Of Paradigms and Doing Good
The way we see the world can change the world. Such is the power of paradigms.
Paradigms are mental models of how we view various aspects of life. Since paradigms frame our view of reality, they influence how we behave in relation to those aspects of reality.
The importance of paradigms in the business world was popularized by Joel Barker1, the author and futurist. He defines a paradigm as a set of rules and regulations that first, establishes or defines the boundaries; and secondly, tells us how to behave inside the boundaries in order to be successful.
Barker cites the example of the watch industry to illustrate the impact paradigms have on our decisions and actions. In 1968, the Swiss dominated the watch industry with a worldwide market share of 65 percent. By 1980, their market share had collapsed to less than 10 percent. What happened in between was the entry of the Japanese and others with the electronic quartz watch.
The irony, as Barker points out, is that it was the Swiss themselves who first invented the electronic quartz watch. But Swiss manufacturers rejected the idea from their own researchers because it did not fit their paradigm of what a watch should look like. At the time, watches were mechanical instruments. Hence the idea of an electronic watch devoid of mainsprings, bearings and gears moving in unison, was an anomaly. Electronic watches represented what Barker calls a “paradigm shift.” Seiko, a Japanese company, saw the electronic watch on display at the World Watch Congress in 1967, and the rest was history.
I spent 26 years in the commercial world operating with business paradigms, sometimes seeking to understand when and where paradigm shifts might occur.
After I retired from the corporate treadmill in 2003, I became heavily involved with nonprofit work. It felt good to be “doing good.” In the charity sector, I came across many who inspire with the purity of heart that should characterize such kind of work.
Coming from a highly organized and structured corporate environment, I found the contrast between the charity world and the commercial world quite stark and startling. I realized that that I was trying to make sense of the nonprofit reality by applying corporate paradigms. My nonprofit colleagues likewise struggled to make sense of the alternatives that I presented and oftentimes I met with the common refrain, “That’s just not the way we do things here.”
As I grappled with the social realities, I began to understand not just the “hows” but also the “whys” that operate within the nonprofit sector. But sometimes the “hows” and the “whys” did not always compute. In time, I became convinced that how we “see” this world and how nonprofits “see” themselves need to change.
One of the nonprofit organizations that I became involved with, early in my retirement, was the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre (NVPC)2 in Singapore. As these nonprofit paradigms and paradoxes struck me, I shared some of them in articles that were published in SALT 3, NVPC’s magazine, and later in other publications.4
What This Book is About
This book pulls together my observations of various charity paradigms, their rationale and implications, and how the respective models can perhaps be different.
This book is not about the “how to,” the nuts and bolts of nonprofit management, volunteerism or giving. Instead, my focus is on concepts, principles and the thinking behind what works and what does not work in the nonprofit sector, why this is so, and how things can, perhaps, be done better.
Most of the chapters are based on previously published articles; for this book, they have been adapted and updated, in particular for international relevance. Each chapter describes one or more significant aspects of nonprofit reality. Most of the chapters can also be read as stand-alones if the reader’s interest is only on a specific topic.
There are twenty chapters. For easy reading, I have grouped them into the following five broad categories:
- Sector Structure & Governance. This section looks at the macro aspects of how the charity sector is structured differently from the commercial sector, and the implications for governance and regulation.
- Giving. This covers the various aspects of philanthropic giving and volunteerism from both a corporate and individual standpoint.
- Social Innovation. This section covers two new social models: social entrepreneurship and social enterprise. I have also included here the current philanthropic revolution since the chapter highlights innovations in philanthropic giving (though, of course, it could also have been included in the Giving section).
- Doing Good Well? This is, in a sense, a miscellaneous section of four chapters. There are two chapters on quirks in the charity sector. A case study on the National Kidney Foundation then applies the respective paradigms in the context of the largest charity in Singapore. The last chapter wraps up the book by bringing the various paradigms together in a holistic framework and describes how the charity ecosystem is shaping up to do good better.
This book is meant for two groups of people. First, my colleagues in the nonprofit sector: hopefully, this book can lend some fresh perspectives to their environment and charity work.
Secondly, my colleagues in the business world: my goal is to help explain why some of the assumptions we take for granted in business may or may not be applicable in the nonprofit sector.
For both sets of readers, I hope that any insights gleaned here will help us work together to shape the charity sector for the better. I strongly believe that “heart work” can be made so much more effective and meaningful if it is also led by our heads.
One of my passions is science fiction and comic books. Those of you who have watched the television series, Heroes will recall the tag line, “Save the cheerleader, save the world!”5 Well, I can imagine my hero of paradigms, Joel Barker rephrasing that to, “Change the paradigm, change the world!” And changing the world is what charity is about.