGood series, which explored the ramifications of the “open data” movement on nonprofits and civil society. Their new Digital Civil Society Lab continues the research on how to use innovative technology to improve transparency and effectiveness in the nonprofit/social sector. (Examples of activity in this burgeoning field, include: Markets for Good, which explores how data can contribute to a more connected social sector; a recent partnership between GuideStar and the Foundation Center to improve nonprofit data collection; and an open online course on better philanthropic practices.)

The Digital Civil Society Lab reports cover topics on policy, the social economy, and the blurring of sectors between nonprofits and for-profits. In their report on the changing nonprofit policy landscape, they conclude by stating:

The framework for nonprofit institutions that emerged and thrived in twentieth century America focused on the resources of that age—money and time. The global digital infrastructure of the twenty-first century has brought forward digital data as a new type of resource. The economics of this resource—how it is used, shared, stored, and kept secure—are different in fundamental ways than its analog predecessors

This sums up the challenge for the social sector of our time: How do we better use the new resources presented to us?

However–this conclusion relies on one fundamental assumption: That our digital activity is a resource, similar to money or time. I do not disagree with this assumption–the rise of Facebook and Google as business giants clearly show digital interaction can be capitalized–but there is another way to look at our digital lives: As a process, not a resource.

Digital interaction has fundamentally changed the way we behave. It has broken down time and space barriers between individuals and organizations like no other technology (telephone, television) has done before. This restructuring of the way we interact makes it easier for us to be collaborative within our organizations and between our organizations. For example, Markets for Good, mentioned above, not only uses digital resources (demographic information, feedback on nonprofit programs) to increase the responsiveness of nonprofits to their beneficiaries, it also would not exist without the digital process that makes those resources possible. It is a collaboration between three different organizations–something that would have been very difficult at its current scale a few decades ago. I’ve talked with people involved and they are amazed at how much they rely on the barrier-eliminating tools we know and love–email, Skype, Twitter, etc.

The organization I am privileged enough to run, UnSectored, also wouldn’t exist without the digital processes of our time. We are a team of four working part time, and our primary communication interface is email and text, and the primary way we interact with our community is Twitter and Facebook and our blog. We literally could not have existed before the social media explosion of the last few years.

You draw different conclusions once you view our new digital activity as fundamentally a process, not a resource. The folks over at the Digital Civil Society Lab ask the question “Do outcomes matter more than the organizational structure through which they are achieved?” in their report on the blurring of lines between sectors. They conclude that yes, we need a clear division between the responsibilities of the public sector, nonprofit sector, and private sector,  since we rely on complex and sometimes contradictory social values when working on social causes.

However, when examining the fundamental digital process available to all organizations today, rather than the resource product, you see that the question of boundaries/outcomes is less relevant than the question of leveraging what we have today to produce more effective, collaborative organizations. (Which I believe will be inherently more socially focused.) This conclusion is not incompatible with the Digital Civil Society Lab’s, but a different take on the same observed phenomenon.

I have not seen much study of the impacts of collaborative digital processes on organizations (both internally or externally). We must research these developing organizational structures to reach the full potential of our new social economy.

Photo credit: TempusVolat

Who likes wearing suits?

suitWho likes wearing suits?

I know I don’t. Most people I ask this question to usually agree with me. Yet many get up every morning and put on a suit—or some another type of formal, restrictive clothing.


Suits were once synonymous with wealth and success. Now we have companies with no or minimal dress codes that are just as or more successful as the oldest and most buttoned-up corporations. So why haven’t people at the corporate top—who I imagine also hate wearing suits every day—overwhelmingly changed this outdated signifier of what it means to be successful and productive?

Probably because it isn’t about the suits. Our corporate/success dress code is really about the constrictive routines we fall into. Instead of opening up offices to true innovation, we fall back into old patterns because it’s easier than sticking our neck out on a new idea. Instead of trying things like flexible work time, extended family leave, less hierarchical management structures, or revised dress codes, organizations (particularly large ones) tend to rely on what they know.

And we suffer the consequences. Innovation and new thinking drives growth, and it’s difficult to be open and collaborative in a constrictive environment. Allowing employees to set their own boundaries and to pursue their own ideas within the parameters of organizational goals will only help the organization in the long run. If they want to wear suits to work—great. If they want to wear old Led Zeppelin t-shirts, who cares? As long as they keep driving co-workers and the organization forward with new ideas, what does it matter?

So will we ever see the death of the suit? Probably not, but we will see it lose its prominence in the collective cultural unconscious as our society becomes more open and collaborative, and we disassociate success with constrictive standardization.

And good riddance, too.

Photo credit: bagsgroove