Lilacs and Dandelions

Bridget FloodBy Bridget Flood, Executive Director, Incarnate Word Foundation

It’s spring and it’s impossible not to notice the showy magnolias and tulips or the fragrant lilacs and daffodils. There’s more to spring, however, than the flowers with a wow factor.  If you look carefully when you walk in the park you’ll encounter the tiny blue flowers of corn speedwell, the yellow dandelion, and the lavender henbit.  These innocuous flowers are sometimes unnoticed and may even be viewed as undesirable, but are critical sources of pollen for honeybees.

As I reflect on the nonprofit ecosystem, this is quite analogous. Increasingly the emphasis is on large-scale systemic work.  This work by its very nature is big picture, high level work.  Intractable problems require big solutions, and the logic of that drives us to consider collaborative approaches.  In order to gain momentum, these systemic efforts require serious commitments of human capital, reallocation of resources, a focus on high-level leadership, and large outcomes-driven agencies and intermediaries.

At its best, these large-scale efforts are driven by practitioners in the field who have strong roots in the neighborhoods and communities being served. The work fosters collaboration, maximizes the impact of scarce resources, and delivers outcomes that actually benefit the people who live in our community.  They can alter the landscape for the better for the many.  At their best, these systemic efforts are the equivalent of the intense tulip displays at the Missouri Botanical Garden—beautiful, harmonious, large-scale and high impact.

When these efforts are not integral to neighborhood and community, negative consequences may occur. Resources may not be deployed effectively.  Leadership may not be of the community, resulting in work that is driven from the top-down.  Agencies and grassroots organizations may be marginalized because they don’t have the right connections to be included.  At its worst, the outcome can be that the community is blamed for the failure as those in elite power positions blame the community rather than reflect honestly on why the effort did not succeed.

The other force in the ecosystem is the work of agencies and grassroots organizations that focus on serving people in community. The emphasis here is on service delivery and relationship.  These groups focus on the work and may be operating to some extent under the radar of those who are working systemically.  These groups are the groundcover of neighborhoods.  They are ubiquitous and every day they go about the work of providing the services that meet the needs of people now.  At their best, these groups continually respond to community needs, develop innovative best-practice models of service delivery, and respect the dignity of those whom they serve.  Without their work on the ground, life would be considerably more difficult.  These groups are the tiny flowers that go unnoticed but provide critical forage for the bees and pollinators on whom life depends.

Because their focus is on what needs to happen today, working agencies and grassroots organizations may not have the time or inclination to focus on systemic change. They may become isolated or so committed to doing what they have always done that they miss out on innovative solutions to community needs.  Over time, their effectiveness may diminish if they do not evolve as community needs change, resulting in ineffective service delivery and wasted human and financial resources.  New efforts can be stymied as resources are tied up in obsolete approaches.