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Is the Scarcity Mentality the Biggest Barrier to Social Media in Nonprofits?

AbundanceThrough a circuitous route I won't bother to explain, today I find myself thinking about the impact of scarcity thinking on nonprofit organizations.

One of the most powerful learnings I've had in my professional practice is that our mental models have a profound impact on our work practices. One of the mental models I'm observing at work today is scarcity vs. abundance thinking and  I'm starting to wonder if the biggest barrier to using social media in nonprofits is the scarcity model of thinking that seems to permeate most nonprofit organizations. This scarcity thinking seems to be me to be in direct conflict with the abundance thinking that has created the social web and I'm wondering if the two can co-exist. I'm also wondering if it's the scarcity mentality that is at the root of so much of what's going wrong in nonprofits today.   

Scarcity Thinking vs. Abundance Thinking
This article does a nice job of explaining the differences between abundance thinking and scarcity thinking in organizations.

 Abundance, in terms of business and personal value, is an attitude of growth (my emphasis). I can grow more rapidly personally by banding with others in a business environment as we, together, grow our proverbial economic pie more rapidly than any of us could otherwise do. In the process, although we may have smaller shares of a collective pie than 100% of our personal pies, those smaller shares will be worth more than our individual, personal pies.

That is the theory and that is why doctors, lawyers, engineers, architects, business appraisers, and members of many other professions come together in professional service firms. Collectively, they can do more and do better than any of them could do alone.

For professional service firms to grow, however, it is necessary that the concept of abundance that brought groups together in the first place be fostered by and among the individual professionals.

In an abundance environment, professionals work together to provide services to clients and customers. They do so by doing what is best for their customers. The rewards for their efforts are then shared on a collective basis.

While no rewards systems are perfect, if the economic pie is growing, the effects of many imperfections are minimized. If business is slower in a given year, everyone recognizes that the pie is smaller and that their shares will also be smaller. The collective emphasis then is on maximizing growth and minimizing the effects of economic adversity.

  Scarcity, in terms of business and personal value, reflects an attitude of the absence of growth (my emphasis).  Therefore, those with the scarcity mentality tend to think of the pie, whether personal or collective, as fixed, and want to grab the biggest piece possible, even some of the grab takes away from others.

Scarcity is defined as "the quality or state of being scarce; especially : want of provisions for the support of life."   And scarce is defined as "deficient in quantity or number compared with the demand: not plentiful or abundant."

There just isn't enough to go around when the scarcity mentality is present, regardless of the success of an organization.

Abundance vs. Scarcity. Problems arise when a professional with a scarcity mentality joins with an abundance-oriented organization. He or she is not focused on the growing pie because of the perception that at any given time, the pie is fixed in size. That attitude fosters emphasis on individual performance and rewards rather than collective performance.

From what I can see, most nonprofits operate from a scarcity mentality. We are constantly talking about what we lack--money, information, staff, resources.  There's a strong feeling that there isn't enough to go around and so the focus is on grabbing the largest share possible for your organization and holding onto that share for dear life. In a scarcity mentality, the impulse is to hoard, not to share--at least when it comes to anything of value. And the focus is on the individual organization, on survival and limits, not on the collective social mission and on growth.

This post from the Kiva Chronicles describes some of what goes on in nonprofits when scarcity is at work:

For the past two years I've operated in an environment where scarcity was the rule. We had a really small budget and stretched it so wide. We used open source methodologies, we had no IT person, no travel budget, no QA testing, no paid accountant, used furniture, little insurance, no computer budget, no server administrator, low budget hosting, a CEO who writes code, etc, etc. Most of all, we had no free time and all became workaholics. I'd venture to say I saw the sunrise 100 times last year.

