The other day I had the opportunity to meet with a food bank executive in a major North American city, and have a candid conversation about the importance of food banks in our communities.  This discussion led to an examination of the role that funders and charities play in enabling certain behaviours and preventing market pressure from driving organizations out of business, or allowing new models to be adopted into a space.

Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, talks about a Hedgehog mentality and a Fox mentality.  The fox knows many things and the hedgehog knows one thing deeply. “A Hedgehog Concept is not a goal to be the best, a strategy to be the best, an intention to be the best, a plan to be the best. It is an understanding of what you can be the best at.” Mr. Collins goes on to say that, “Those who built the good-to-great companies were, to one degree or another, hedgehogs. They used their hedgehog nature to drive toward what we came to call a Hedgehog Concept for their companies. Those who led the [poorer performing] comparison companies tended to be foxes, never gaining the clarifying advantage of a Hedgehog Concept, being instead scattered, diffused, and inconsistent.”  

The same can be applied to charities – too often organizations chase after the next donation dollar without considering how this will impact the broader system. In reverse, donors offer up funds to organizations that are not directly mandated to do what the donor wants with consequences that are not sustainable and can lead to more challenges.

With this in mind the role of the emergency-based organization and a prevention-based organization have a clear lines as to where their operations start and stop. In an unhealthy system, these roles are not clearly defined and empire building ensues. What results are organizations that opt out of playing in the sandbox together and multiple layers of organizations doing things that are not directly attributed to their mandate.  This also leads to silos that further duplication of services and reinforcing old models thereby preventing new ideas from being tested and implemented.

In a healthy system, information is shared in an open data model.  An emergency-based agency would be collecting information about their users to share those learnings with the next tier of service delivery organization – those doing management/maintenance of the problem.  All this information is then shared with the organizations that are focused on preventing the problem in the first place. Because this is in an open data system it also allows for others who are interested in this field to design and develop solutions that can be implemented anywhere along the continuum of care for this individual and/or family.

In the case of the Food Bank, this organization’s mandate is to address the needs around acute hunger and therefore should not be used as solution for ongoing hunger management for a family or individual.  The role it can play in man

aging hunger as part of the poverty support Continuum of Care is by sharing information about those who are accessing the Food Bank’s services; why they are in need of food and what the referral source was to their doorstep. This requires that the overall poverty reduction/hunger management network has clearly articulated and agreed upon standards/metrics around such things as the number of hampers a family can access before it is evident that they are chronically hungry. Armed with this information and these agreed upon protocols, organizations can work more effectively together instead of competing for airspace and donor mindshare.

This concept can be applied to any type social issue where there needs to be a solution for acute care as well as a mechanism for prevention and long-term care.  An example of how this is playing out in our society today is the supports offered to Seniors and Aging in Place. The report by the Canadian Medical Association, “A Policy Framework to Guide a National Seniors Strategy for Canada,” outlines different continuum of care models that have been designed and implemented across Canada.  

Having a clearly defined role definition of where one organization stops and another starts. This clarity of roles allows for funders and users to know where to go for the right type of service AND where to redirect a client should s/he end up at the wrong organization for a service.

As donors we need to understand the landscape and not fund projects or organizations that are merely chasing the funding, but supporting those agencies that are prepared to stand up and say, “this isn’t our job, but we would be happy to direct your resources to organizations whose job it is to do what you want to support.”  It takes a brave leader and a strong board of directors to be willing and able to walk away from funding and to open the door for those dollars to go elsewhere.  Just like it takes a strong funder to put his/her personal desires aside to really understand what most needs doing and when.