Thursday, April 03, 2008

Social Service Organizations – And The Closing of Their Doors

For the sake of this article I will pose the following fictitious scenario. Any description of what appears to a particular company, person or non-profit is purely coincidental. It just makes it easier to spin the yarn and perhaps make my point.

Let’s suppose that the sole owner of a major real estate development company did particularly well for herself over the years and having more money than she could ever use herself, decided it was time to do something with it for the benefit of others. Further, let’s suppose that having lived her entire life in one community, that she wanted to make a difference in her home town. Further yet, while she is slowing her pace at work a little, she is excited about the prospect of making a difference and decides that she would rather engage in her own project rather than donate the money somewhere. Having commissioned some brilliant researchers, she discovers that if she takes the vast pool of money she has set aside in her enlightened philanthropic state and invests it in low-cost and supportive housing, that she will eliminate all cases of homelessness in her community. (I know this is simplistic to a fault but just go along with me for now.)

Now suppose you are on the local board of an organization whose sole purpose is to build housing for the homeless. Would you (a) throw your arms up in glee because you can now shut down or (b) throw your arms up in the air in frustration over someone coming in to do the job that your organization has invested itself into?

When I bring up this story up at speaking engagements or group meetings there is typically about a 50-50 split on the answer and some interesting dialog between people on opposite sides. As hypothetical in the extreme as this scenario is though, I hope you picked throwing your arms up in glee. If you did, your organization (or at least your approach to it) exists to satisfy the mission and written or not, the mission includes solving a problem… completely. Even in the most desperate of environments, I believe that social service organizations need to include a conscious effort to toward a goal of eventually closing their doors. If the goal is not set you will certainly never get there.

Consider the real-life organizations, programs and departments that will close once polio is eradicated from the planet, which will likely happen within a couple of years. When the current campaign against polio started, it was a local project with a focus on stemming the tide of local cases. Thankfully, it grew to encompass a mission that included fixing the problem completely and hopefully very soon, we will all get to celebrate the fact that they will close their doors.