Scarcity, while we might complain about it, can become a badge of honor as well. In the nonprofit world, I see that all the time. Nonprofits often compete in terms of their overhead ratios. Most every nonprofit out there advertises to it's funders how it likes to keep overhead low so that the majority of funds it raises goes to constituents. Kiva is not all that different. Last year we raised $2M in loans through our website and spent about $200K on our own staff (aka overhead). Thus, we can advertise that our overhead was no more than 10% of the total funds sent to our consituents. That's golden in the fundraising world.

This kind of competition, while it seems logical to the public, can also be destructive. For instance, is it a good thing that Kiva had no QA testing process last year? Sure, we spent less on dreadful *overhead*, but at what cost? A buggier website?

Web 2.0 and social media, on the other hand, seems to have sprung from an abundance mentality. Our capacity to inexpensively collect, store and share digital information has created a world where the uses of digital resources are limited only by our own sense of the possibilities. As a result, Web 2.0 culture emphasizes sharing, creating collective value, and ongoing growth  via developing networks of people, information and resources. Further, an individual's value is measured by the value that he/she brings to the collective. It isn't measured by how well he/she holds onto information and resources for individual gain (as is the case when we operate from beliefs of scarcity).

Questions That Emerge on Scarcity vs. Abundance Thinking
Some questions that are starting to form for me as a result of this line of thinking:

  • Is it possible for an organization to operate in a culture of scarcity and still embrace social media and Web 2.0? My guess is that they can't, except in the most superficial ways. It will either be shift to abundance thinking and really harness the power of social media or stay in scarcity thinking and make ineffective use of social media. I doubt that it's possible to really get collective knowledge and information sharing going when a scarcity mentality says that there isn't enough time, resources, energy, etc. to really make it happen. And I think that there's just a fundamental mismatch there that permeates organizational culture in ways I'm only dimly perceiving right now.
  • Are many of these "perceived" barriers to knowledge sharing a result of scarcity thinking? Are these really barriers? Or is it just that we're missing solutions because we're so focused on "lack-of" thinking?
  • How would our ability to find new solutions to implementing social media and knowledge sharing within organizations be changed if we shifted to an abundance mentality?
  • What are the larger impacts of scarcity thinking on nonprofits? How do we miss possible collective solutions to problems because we're so focused on preserving our own piece of the pie? How do we miss the larger picture of the best ways to address our organization's social cause when we are in scarcity mode?  I keep thinking about Begging for Change and about how so many of the problems that Eggers points out are really rooted in scarcity thinking. What's even more bothersome is that this scarcity thinking seems to move down the food chain into how clients are treated, which in many cases further deepens client dependence on nonprofits.
  • What organizational and individual changes would we have to take to move from scarcity thinking to an abundance mentality? There might be some ideas here, here, and here.

I'm feeling a vague discomfort in exploring this line of thinking because I hesitate to appear too "New Age" and so much of what's available for exploration seems to come from the self-help aisle. But the more this all rolls around in my mind, the more I feel like there's something big here that I want to further explore. (Why do my biggest questions come up when I have the least amount of time to ponder them?)

I'd be curious to hear from others about this. Are there any resources you'd suggest that I look at? Any ideas that you have on whether or not I'm on the right track in thinking that this may be a fundamental barrier to true acceptance of social media?

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Very interesting.

But see also "Battered Agencies" The Non-Profit Quarterly, Fall 2006, http://www.nonprofitquarterly.org/section/837.html
Also http://www.wested.org/cs/we/view/rs/696

The premise here is that there are very real causes for this type of behavior. Conquering material circumstances and learned organizational behavior is the struggle here.

Not sure if you saw this post, but thought of this post when I read it

Great article. I just put up something related, inspired by a Markle Foundation request in 2001 for comments back then.

"An Open Letter to All Grantmakers and Donors On Copyright And Patent Policy
In a Post-Scarcity Society"

In that essay, I consider whether the definition of "self-dealing" in the non-profit world should be extended to cover creating artificial scarcity (like by using copyright restrictions on distribution of non-profit originated content).

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