To improve the charity sector focus on the weak links

Changing an entire sector is a coordination challenge. How do you get enough people doing the right stuff to make a difference?

Improving the charity sector, either a particular aspect of it, or the entire sector, requires less focus on the high profile charities and well-known people, and instead more focus on the people who aren’t even aware of the charity sector and on the organisations that don’t engage with other organisations in the sector. These are the people and organisations where even small changes can have large impacts.

How strong is the sector?

In 1983, Jack Hirshleifer, an American economist, introduced the concept of ‘weak links’ with the analogy of a low lying island that is protected from flooding through a network of interconnected dikes. Each person on the island decides how strong a dike to build on their land, yet the island will be flooded if the weakest dike breaks (Hirshleifer, 1983). Hirshleifer’s point was that isn’t the average or total contribution of each person that protects the island but the minimum contribution (Gillet et al, 2009).

The charity sector is a weak link environment, just like that island. The strength of the protections it builds for society and the environment against inequalities and destruction are not the average of all the efforts of the sector, they are only as strong as the weakest part of that defense. The world only gets better if it gets better for everyone.

If it were a strong link environment then all beneficiaries would benefit from the success of the biggest and most successful charities, but of course they don’t. The young man in Southampton who needs support to tackle his drug addiction only benefits from the success of those charities that support him.

Because the charity sector lacks any strong coordination mechanisms (Riedl, 2011), and because it’s success in/for society is dependent on the minimum contribution, we can apply the lessons of game theory and what it tells us about weak links to improving the sector. If we accept the charity sector is a weak link environment, then we have to ask, who are the weak links?

Who are these people?

Is membership of the charity sector through self-identification? If you work in HR and identify with the role of a HR professional (the closest circle to the individual) then which sector you work in is almost irrelevant to you, you can work in the charity sector or the hospitality sector. If you identify with working for a particular organisation, or even particular cause, but you don’t self-identify as part of the charity sector because your awareness only doesn’t extend that far, then should you be counted as a member of the charity sector? But if you self-identify with the sector (as I obviously do, writing a blog post about it), then you most definitely consider yourself part of the charity sector.

Concentric circles showing where people identify

I would suggest (counter to perhaps what the diagram looks like it might suggest) that there are far more people who work in the charity sector than those who self-identify as working in the charity sector. All those residential support workers who do amazing work supporting young people with autism. All those finance analysts and gardeners and developers and cleaners. We could (and should if we are being inclusive) consider all of these people as part of the charity sector, even if they don’t themselves.

So, the best way to improve the charity sector, for everyone who is part of it, is to make lots small improvements for the majority, for all those people who don’t take any notice of the sector and all those charities that just get on with providing services for people. This is where the minimum contribution occurs. This is where the strengthening is most needed. This is where we should focus our efforts for improving the sector. Making improvements for the small minority of visible people and organisations might look like it’s improving things, but if it doesn’t improve things for everyone, then is it really an improvement?

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Joris Gillet, Edward Cartwright, Mark Van Vugt. 2009. Leadership in a Weak-Link Game. School of Economics Discussion Papers. University of Kent.

Jack Hirshleifer. 1983. From weakest-link to best-shot: The voluntary provision of public goods. Public Choice, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, The Hague.

Arno Riedl, Ingrid M.T. Rohde, Martin Strobel. March, 2011. Efficient coordination in weakest-link games. Department of Economics, Maastricht University.

Dun Han and Xiang Li. 2019. How the weak and strong links affect the evolution of prisonerʼs dilemma game. New Journal of Physics.

Joel E. Cohen. 1998. Cooperation and self-interest: Pareto-inefficiency of Nash equilibria in finite random games. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.