Kobayashi Maru – Wikipedia describes this phenomenon as the no-win scenario or a solution that involves redefining the problem and testing one’s character.
One would think this piece of wisdom would come from leading psychological research, but, no, this gem comes from the classic 1982 Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. (When in doubt, look to Trek!)
The ongoing discussion related to the assessment of a charity on cost as opposed to impact is starting to feel like the charitable sector’s own Kobayashi Maru. While sector leaders continue to work to reframe the dialogue with Canadians – seeking a shift to one based on impact – the prevailing winds continue to reinforce the message that cost is the overriding determinant of an organizations worth.
With the approach of the Holiday Season, Canadians will be demonstrating their immense generosity by contributing approximately $5 billion to charitable organizations. When thinking about where to give, they will look for ways to compare organizations as they seek to differentiate between the many requests for funding they usually receive. Annual end-of-the-year ratings and rankings articles play a role in providing easily consumable, comparable information. Many sector leaders are in agreement, however, that the methodologies employed to create the ratings and rankings – because they are based solely on cost – are doing a disservice to the sector and reinforcing a belief that cost is the sole measure of the worth of an organization.
In their book, A World of Indicators: The Making of Governmental Knowledge Through Quantification, Richard Rottenburg and Sally Engle Merry nicely articulate the tension between the presentation of information in a simple fashion and the resulting challenge the reduction in detail produces:
“One useful way to think of quantitative indicators is that they are technologies of simplification, strategies that make complex process visible and easy to grasp, and make comparisons – across people, organizations or time – easy. This simplification is both why we value indicators so much and why we often feel they misrepresent us.”
Star Trek provides some insights into this paradox.
The No-Win Scenario
Perhaps the most frustrating part of the conversation around ratings and rankings is a feeling of helplessness. With modest, or even non-existent, marketing budgets, sector leaders struggle against the might of the mainstream media.
In thinking about a response to rankings that are fundamentally flawed, the sector is caught in a no-win scenario. To debate the methodologies appears defensive (this is even assuming a meaningful public forum could be found). To not defend the interests of organizations feels weak. A public spat with media entities having the ability to reach hundreds of thousands of citizens seems futile.
Even more challenging is the power imbalance that exists.
Sector leaders feel compelled to cooperate and contribute information to public representations of their organizations (that they know only tell the cost side of the story) because a lack of cooperation comes complete with a guarantee of a poorer public portrayal. As one ranking publication puts it:
“As part of our methodology no-response will not exclude your organization from our report and it will have a negative impact on your final grade.”
Not ‘might’ or ‘may’ have a negative impact on your final grade – it ‘will’ have a negative impact. Do it or else is basically the message. The interpretation of ‘no-response’ conveniently ignores the philosophical difference that leaders have with the skewed rankings, as it is interpreted to be a lack of transparency.
Redefining the Problem
In the 1968 Star Trek episode The Empath, James T. Kirk states, “The best defense is a strong offense, and I intend to start offending right now.”
Public relations experts agree that attempting to get into a complex public discussion about ratings methodologies will make the sector appear defensive. Instead, it is time to shift the terrain and go on offense.
From now until New Years, a Holiday Giving public relations initiative will work to bring sector-generated messages to the donating public. Charities coast to coast are invited to start spreading the list of the Top 5 Suggested Strategies for Holiday Giving (yes, we can produce our own ‘lists’ too!). Canadians will be asked to consider aligning their gift with their passion, model giving for their children and peers, focus on impact – not overhead, be flexible and generous and examine the leadership of organizations.
With 2 million employees and 13 million volunteers, the social media might of the sector is formidable. Let’s get together, go on offense and own the charitable message.
Testing One’s Character
Spock: The Kobayashi Maru scenario frequently wreaks havoc on students and equipment. As I recall you took the test three times yourself. Your final solution was, shall we say, unique?
Kirk: It had the virtue of never having been tried.
More than anything, the Kobayashi Maru seeks to illuminate characteristics about the person taking the test. Or in this case, define the character of an entire sector being tested.
I believe it is essential that we witness two character traits emerge from our Kobayashi Maru – persistence and determination. The ‘cost only’ mindset is now firmly entrenched in the minds of Canadians. The scales are currently tilted in favour of a single lens that ignores or downplays the impact and outcome of social good programs and initiatives.
Members of the charitable sector will need to work together to reverse this trend. We will need to find a unity of spirit and message. We will need to be creative in our ways of delivering our message.
Ultimately, though, we will need to be persistent and determined in our belief that society will be better served when citizens truly understand that real impact requires real investment. It is going to take time to turnaround a public perception that has been building for some time now.
Spoiler Alert! If you haven’t seen Star Trek II or Star Trek (2009), it would be best to download and watch before finishing this blog.
He beat the no-win scenario by changing the conditions of the test. He reprogrammed the computer. He got a commendation for creative thinking in the 1982 movie.
I don’t believe that the charitable sector is unable to reverse this growing mindset. This is one of the most innovative industries in the nation. Together we can come up with new and inventive ways to communicate a message of impact and societal improvement. I invite you to join Imagine Canada and other sector leaders in an ongoing process of reframing the conversation with Canadians.
Spock and Kirk photo credit: CBS Photo Archive / Contributor
About the Author
Bruce MacDonald is the President & CEO of Imagine Canada.
Prior to Imagine Canada, Bruce served as CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Canada for ten years and before that as the organization’s Vice-President of Marketing. Bruce is bilingual, has led major change initiatives and developed long and innovative partnerships with corporations and other charities. Bruce has been active in many organizations, including two YMCAs, the Ontario Senior Games and Kinsmen and Kinette Clubs. He brings passion, knowledge and skill to everything he does. Bruce holds a Bachelor of Commerce in Sports Administration and a Masters in Management in the Voluntary Sector.