The Paradox of non-Profit Innovation

Cross-posted here.

Are we there yet?

As Project Manager for Crisis Cleanup, the most frequently asked questions I receive are, “When will it be done?” or “How much money do you need to finish Crisis Cleanup?” A variation on this is, “Well, it works, right? Why do you need more money if it works?”

That’s the problem with innovating (especially non-profit innovation). If you simply explain the idea, nobody takes you seriously. You just have to execute and show everybody a “finished” product. Only then do they see how amazing your idea was. But then you’re in a catch-22. After all, if you built your idea without any help, why do you need help to keep going?

I feel a bit like I just built the Model-T Ford in a world of horse and buggies. Most people could not have conceived of the automobile until they saw it for the first time. Everyone is amazed at the technological marvel, and it is received gratefully and with congratulations. But they don’t understand that they really need an airplane or a rocket. I’m trying to build a rocket, not a Model-T Ford. But to people who are still figuring out how to dismount their horse and use a clutch, a rocket is inconceivable.

Thus, the paradox of innovation continues: Lack of vision and inertia perpetuates inefficiency, which stifles vision.

Quit Whining and Get some Funding

I am do-gooder number 14,000,001 who has thought, “all I need is some funding, and I can really change the world.” Sigh.

In a free market, for-profit ventures can attract funding and resources once you write a compelling business plan. There is at least one consistent pattern to all business plans: You create value for customers, and extract value from those customers—making a profit in the process.

But free markets don’t do very well at helping victims or survivors. First, you can’t treat victms as customers, because extracting value directly from victims (e.g. victims of natural disasters, victims of identity theft, victims of crime, etc.) is unseemly, unethical, or illegal. As a result, interested third parties such as the government or philanthropic organizations must provide the value on behalf of the victims and survivors. But because we live in a liberty-preserving society, these interested third parties are not permitted to make a profit off victims, with the possible exception of lending institutions.

Principles of insurance and market pressures dictate that victims are restored to the minimum degree necessary to prevent (costly) social disorder. Under no circumstance are they, or the people who help them, ever made completely whole or come out ahead.

This reality stands in contrast to the business world, where I can negotiate a high salary if I can make the business even more. But natural downward pressures on do-gooders’ salaries means that nobody (honest) gets rich from just helping victims. As a result, most people who help survivors aren’t driven by money (which is OK with me, because it means that the disaster recovery community is filled with some of the best people on earth).

Tilting Against Windmills

I’ve learned that competing for grant money is a bloodsport. I’m not saying that a grant is impossible, I’m just saying that for me, holding down a full-time job, raising a family (number 6 will arrive in September), church service, while managing the development and deployment of Crisis Cleanup is enough to keep me occupied without tilting against grant-writing windmills as well. I was turned down by the Robin Hood Foundation; dealing with the American Red Cross was perhaps the most Kafkaesque experience of my life, and I have yet to hear a peep from the Knight Foundation.

And that brings me back to the paradox of innovation. Poor vision and inertia perpetuates inefficiency. Unfortunately, most grant-writing organizations aren’t exactly known as bastions of innovative vision. I hope there are some out there, among all of those windmills.

So, if somebody finds a cutting-edge innovative government agency or philanthropic organization with extra grant money that will pay more than they have to on behalf of survivors (now that’s a compound oxymoron if I’ve ever seen one), let me know. In the meantime, I’ll be in my basement tinkering with rocket parts.

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