Friday, February 5, 2010

Organizational Entropy Part I: What the Heck is Entropy?

Here are some thoughts on energy, accomplishment of your mission, and entropy, provided by Non-Profit Consultant, Derek Link.  This is the first of a three-part series on the topic.

A few big ideas stuck with me from my days at the University and one of them is the idea of entropy. Entropy is a universal principle which is probably why it stuck with me - I love that kind of stuff. My professor said that everything in the universe is moving towards maximum entropy, or disorder. Energy is lost as entropy occurs and the eventual result of entropy is rest, equilibrium, stasis.

The easiest example for my brain to understand entropy is the idea of a perpetual motion machine, like a clock pendulum that once set into motion can continue to swing without any additional force being applied for eternity. We know this doesn’t happen and the reason why it does not is entropy. The friction of the pivot point of the pendulum, of the work it is creating in moving the clock, and even with the air it is moving through is dissipating some of the energy of the swinging and over time, this pendulum will come to rest, equilibrium. When it comes to entropy in non-profit organizations, the concept is important to understand because every bit of work done expends energy that is a byproduct of the work, rather than result of the work.

So how in the heck does this apply to your organization? Well, let’s say that your organization’s mission is like the pendulum. You apply some force to the mission; in other words, you give it money, time, effort, management, supervision, accountability, and governance. The pendulum of your mission begins to swing, the gears start to turn and work gets done. As long as you continue to apply energy to the pendulum/mission, it continues to do work, but if you stop applying energy to it, it will slowly expend all of the energy applied to it and come to rest.

In the case of an organization, energy can be expended on accomplishing the mission but some will always be wasted, that’s entropy. The key is to understand that keeping the pendulum swinging takes continual application of force or entropy will use up all of the energy applied and motion will stop.

If energy flows to it that isn’t directly related to accomplishing your mission, that’s entropy. I worked with a company on a project that would result in the production of videos. We had a non-profit partner and we had a great concept. The thing we needed was national distribution and a recognizable name so we could draw in corporate grants to get the pendulum swinging. We approached a national non-profit I had family ties to and voila, they said yes, we want to take part.

Then entropy set in. The national office of the non-profit approved the project but wanted us to raise an additional 1 million dollars for their overhead. This was equivalent to the entire project budget! If we accepted their participation, we had to accept that a lot of energy would be wasted and spent outside of our mission, so we politely declined the offer to increase the project entropy.

Some entropy is unavoidable, imposed by outside forces, and these things are usually shrugged off as “the cost of doing business”. Some entropy is avoidable so look around. Where is your organization expending useless energy as a result of doing the work? Find those areas and try to reduce or eliminate them. Doing so will mean that you have to apply less energy to your mission’s pendulum to keep it swinging strongly.


In part 2 of this series (appearing on February 8, 2010), Derek will discuss overhead and administrative costs.  In part 3, the final installment in this series (appearing on February 10, 2010), the topic turns to specifically how organizations lose the motion of their mission.

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Creative Resources and Research is a consulting firm specializing in grant writing, grant seeking, program evaluation and professional development training. We have worked with hundreds of clients including public and private schools, school districts, universities, non-profit organizations, and social service agencies throughout California, securing over $155 million from federal, state and private foundation funding sources over the past decade. Our primary grant writers and program evaluators have over 50 years of combined experience in the education and social services fields. At CRR we prefer a personal approach to the clients we work with; by developing long term relationships, we are better suited to match client’s needs with available funding sources. We provide a variety of services to help assist you, including grant writing, evaluation consulting, professional development opportunities, and workshops.