So Simple, Too Simple?

So Simple

Clarity (in mission, in goal-setting, in messaging) is important for success.

In order to successfully raise money, chart progress, and declare victory, we have to be able to condense our message and simplify our objectives.

In a world of possibilities, who are we and what are we trying to do?

Some would take that idea even further, arguing that clarity is critical to success. I have camped in that spot. And I’m still sitting around that campfire. Mostly.


Image Problem

 It is no surprise that the nonprofit sector has an image problem. The larger world seems to think that our work is ‘easy’ somehow. It is work that can be done in spare time, with little training, or after retirement. Somehow, solving intractable social problems is seen as not ‘real’ work and that it can be measured purely by efficiency.

How many times have we heard people say that they want to get involved in nonprofits now that they are ready to retire and ‘slow down’? Ever wonder why the (ridiculous) overhead percentage myth remains, or why admin is considered ‘wasteful’?

Too Simple?

Maybe some of that image problem comes down to over-simplification.

Wanting to be seen as problem solvers, we have simplified ourselves out of the complexity of the work we do. We don’t readily talk about the fact that many factors affect our work. There are not often linear or 2-step solutions. Homelessness is a classic example. Solving homelessness requires way more than just putting someone in a house. A person cannot afford to stay, or have a chance to thrive, without addressing a host of other issues. Are they employable? Why not? If so, can they make a living wage? What do they need to support themselves? What about transportation? Are there health issues? Are there issues of abuse, physical, substance or mental, that must be addressed? And so on – people have complex histories and stories, experiences and backgrounds, none of which can be reduced to a one-size-fits all answer. The same can be said for education, for domestic and dating violence, for environmental issues, for animal welfare, for healthcare, for…well, you get it.

Complexity requires effort. It means that I can’t just pat myself on the back for volunteering with a hammer and some nails every once in awhile. I can’t make it better by just writing a check.

We set goals and we plot out metrics because we need a path through the complexities.

But if we want to change the way that many people view our work – as something ‘easy’, something that should not require computers, or expensive college degrees, or long term investment, or as less important than ‘business’, then we have to stop talking about the work we do as simple.

Whatever little bit you can give is fine. We’ll make do.

Unless all we want to do is make do – and not truly solve problems.

In this political climate, it is that much more critical that we work to tell the whole truth. With the abundance of fake news and twitter-sized explanations, we must establish a place as trusted experts in the work we do everyday.

As Alfred North Whitehead, mathematician and philosopher, once advised his students,“seek simplicity, but distrust it.”