Thursday, August 30, 2012

Will Robot Day Replace Labor Day?

“A new wave of robots, far more adept than those now commonly used by automakers and other heavy manufacturers, are replacing workers around the world...”

We can’t glibly dismiss this statement in a recent New York Times article as science fiction, or bury our heads in the sand and pretend that these robots won’t come to our town. Increasingly, robots have begun to perform tasks that we have always assumed humans must perform. One scientist: ‘We’re on the cusp of completely changing manufacturing and distribution. I think it’s not as singular an event, but it will ultimately have as big an impact as the Internet.”

If we have concerns about the future quality of life in our communities, and specifically about poverty and its consequences, should we fear the robots?

Poverty lies at the root of many of the challenges we face in our communities across the nation; it also results in many of the problems that we end up trying to alleviate through our health care, human service, and education systems, or in some cases, that we must deal with through our corrections system. For some people, poverty derives from their individual behavior, attitudes, or circumstances: lack of literacy; a poor work ethic; a too-early pregnancy; etc. However, for others, poverty stems from social or structural causes: racism as a barrier to success or lack of economic activity in a community, for example.

Will robots change the structure of work in a way that pushes more people below the poverty line, or at least closer to it?

So far, evidence suggests that robots’ “encroachment into human skills” has both positive and negative effects. Some types of jobs do increase. In certain cases, the productivity of robots requires that companies find more workers, to oversee the increased workflow and to accomplish the increased amount of work necessary to support the increased productivity. However, the need for workers with certain skills has plummeted in some industries.

The net result in the long term – more jobs or fewer – remains to be seen.

The robots will certainly take over a lot of labor territory. They cost less, run more efficiently, and have higher productivity than humans for an increasing number of tasks. Market forces will push them into the factories of the future. Robot manufacturers can demonstrate convincing cost-benefit analyses. Union opposition might moderate, but cannot mitigate, the extent to which jobs for human beings will decrease.

All of us who want to promote prosperity, reduce social and economic disparities, and improve the quality of life for everyone in our communities need to consider this latest wave of automation as we develop strategies for economic development. We need to convert this potential threat to a potential tool – with innovative thinking to create industries which both use modern means of automation and create more jobs for human beings.

I hope you enjoy your Labor Day weekend, but I also hope that you reflect seriously on the future that we want to create for our workforce.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Nonprofits in post-recession times: rebuilding; merging; thriving

Hull House in Chicago, the iconic model of a nonprofit multi-service agency, the original “settlement house” founded by the Nobel-prize-winning social worker, Jane Addams, closed its doors abruptly in 2012 – succumbing to the formidable social and economic challenges faced by contemporary nonprofit organizations.

Times are tough. We know that. Those of us who manage organizations serving the community and who have worked through demanding times before also recognize that, with creativity and hard work, we can persevere; we can succeed in continuing to meet the needs of the community.

A recent United Way conference, New Structures for New Times, reviewed the challenges which nonprofits face and shared findings from a new study by Wilder Research and MAP for Nonprofits that elucidates one approach potentially useful for some agencies to preserve and strengthen services.

Regarding the challenges, Sarah Caruso, Greater Twin Cities United Way president and CEO, identified a triple threat: First, the number of nonprofit organizations has increased, yet resources to support them have not. Second, social needs have increased. More people live in poverty. Third, funds to address needs will decline. Government funding will decrease, and private philanthropy (individual donors and foundations) cannot make up for that decrease.

Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, reiterated the same three threats in his assessment of the environment which presently surrounds nonprofit organizations. He warned the audience – comprised of over 500 people, mostly leaders of nonprofit agencies and foundations – that nonprofits currently focus too little attention on sustainability. They must realistically take a long term look at themselves.

Nonetheless, neither of these speakers became messengers of pessimism. Both remained resolute that we can overcome the challenges facing us. Grogan suggested that we must work to have the sector as a whole “be all that we can be.” Caruso emphasized that our goal is to meet needs, not to preserve specific organizations. Taken together, these remarks set up the discussion of one reasonable approach for some organizations to consider: Merge. Combine strengths with another organization in order to sustain community impact in the face of declining resources.

Greg Owen of Wilder Research outlined some factors which make mergers more successful. For example, having an “executive champion,” strong board involvement, and line staff involvement in the transition activities correlated positively with success. He pointed out that, even if mergers produce long term financial advantages, they can still have a negative financial effect in the short run. Putting into play the factors identified by the research can mitigate those negative effects and contribute to long term financial health.

Organizational mergers don’t offer the solution to all problems, but they can serve as an effective remedy for some problems. In appropriate situations, merger participants will find very practical insight that comes from this study.

At Wilder Research we work directly with hundreds of organizations each year. I’m proud of the talents that my nonprofit colleagues in these organizations bring to their work. I’m inspired by their devotion to mission and by their willingness to do everything they can to improve our lives and make our communities better places to inhabit. I’m impressed by their uncompromising dedication in the face of so many challenges which could put their agencies out of business. So, I’m glad we could partner with MAP for Nonprofits to complete this study, to assist all nonprofits to recognize and act on options available for them to continue to serve us well.