Chaos, Order and the Alliance for Nonprofit Management

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I want to ask you to Grand Rapids, Mich. next week, where a whole group of astute observers will be sitting around thinking about what the heck is going on in nonprofit management right now—how it is changing and how groups can be helped to adapt. The event is the annual conference of the Alliance for Nonprofit Management, where consultants to nonprofits, academics, nonprofit leaders and philanthropists come together to learn from one another. The event is aptly named Evidence Based Capacity Building. Along with the brilliant Carlo Cuesta, I will be co-presenting a session on strategic communications that will use all the most recent research to consider how that area of management is being profoundly changed right now.

NPQ co-sponsors the research-to-practice conference because we like to acknowledge that order often presents itself, rather than being imposed by force or normative prescriptions. To illuminate this point, here is a great quote from Benoit Mandelbrot that I used in my most recent article for NPQ (not yet published): “Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles, and bark is not smooth, nor does lightning travel in a straight line.”

Mandelbrot believed in roughness and in finding the essential forms in roughness—a stance that everyone of good sense should be taking right now. And when we are trying to understand the nature of a thing, it helps to get a sense of the thing from multiple perspectives. What does the thing look like here or there? How about if it is governed this way or that? What if its environment completely changes and no longer feeds the thing exactly as it used to?

This series of questions reminds me of Green Eggs and Ham, but these are all very big questions for nonprofits that are especially important when all about us looks unpredictable. So I hope that Mandelbrot is not turning over in his grave at my flat-footed discussion of very complicated stuff, but I do hope to see you in Michigan next week. Let’s try to map the current roughness of our work together.