Tuesday, January 13, 2009

what is the big idea, anyway?

Part of my current job includes writing grants. Right now there is a large, local grant available for 1-4 community non profits that have a "big idea". The only specified criteria are that the grant (1) will have an substantial impact on a specified community need and (2) will succeed and be sustainable.


I can think of many things to say about this RFP, but the one that I keep coming back to is the "big idea". Because the more I try to figure out what a big idea would be, the more I think it doesn't really exist. I've got the notion that however you define big idea, the heart of it is that it solves a big question. Poverty. Homelessness. Abuse. Community vitality. Global warming. These big questions have the countless hours of I don't know how many experts working to solve them. Is it reasonable to think that they will converge on one solution? Or even one common set of solutions?

I'm imagining a summit meeting with the last 5 polar bears on earth1. The executives of the big idea (or maybe just their subordinates) present to the polar bears a 10-slide power point presentation, complete with animated transitions, on the 5-step plan to save the bears. After the presentation, the polar bears politely applaud, take the leather-bound report, and then go look for a walrus to eat because they can't get to the seals.

Maybe I'm being cynical, or ignorant, but I just don't think big change happens with a big idea. Maybe lots of big ideas. More likely, lots of little ideas.

This has become more apparent to me in my other job. I am putting together a training manual for the daily tasks of this community center. There is a lot of staff turnover, so the manual is to supposed to make it much easier to train new staff and utilize volunteers and aids to fill in on clerical and daily operational tasks, on the fly. It's only a mid-size idea on the community center scale. But as I've been putting this together, I realize over and over again that it won't solve all of the problems associated with staff turnover. It won't even solve all of the problems of training staff to do day-to-day tasks.

But the manual will take us a step closer to a solution. And another idea will take us a step closer, followed by another idea, and another. Maybe someone a lot smarter than me can read out the game tree and come up with one big overarching solution that packages all these little steps in a tidy process. But I don't buy it. I think we take some guesses, make some plans, and as many people do this at the same time, the law of large numbers turns in our favor. (side note: this makes me think that it's not about coming up with the right answer, it's about focusing attention on the right problem.)

And when that mess of ideas finally converges on a mess of solutions, somewhere in the world, a polar bear is grateful.

1 Polar Bears International puts the actual polar count today at 20,000-25,000. For comparison sake, that is roughly the same number as McDonald's locations around the world (31,000+).


Dawn said...

Well written. What idea did you decide to present for the grant proposal?

Maren Hansen said...

Well said, as usual. No wonder you are a writer--you are a true wordsmith.

Dave and Margaret said...

Great post Erin! I love the image of polar bears politely applauding.

The problem seems to be that people handing out grant money would rather "Save the earth" or the "children" than support a project with a realistic, manageable, objective. What they fail to realize is that by constantly trying to punch down the wall nothing gets achieved, but if we chip away at the wall with productivity improving binders the world can be a much better place.

Incidentally, this is also a huge problem in development economics. The agencies that promise "end poverty" get all the money while those recommending small realistic improvements get nothing.

There was a great Econ Talk on this problem if you like listening to depressing things: