Why nonprofits are like archipelagos, and why it matters

28 May

The term “archipelago” refers to a chain or scattering of islands that often share volcanic origins. Interestingly, the term can also refer to a sea that surrounds such separate specks of land: Archipelago was the original Greek name for the full-of-islands Aegean Sea. Three recent articles about metaphors and the nonprofit sector have me seeing “archipelago” as an especially apt metaphor for framing nonprofit challenges and opportunities today.

In the Spring 2010 issue of Nonprofit Quarterly, Scott Anderson argues that many metaphors used to describe the current financial crisis facing our economy and nonprofit sector are counterproductive. Anderson notes that “metaphors are not just phrases that make our language more interesting, but also mechanisms that shape how we think”. Today’s common metaphors such as “perfect storm”, “precipice to avoid” or “belt tightening” all imply challenges to be endured by hunkering down temporarily. Furthermore, these metaphors emphasize external conditions against which we feel powerless. Finally, he argues that the resulting sense of doom immobilizes us, and therefore that we need more useful metaphors to guide action.

Earlier this month, William Schambra of the Hudson Institute invoked a new metaphor in his “Wilderness Time for Nonprofits” plenary address at the 2010 Alliance for Nonprofit Effectiveness. Noting that time in the wilderness has traditionally provided a treasured, yet difficult ritual for discovering truth and meaning, he argues that these are opportune “wilderness times” for nonprofits to “fundamentally revisit the questions of what our fundamental purpose in society truly is, and which of our activities truly reflect that purpose.”  He offers a simple definition of the nonprofit sector’s common purpose: “supporting acts of everyday citizens coming together around a shared vision and forging their own community to embody that vision.”

Rather than focusing just on survival tactics such as “growing to scale”, revenue diversification, or collaboration, Schambra advises that we must first reexamine how we’re meeting our fundamental purpose. He uses the wilderness metaphor to encourage reconnecting with what is unique about our organization’s reason for being, vision, and value-added for our communities as a guide to future action.

While “uniqueness” has value, the sector’s often been criticized for having too many unique (and presumably) inefficient institutions. But Foundation Center President Bradford Smith argues for the strength of such diversity, at least as it relates to philanthropic organizations. In the May12, 2010 Philantopic blog, he writes that “philanthropy is an archipelago, with 97,000 American grantmaking and public charities that are primarily independent foundations—“endowed ‘island’ institutions with their own forms of evolution, language, and ways of doing things.”

I’d argue that the “strength in diversity” approach also applies to the sector as a whole. The archipelago metaphor in particular–  islands large and small, with diverse ecosystems connected by common currents– provides a useful frame not only for describing the sector, but for focusing on fundamental challenges and opportunities. Just imagine your nonprofit as an island in an archipelago.

  • Remember the earth-shaking event that created you. How does that still shape you today? How do your origins make you strong? Vulnerable?
  • Your reason for being today is to nurture some form of life. What life is that?  What about the interaction of resources and actions on your island enables you to sustain that life?
  • What’s unique about your island and the life it supports?
  • What other islands in your archipelago strengthen your capacity to sustain life? How? Trade essential goods, services and knowledge? Steward shared culture and tradition? Shield from harm? Are your connections strong enough?
  • What other islands drain your capacity to sustain life? Can you reduce your dependency on them?
  • What’s your role in keeping the sea around you healthy as well? What do you take from/need from the sea? What do you give back?