The work of nonprofits gets framed in different ways, but fundamentally they all address a lack of something.*
This might be a lack of resources or ‘goods’ (money, housing, social capital, health); capabilities (professional skills, physical mobility, self- and family care, social skills); opportunities (access to education, employment, public spaces, healthy food, culture, caring family members, new perspectives); freedoms (to vote, to work, to live in safety); or attitudes (towards self, other people, work, and the wider world).**
These lacks don’t simply occur: they are products of systems at work – they result from processes (or their absence) in people’s lives.
This is an important lens for two reasons. First, it helps us to identify people who don’t really need our help because the lack is transitory (e.g. many students have very low income and live in poor quality housing, but can expect to go on to earn good salaries). The lack is a temporary part of their journey – it may even be character building. The system is in motion, and they will be fine.
Second, looking at the processes at work helps us to see the magnitude of the challenges we face in trying to serve others. A powerful question to ask is “What processes do we see in the lives of people who do not experience this lack?”, or “What missing processes are we trying to compensate for?”
For example, “We want to help kids who can’t read to learn to read,” sounds like a fairly simple task. But when we ask what processes are operating in the lives of kids who don’t need help, the task quickly gets a lot bigger. Kids who learn to read well are much more likely to have engaged parents, family members and friends who have the time, energy and will to talk to them and read to them regularly. Their families can afford to buy relevant books (or make the effort to borrow them), model reading for pleasure, talk about what they read, and provide a reasonably comfortable environment in which reading is possible. These kids are more likely to go to well organised, orderly schools with good teachers, and they exist in a network of peers embedded in similar, mutually reinforcing systems. For these kids, learning to read (or to eat healthily, or to exercise, or to care for others) happens more-or-less naturally as a symptom of the cultural processes they are shaped by: it’s the result of thousands of hours of immersion, and thousands of pounds of investment long before they sit in a schoolroom.
Expecting to be able to fully compensate for the absence of all of these things on a tight budget – a few books, a few extra hours of tuition – is setting ourselves up for failure.
When we see what we’re compensating for clearly, we’re less likely to be surprised that the work is as hard as it is.
*This isn’t always a popular perspective, but it’s true.
**This isn’t intended to be a comprehensive list.