As the 2022 year-end push for philanthropic giving comes to a head, Peter Coy in The New York Times wrote about Thorny Questions Raised by Charitable Giving:

  • How should we decide which charity we should give to before year’s end?
  • Is it optimal that different charities that may overlap in effort and purpose compete for the same donation dollars and volunteer hands?
  • What role should government play versus charity organizations in doing the work?
  • What kind of work is most useful, helping the needy directly or helping the needy help themselves?

One final question touches on the axiom that charity exalts the giver as much as it benefits the receiver.

Questions relevant to problem-solvers for whom philanthropic giving is an enabler for their work, research, and operations are: How is the charitable work coordinated to avoid fragmentation across overlapping efforts and entities? Who decides what work should be done, and for what end goal?

A fruitful approach to answer these questions would begin by finding a way to determine what the will of the community is concerning a given community challenge. We could letter the community’s challenges from A to Z. When we canvassing each community member to know which problem is most pressing or important for them will result in a different subset of alphabet letters, in a different order of priority, for each community member. The initial question is, “Name the most pressing or important problems this community is facing, in your opinion.”

Now put a twist on that question: “…and which of these problems would you would be willing to devote time, effort, or money to if effective solutions could be found to improve the situation?”

The three factors in determining the Will of the Community are:

  1. Perception of Impact. How important is the problem to you?
  2. Perception of Urgency. How pressing is the problem to you?
  3. Engagement potential. How much of the resources available to you for this purpose (time, presence, money) would you be willing to devote to participating in a solution with?

Some alphabet letters will bubble to the surface after a community canvass. These will exhibit a commonality of high impact, high urgency, and high engagement. These community problems have the highest potential of getting solved, because they represent the will of the community.

The first lesson of societal problem solving is that if the community will is not there, you can squander your efforts trying to get community buy-in. Community problems require a reasonably willing, pre-existing resource base in the community itself. As a problem-solver or a philanthropist, you may be willing to spend time, effort, and money on a legitimately high impact and high urgency problem, but your community must also be willing.

The first lesson of societal problem solving is to understand the contours of the community will. What do they think is important and pressing to solve, and how inclined are they to participate if you find related action items they can do from where they are.

You’ve identified a community challenge—labeled “M” as an example—that exhibits this community will. The next lesson of societal problem solving is: Don’t jump to solutions before you understand what the obstacles are, and don’t count the obstacles until you first understand what those obstacles are blocking. First articulate your community’s Future Picture through a community process. The Future Picture is a written statement generated by a group process that represents what your community agrees things will look like once challenge “M” is solved.

No arguing or bickering is required about what the problems nor the causes are of the challenge “M,” nor what the solutions should be, nor how the solutions will be resourced—just a simple, written description of the desired future state in about one to three sentences.

This imagination of the future state is an advocate for the future—a future champion—that should be visibly present at all subsequent meetings for the problem-solving steps that follow. We’ll touch on these steps, described as follows, in upcoming blog posts: Analysis of the obstacles to obtain a list of to-do actions; community engagement to activate the will and resource the to-do actions; establishing an enduring, visible model of the problem-solving effort to keep the community buy-in, promote trust, and ensure accountability.

The second lesson of societal problem solving is the need for a common view of the future with the problem solved. This future picture must be constructed by the community and held up to endure as a stakeholder at every meeting—a champion of the desired future.

We’ll see next time that from there, we will have a basis where we can start to answer the questions about who should give how much in charity to whom, to do what.