Saturday, March 19, 2011

Nonprofit associations: institutionalized organizations or living, dynamic organisms?

Over at the excellent Midcourse Corrections blog, Jeff Hurt asks, "Nonprofit associations: institutionalized organizations or living, dynamic organisms?" Framed as a dichotomy between viewing organizations as mechanical or organic in nature, I am torn. In many ways, associations ARE based on a model that is more mechanical - for example, the regular replacement of volunteer leaders through term rotations (hopefully your association accomplishes this more like an oil change than an organ replacement!) To me, this type of view is neither good nor bad - it simply is a reflection of reality. But the mechanical model fails in many others - not the least of which is the lack of recognition that member engagement will have a major impact on the functioning of the association (less like the mechanical view that ingredients make soup regardless of the quality of ingredients, and more like a view that the nutrition of the ingredients will have an impact on the long-term viability of the soup making organization.) In many other ways, associations ARE better conceived as living organisms. Living organisms are impacted by their external environment in a way that mechanical systems are not - for example, while a rainstorm is unlikely to have an impact on the production level of an assembly line, public opinion can very much influence how an association approaches an issue. But the organic view also has its shortcomings - for example, an organism can rarely change some of its most essential life elements (such as respiration for human beings) whereas an association may radically shift its business model from membership dues to a different sustaining model. In the end, I’d support the view that neither view is the BEST way to view associations. So what instead? I’m actually rather partial to Systems Theory.

First introduced by Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Systems Theory outlines a broader set of principles that theorize how both mechanical and organic systems operate. In Systems Theory, mechanical systems are generally “closed systems”, which are more predefined, less complex and less subject to outside influence. Organic systems are “open systems”, constantly evolving, highly complex and always viewed in the context of their operating environment. But Systems Theory also adds additional thinking lenses to the conversation that I think are important: for example, open systems theory suggests that the boundaries of an organization – what is (or is not) a part of an organization is constantly open to change. Unlike an organism which typically is defined by a “body”, “colony” or similar defined unit, this allows a much more fluid and inclusive way of thinking that I believe better fits an association which may extend its reach at various time through creating conversations beyond its formal boundaries, establishing temporary strategic alliances, or suspending activity in a particular element of its plan of work while maintaining the capacity to reactivate that element at a later time.

For more about Systems Theory, check out the nice quick overview on enotes.com. A few more links of interest include 1) a discussion of closed system approaches to organization theory, 2) discussions around iPad and Android as open and closed systems and 3) one opinion that iPad's closed system approach may at least one great advantage.

What are your thoughts?

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