The social sector, particularly in the US, now represents a significant portion of the workforce and the economy. As a whole, 1.4 Trillion dollars flowed through U.S. nonprofits in 2021. Such significant investment in the social sector should theoretically be yielding measurable amelioration of some of the social and environmental challenges the sector seeks to address. And yet, if we only look outside our windows, it becomes clear that many of our social and environmental challenges are only getting worse despite these efforts.
There are, of course, many reasons why even the most effective nonprofits are not often able to make significant progress on the challenges they were created to solve–but for this initiative, we intend to focus on what we theorize is the root cause:
The problems the social sector is trying to address are incredibly complex and wicked. They are multi-causal and multi-contextual, meaning that they involve so many different factors, in so many different dimensions, that simply understanding the nature of the problem and thus being able to design the most effective interventions can be tremendously challenging. Social sector leaders are often busy doers who don’t have the capacity to research cutting edge metatheoretical models that might make it possible for them to more comprehensively map the many causal factors involved in their problem space and create adequately complex theories of change to address them.
While many non-profits employ tools like strategic planning, root-cause analysis, and theories of change to better understand and address the complex challenges they face, these tools will only be as robust as the underlying theory of reality (metatheory) that implicitly informs them. In most circumstances, the underlying theory of reality implicitly being employed in these organizations is the postmodern worldview. As sophisticated and powerful as this worldview is, it is not nearly comprehensive enough to address our 21st-century social and environmental problems in their full complexity.
This Initiative will use the mapping phase to draw together leaders in the non-profit/social impact world to better understand how their organizations develop and apply theories of change in their work addressing 21st-century social and environmental challenges. We will explore together both the conceptual tools nonprofits use to develop theories of change and the implicit or explicit metatheories (models of reality) that inform them.
If the hypothesis that “nonprofits are not effectively employing theories of change that meet the complexity of the challenges they seek to address” turns out to be true, we will use the analysis phase of the initiative to explore and develop tools and techniques that nonprofits could use to more easily incorporate cutting-edge metatheory into their strategic planning processes. IAM will then package those tools and techniques into a suite that could be deployed by IAM consultants with nonprofits and other social impact organizations to improve their theories of change and thus increase their leverage on the social and environmental problems they aim to address.
Our theory of change is that social sector leaders need better theories of change to address the wicked challenges of the 21st century.
More specifically, we believe that nonprofit leaders need to employ more robust metatheory in their strategic planning and execution in order to better understand and address the complex multi-causal nature of the wicked problems they face.
What’s at Stake
For any one social sector organization, what’s at stake is its effectiveness at addressing the social and environmental challenges it was created to ameliorate or solve. This, in turn, increases the organization’s ability to garner more time, talent, and treasure to their cause, and thus grows their capacity to make an even larger impact over time.
For society, a more effective social sector means that seemingly entrenched social and environmental ills begin to be better ameliorated, or even solved, leading to a more healthy, sustainable, and just society.
- That nonprofits recognize the need for better theories of change and are moved to incorporate more robust metatheory in their planning processes. This would be indicated by significant nonprofit demand for IAM consulting services.
- That nonprofits who employ more robust metatheory-informed TOCs in their strategic planning and execution begin to see better impact outcomes resulting from their programs and partnerships. This would be indicated by program impact evaluation, and later, by increased funding and support for the organizations involved.
- Metatheorists with nonprofit experience to participate in the mapping and analysis phases of the initiative.
- Funding for the mapping, analysis, and consulting phases of the initiative.
- Metatheorists with nonprofit leadership/consulting experience to help share the consulting load should the initiative become successful.
- Crowdfund the mapping and analysis.
- Volunteer to participate in the mapping or analysis phase.
- Share tools for applying integral metatheory in TOC and strategic planning processes.