I have mentioned at least one time in class, and several times in my head as I do our assigned readings “why do people write about theories that only work in a vacuum?” On the surface it seems pointless to spend so much time and energy researching and discussing ideas that aren’t applicable in a lot of cases.
Since we have started this class, I have changed my view of these theories and their authors. I think I am finally starting to get it, or at least I am not getting it in a different way. It’s not about finding the “miracle cure” or the “one size fits all” solution to all nonprofit governance structures and issues. It’s about exploration. Early travelers didn’t set out to map the entire world in one trip, but rather sail in one direction and see what they found. I believe that theoretical literature is much the same. They take one idea or a set of specific ideas and see how they are applied practically. I think what has thrown me off all of this time is the presentation of some of these theories. Not many authors are willing to say that theirs is just a very small piece of what really must be done to understand all circumstances and adapt to the kinds of events that might come to nonprofit boards and CEOs. Instead, they may say there needs to be more research done, or they may just tout their model as a failsafe model, adding the disclaimer that if something goes wrong it is the implementation, not the concept (I still think that may be the most brilliant marketing ploy ever created).
I think that these confident declarations of authors about their concepts happen for two different reasons. Ego and money. This shouldn’t be a foreign idea in academia, but I believe it is worth shining a light on nonetheless. The ego effect is that they want to be able to say that they have come up with the next best thing in whatever field they are writing about, and they hope to build credibility so that later in their careers people will listen to them even when they don’t have anything relevant to say. The money part of this is the no-brainer. They package and sell their methods as a surefire way for your organization to excel, or to save a broken one. It wouldn’t be attractive to buy a product that the manufacturer claims “probably won’t fix everything, and may not work at all. Buy today!” They must have an image of completeness to sell their packaged ideas. Perhaps there are many that feel like they have solved all of the world’s problems in a single journal article. I think they may have bigger problems if that is the case.
Anyway, I am beginning to appreciate the theoretical approaches to nonprofit governance. I believe that each one of them does shine a light on a small portion of what must be done to be effective nonprofit managers and board members. I believe it takes a little bit of all of them to be successful, like a good recipe should be. It would be nice if someone would tell the authors of these theories that they can’t save the world alone.