Association of Small Foundations (ASF) “Adapts” With New WordPress Blog

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It’s WWII. Bombs are dropping on cities in the UK. The British government decides to implement a public health policy. Children (and some adults) living in the cities would be evacuated to the countryside. Where possible children would be evacuated to family members: aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc. If need be they would be evacuated to strangers willing to take them in. Between the years 1939 to 1945 approximately 3.5 million people (mostly children) were evacuated. [1] This plan to “save the children” sounded reasonable and was accepted by many … but not all. A small group of psychoanalysts, which included such well-known names as John Bowlby and Donald Winnicott, protested vociferously against the plan. Why do you think they protested what seemed like a technically sound public health policy?

This group of protesters believed that separating children (and adults for that matter) from their families could produce potentially devastating psychological effects later in life. Rachael Peltz writes, “What emerged in Britain as a result of trying to accommodate the evacuated children of the Second World War years was the revision of psychoanalytic theories about childhood, attachment, and dependency.” Peltz continues, “[I]n order to thrive physically, emotionally and mentally we depend on our relationships and social institutions to nurture, protect, and contain us.” [2]

I mention the above example because it highlights the contrast between framing the solution to a social problem technically versus adaptively. I’ll take a look at this idea of technical solutions versus adaptive solutions in the remainder of this blog post. I’ll also talk about a grant we made to ASF (Association of Small Foundations) to start a new blog that will center on technical versus adaptive solutions to social problems.

Technically speaking, the British government’s evacuation policy seemed sound: protect the bodies of the children from harm. Isn’t that what Peltz suggests above: social institutions should protect? What Bowlby and others pointed out was that by technically protecting the body, the mind might be put at risk. As Bowlby went on to show empirically, early traumatic separations can produce long-lasting, detrimental effects in terms of psychological development. But, in the British government’s defense, should not preserving the body take precedence over psychological health? The answer is simply not that clear-cut.

The above points out that there are two different ways of framing solutions to social problems. The first is technical and uses what cognitive scientist (turned political commentator) George Lakoff calls direct causation (think of high school physics and billiard balls hitting one another). The second is adaptive and uses what Lakoff calls systemic causation (think of global warming and ecosystems). According to Lakoff, conservative thinkers tend to frame social problems using direct causation (e.g., the problem is in the individual); in contrast, liberal thinkers tend to use systemic causation (e.g., the problem is in society and societal systems). [3] Can we not just pick one form of causation over the other to frame social problems and be done with it? Again, the answer is not clear-cut.

Allow me to mention an article that has shaped our thinking here at the Foundation: Leading Boldly: Foundations Can Move Past Traditional Approaches to Create Social Change Through Imaginative—And Even Controversial—Leadership by Ronald Heifetz, John Kania, and Mark Kramer. This article by Heifetz et al. appeared in the Winter 2004 issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR). The authors make it clear that all social problems have both technical and adaptive components to them. The authors also make it clear that if you only address one component without addressing the other, you could potentially make matters worse, not better. Here’s an example, and it’s a real one but for the life of me I can’t remember the source. If you recognize the source, please leave a comment.

A foundation makes a grant to a group that provides foreign aid. An aid worker is handing out food and water to starving kids. A father walks by and almost nonchalantly tells the aid worker, “You really should let them die because they have no future ahead of them.” The aid worker is operating technically, and the father points out that there is an adaptive component that is being overlooked, an adaptive component potentially made worse by the technical ministrations of the aid worker. Consider this example (from the folklore of philanthropy).

I remember hearing a story once (probably at a conference) where supposedly Bill Gates (who, at the time, was still getting his philanthropic feet wet) went to a remote village and his hosts prodded him by saying, “Don’t you agree, Mr. gates, that everyone in this village should have a desktop computer.” This was before laptops and wireless connections were ubiquitous. To his credit, Mr. Gates (as the story goes) simply looked around and almost nonchalantly said to his hosts, “There’s no infrastructure here, like electrical power or phone lines.” Simply, using one social problem frame exclusively can blind you to the realities of the other, which brings me to my final point.

Our Foundation has been a member of ASF (Association of Small Foundations) since March of 2002 (over ten years now). I have also participated on the ASF ListServ for the last three years or so. What I noticed was that the ListServ topics were, for lack of a better term, technical in nature (i.e., board policies, grant reporting, etc.). Not too long ago I asked the ListServ moderator, Andy Carroll, if ASF had thought about adding a blog that would look at more adaptive topics (i.e., intuition in philanthropy, modern vs. postmodern framings of social problems, etc.). Well, one thing led to another and our Foundation made a $15,000 grant to ASF to start a new blog that will focus on both technical and adaptive issues. Here’s a link to ASF’s new blog Philanthrofiles.

Here are a few topics that I have come across that have a technical versus adaptive bent to them. Hopefully we’ll see topics like these covered over at Philanthrofiles. As they say, stay tuned:

1) The Rest of the Story story (with thanks to the late Paul Harvey) to Britain’s WWII evacuation policy mentioned above. Sorry but the story takes a rather nasty turn, which ultimately forces Australia to issue an apology back in 2009. If you know the story, feel free to post a comment.

2) Why the most widely adopted domestic violence treatment modality—the Duluth Model—uses a conservative, technical frame, and will not allow an adaptive or connectionist frame  (e.g., connecting past and present). [4]

3) Whether young children should be separated from their parent(s) when parent(s) are incarcerated. (To whet your appetite, Spain has a program that allows young kids to live with their incarcerated mothers.) [5]

4) Does the US’s foster care system use the same model that was used to put Native Americans into boarding schools? [6]

5) Why are parents and other caregivers so readily embracing behavioral drugs (in some cases more potent than cocaine [7]) as forms of parent substitutes?

So, best wishes to ASF on the launch of their new blog. Let the adaptive/technical discussions begin. And, again, for a primer on adaptive philanthropy versus technical philanthropy, contact SSIR and see if you can request a reprint of the Leading Boldly article mentioned above.


[1] – I pulled this statistic from an article our Foundation commissioned by Dr. Gary Metcalf entitled John Bowlby: Rediscovering a Systems Scientist (2010). Contact our Foundation for a copy of this article by using the Contact Us link above or by hitting your “reply” button for those of you who read our blog posts by email.

[2] – This article appears in the edited volume Psychoanalysis, Class and Politics (2006).

[3] – See Lakoff’s 2006 book Who’s Freedom? for more on direct versus systemic causation. I wrote an executive summary of Who’s Freedom? Contact us for a copy.

[4] – Our Foundation has supported the work of Syracuse University social work professor Ken Corvo over the last six years. He has looked at this issue extensively. Contact us if you would like examples of his work.

[5] – Thanks to Nell Bernstein (author of the 2007 book All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated) for telling me about this program.

[6] – I heard this provocative idea from Judge William Thorne (Utah Court of Appeals) at an attachment conference out in Salt Lake City back in 2007.

[7] – See Ernest Keen’s 2000 book Chemicals for the Mind for more on this topic.