Thursday, March 18, 2010

wicked social investing

"Many of the social issues private foundations and other philanthopies attempt to address--poverty, homelessness,global climate change--are wicked problems. That is, they defy easy definition, lack permanent solutions,and have multiple stakeholders."

John Sherman and Gayle Peterson, "Finding the Win in Wicked Problems: Lessons From Evaluating Public Policy," Foundation Review, 2009 vol 1:3

I always thought that the heart of "wicked problems" was their uncertainty about causation and values. Non-wicked problems simply have more certainty and lend themselves to a more linear, straightfoward problem-solving process. Compare fixing potholes to solving poverty. Of course there are resource constraints, and not all potholes are equal, but we do know how to fix them and most people agree that they are bad. Not so easy to fix poverty -- and even though we know lots of the answers, we don't know all of them, and not everybody agrees on the nature of the problem, solutions, or the public priority. Lots of uncertainty.

The authors elaborate the list of wicked problem characteristics,and apply the overall framework to two policy advocacy efforts.

One might ask: What problems that foundations take on are not wicked problems? Some of this depends upon the explicit scope of foundation investments. For example,building a playground in a disinvested neighborhood is fairly straightfoward. Building a playground as part of an overall effort to transform a neighborhood into a healthy community grapples with a wicked problem. Likewise, SCHIP has a track record of improving children's well-being -- we just need to keep doing it on an expanded basis. Alleviating poverty with SCHIP as part of the strategy is a larger,more ambitious effort.

So,when do we take on wicked and when not? Is all politics wicked because it's uncertain, opportunistic, ideologically-driven, and full of horse-trading?

In the end, the article points to a variety of capacities that grantees and other stakeholders need to have or develop to make sense wicked problems and forge solutions, if only short term. Understanding the nature of wicked problems helps fashion good grant-making strategies. But I suspect,for some,it may drive them to more narrowly focused, evidence-based investments.

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