Why Problems Matter
I really enjoyed this piece by Shannon Ellis for CompassPoint on why it is essential in strategic planning to ask the question “what is the problem we are trying to solve?” Ellis makes the point that looking at the problem you are trying to solve allows you to take a “more profound look” at the organization’s “programming in the context of the specific results [it is] trying to achieve.”
Had we asked ourselves this question—How are we currently thinking about this problem?—we may have surfaced several insights of strategic significance. First, I suspect we would have identified a wide variety in thinking among staff and board about the issue of domestic violence, which could have had a profound impact on program cohesion, communication, and overall execution of organizational strategy. If we’re not all thinking similarly about the problem, how can we act together in alignment toward its solution? Second, by not asking this question we missed an opportunity to review and assess our programming in light of our current analysis of the problem: Are we doing the most impactful work possible to address this issue given the current environment?
Why Structure Matters
The problem an organization is trying to solve is also critical from a lawyer’s perspective because the solution to that problem may indicate whether the organization has the right legal structure to solve the problem it wants to solve.
A few examples of some problems an organization might identify:
- If the organization determines the problem it is trying to address (which I borrowed from the CompassPoint piece) is: “Societal responses to domestic violence do not reflect the realities of survivors’ experiences.” The solution to this problem might be a public education campaign or advocacy campaign that helps to educate the public. This type of educational campaign is perfectly legal for a 501(c)(3) public charity.
- If the organization instead framed the problem (again borrowed from the CompassPoint piece): “Serious inequalities and obstacles continue to hinder the ability to obtain justice for survivors of domestic violence,” the solution to that problem might be to lobby the legislature to remove the public policy obstacles that hinder access to justice. This type of lobbying work is permissible by both 501(c)(3) public charities and 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations.
- But, what if instead the organization had identified this as being the problem: “While the Legislature routinely approves legislation to help victims overcome obstacles to justice, the Governor routinely vetoes this legislation.” In this example, the solutions might be best accomplished by a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization (which can engage in some activities that oppose candidates for public office) or a political organization or PAC, organized under Section 527 of the tax code. The organization may want to fill its board of directors with people who are close to the Governor, may want to hire a lobbying firm or make lobbying communications in excess of the charity’s lobbying limits, make contributions to candidates for Governor, or attack the Governor in the press, social media or through public communications. But, the organization must have the correct legal structure for engaging in this type of action. The good news is that if the organization is a 501(c)(3) public charity, it is possible for the organization to open its umbrella and create an additional entity that is better positioned to solve the problem the organization has identified.