Friday, February 20, 2009

Design principles for building a field

I'm perhaps obsessed with this question and so apologies to those who are not quite as interested in the whole notion of field building as I am. (Previous two posts here and here)

Based on some great comments on previous posts, more research on behalf of clients, and deeper thought, I'm starting to formulate some preliminary design principles for philanthropic investments in field building. Some of my key assumptions or frame for the following - that the "it" already exists in fragmented ways, the philanthropic intervention is coming along at the point of "organizing and coordinating" and that sustaining structures or systems or business models is a goal (as philanthropic support is always fleeting).

Here they are (raw form) - please let me know what you think:

1) Plan for remixing and re-using of core knowledge - core element of a new field must be able to used by those in other fields to advance their work (e.g. new media to learn to read or write, social enterprise that improves how public problems get solved)

2) Diversity of players and networks, methods and perspectives is key to meaning and survival. And, yes, it makes definitions and standards harder.

3) Be clear on what needs to be standardized (if anything) and what needs to remain open, flexible, and inclusive.

4) Activities for growth and identity matter more than the structures that provide them - identify what is needed, then be forward thinking in how these things get provided or done. (Form follow function)

5) It will take longer to get there than you think, and it may never be "built" but always "building." If it ever is "built," that is probably the moment at which it will need to be replaced or morphed into something else

Given how long I've been thinking about this, it is somewhat of a "doh" moment" to notice that these are core evolutionary principles. They also remind me of my Seven Building Blocks of Open Philanthropy. Perhaps I should have just read Darwin and short-circuited the whole thought process.



Anonymous said...

Lucy, as a late comer to the party, I'm not fully knowledgeable of what has been... and what could be. Maybe that's a good thing. You definitely seem to have put a lot of thought into field building.

I've spent the majority of my life on the for-profit side of things while donating a lot of my time to help my non-profit friends.

In 2001, I co-founded a foundation along with a socially-responsible for-profit working primarily with public schools. At that point, I began to see myself as a social venture entrepreneur.

I think the one thing that has been shouting at me loud and clear over these past 9 years is that we have to figure out how to have for-profits and non-profits work better together. We must go beyond seeing the for-profits as entities who are less philanthropic and who have ways of "doing business" that couldn't possibly help anyone in the non-profit arena.

There's so much for us all to learn from each other - I say we apply the Obama Factor to what we do going forward. Maybe that falls under your "network" component in the 4 steps above?

Anonymous said...

I'm delighted to have discovered your blog from Beth. I think you are right on in the idea that building Philanthropy as a field is key to creating long-term sustainable programs.

I also agree with Beth that there's lots for the non-profit and for-profit sides to learn from one another.

I'm a Teach For America alum, and one element of the organization I've always been impressed with is how well they incorporate business principals to build a sustainable model of change.