We generate many pixels (no ink anymore) on how to help donors adopt systems perspectives. What is missing from this discussion is rigorous analysis of why they don’t. If we want to help our stakeholders and do better evaluation, we should pursue this question.

Donors understand themselves.
I have  no doubt that donors know better. I have not systematically researched the topic, but I bet that if I got a donor alone over a drink and posed the system question, he or she would respond with something along the following lines:

“I live in this world, and I understand better than you how critical systems are to effecting change. But my purpose is to do the best job I can with what I have and can reasonably get. If it were  possible for me to take more of a systems view, I would. It helps me not a whit for evaluators to tell me to take action that I cannot take.”

We should apply a systems approach to understanding donor behavior.
This brings me to my favorite organizational consulting ritual. I have given away a lot of valuable advice by invoking this ritual while walking with people across parking lots.

Acquaintance:
The people around here are idiots! Don’t they know …. vent, vent, vent.
Me:

Are they really idiots?
Acquaintance:

Well, I guess not. (Acquaintance has calmed down.)
Me:

Let’s pretend that they are knowledgeable, capable, and have the best interests of their organization at heart. Why do they act as they do? Give that some thought and you may see a way to improve things.

This is how we need to think about donors. If we believe that systems methods are so important, let’s train our attention on why donors behave as they do. If we understood that, we may be able to devise a prescription for practical action.

Why don’t donors apply more of a systems approach?
What environment have donors adapted to? (I find it helpful to cast inquiries like this in evolutionary and ecological terms.) I see two environmental pressures. One is that stove-piped operations are effective and efficient. (I have a 500-word defense of stovepipes, illustrated with pictures. Ignoring complexity can make sense – Part 3 of a 10-part series on how complexity can produce better insight on what programs do, and why.)  The  bottom line  is that the stovepipe structure of organizational behavior evolved because it is the most effective structure for allocating resources and achieving desired ends. The other environmental constraint is that resource allocation is deeply rooted in cultural, political, and social-administrative processes. (To see why I like to conceptualize these topics in evolutionary and ecological terms, go here for my blog or here for the movie.)

Is there a way forward?
Donald Campbell (AH) had a sign in his office that read: “Help Trapped Administrators”. The question is how we can do that, given the constraints they are operating under. To provide that assistance we need to turn  our attention from why donors should take a systems approach to how they can take a systems approach. My plan (hope?) is to explore this question in future posts, but in the meantime the best I can offer is an idea that came to me when I was thinking about applying constructs from Complexity Science to the evaluation of transformation.

In brief, I see a scenario in which multiple independent and quasi-independent programs share a common information environment, e.g., the results of their individual evaluations, plans and timelines, and so on. This information environment is characterized by unique short and intermediate-term goals for each program, sprinkled with a few common goals. To facilitate perusal of information across programs, a single information ontology is employed. Within this information environment each program is free to make whatever self-interested decisions it needs to fulfill its mission and to satisfy its stakeholders.

What might happen in such circumstances? I can see a stigmergic process becoming manifest. Each program would “see” an environment that is shaped by all the others. Their decisions would be independent, but the common knowledge would result in seemingly coordinated behavior. Of course a scenario like this is not without its difficulties. Agreeing on just those few common objectives would not be easy, nor would the development and use of a common ontology. Still, there would be no need for central control, there would be no external pressure on any program to modify its decisions, and it might result in some degree of coherent pursuit of common goals. It may not be easy, and it may not work, but I see possibilities. (For a more expansive discussion of this proposal, see page 360 in: A Complexity-Based Metatheory of Change for Transformation toward Green Energy).

I offer the above merely as a thought about the kind of analysis that recognizes why donors behave as they do and proposes an idea about how coordinated activity can be achieved. The more such thoughts we can collect and debate, the better it will be for donors and for the quality of evaluation that we do.

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