In the past several days I've received a number of comments and emails on my posts regarding scarcity thinking in nonprofits. I wanted to try to summarize some of what's come my way because I think that it all furthers the conversation.
In a comment on my original post, Mike Wassenaar left me a link to an interesting 2003 report entitled Battered Agencies: Supporting Those Who Serve Low Income Communities. Based on a study of small nonprofits serving low-income communities in Marin City, California, the report makes the very thought-provoking point that many of these agencies suffer from the same stressors and issues faced by their clients, including insufficient financial resources, racial and class tensions, lack of appropriate supports for developing the skills necessary for success in their environment, and a limited role and voice in planning. As a result, many of these agencies and their staff exhibited the same kinds of dysfunctional patterns of behavior as their clients.
The report emphasizes that these organizations are responding to the very real limitations they face, and I certainly agree that they are dealing with very real barriers. But what intrigues me more is the ways in which these nonprofits' behavior and the behavior of the clients they serve mirror each other. For me it makes the larger point that these people are locked into ways of viewing the world and patterns of response that are mutually reinforcing and spreading back and forth between clients and the agencies that are meant to help them.
I also received an email from the Nonprofit Curmudgeon, who has apparently been doing some reporting himself on the scarcity mentality as a result of an email list conversation about nonprofits and their attitudes toward technology services. As the conversation points out, nonprofits don't seem to realize that a lot of what they want to do technologically can be done for far less money than they think. Some of this is due to ignorance, but some of it is because nonprofits are locked into that automatic scarcity thinking. They don't even bother to check their assumptions about cost to see if they're really true. As a result, they either don't advance in their use of technology or they spend tens of thousands of dollars on technology that could be had for far less.
In response to that email conversation, Michael Gilbert pointed to another side of the scarcity coin, the "sense of entitlement" that many nonprofits have (described so well by Putnam Barber in this article). Entitlement is an advanced version of victim thinking, another outgrowth of the scarcity mentality. I believe that I can't take care of myself in this scary, world, so someone else needs to. The more I'm taken care of (by having things given to me), the more likely I am to begin believing I "deserve" free things. We see this all the time in both individuals and organizations. Many nonprofits have turned this into an art form.
The answer to all this, suggests the Curmudgeon, is "an attitude adjustment." What he's getting at is that nonprofits are operating with a certain mental model and that the models have to change. But as this two-pager on mental models indicates, this is easier said than done. The influence of mental models is very subtle--people don't even realize that they are viewing the world through a particular lens. They are also very powerful, influencing what information we allow to come into our consciousness and what information passes us right by. Whatever mental model controls us determines what we pay attention to. The only way to break out of the model is to start questioning our assumptions and developing a new way of looking at the world so we can allow all information to flow into us.
While I think that we have to change our thinking, though, I have also begun to believe that it may be easier to start with changing our actions. This is what I've been trying to get at in my posts on specific behaviors in which organizations could engage that might change the scarcity thinking process. In some sense I think that if we could change the behaviors, then our mental models would change, too. It's the "fake it till you make it approach" where we ACT as though we believe something and then at some point we realize that we DO believe it. For many people, I think it would be a lot easier for them to start ACTING differently rather than trying to THINK differently.
I find it really interesting to see how this line of thinking seemed to strike a chord with people. I've probably had more responses to this series of posts than to anything I've written. I'm not sure why that is, though. I suspect it's because it's one of those things that resonates with people--one of those "aha moments" when a lot of specific behaviors that they've observed all of a sudden "hang together" in a way that makes sense. Regardless, I appreciate everyone's comments and thoughts on this because they are really helping me move forward in my own line of thinking on the subject. One of the reasons I love blogging. And of course, it's a great example of the abundance mentality at work--people giving freely of their time and thoughts with no expectation of reward, yet the contributions enrich us all.