The greatest learning gift: being at ease with complexity

This year has gone and one of the richest experiences it brought along was the first edition of the course Nonprofits & Philanthropy. A class of 43 students, aged 20-22, from 14 countries, 5 continents: a global course, indeed. The first lecture starts with a slide titled “The nonprofit sector” and the Big Question suddenly strikes them: does such a thing exist?

The Museum of Modern Arts (MOMA) of New York is a nonprofit, as well as the social kitchen here around the corner which offers on average 3500 meals a day, Bocconi University and Amnesty International are nonprofits, like the Caritas Internationalis of the Catholic Church and global web movements such as Avaaz, the Rockefeller Foundation and most of the gyms and tennis courts around the city.

Moreover, we know that “public” and “private” boundaries can shift over time, space and sector. Public hospitals privatize, lyric theatres become foundations, commercial activities are run by nonprofits to cover part of their resource need, GONGOs and quangos exist in many countries, as many other “blurry” examples which make it hard to classify things which, actually, hold more elements of differentiation than of similarity.

Things get even more complicated when these boundaries shift over cultures and societies. Mentioning the concept of “philanthropy” to North-American students or to African students have different implications, when the former immediately think at Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and their megaphilanthropies, and the latter think at a rooted solidarity system which very often is not institutionalized.

How to deal with this complexity? Some students in class argued that it is an illusion to say that definitions help. Whether you define a nonprofit organization through a legal approach (your organization is a nonprofit if it falls under a category defined by law), or through a functional approach (your organization is a nonprofit if it demonstrates to respond to specific functions or respond to specific needs) you are not safe: once you have peacefully reached a conclusion of what is “in” and what is “out” the sector, exceptions start flourishing.

Universities have paved the way to attempt classifications and definitions of the nonprofit sector, with a global breadth even 20 years ago. Scholars, think tanks and networks try to collect (and manage!) comparative data on the nonprofit sector and philanthropy – either to monitor global giving in terms of numbers or across different contexts, or to monitor political barriers and incentives to foster philanthropy and civil society around the globe. These sources – and many others – are priceless to show the effort in collecting data of such a diverse and vast sector as the one we call “nonprofit”.

The complexity of this fast moving sector is not at all unique. Several disciplines, especially in the broad field of social sciences, share the same, constant need of updating, including, excluding, exploring, defining, categorizing, conceptualizing, as it is typical in developing fields of knowledge. What I learned from students is that the best way to leave them satisfied, within this complexity, is not to stress boundaries, but rather to acknowledge and nurture this continuous need of searching and comparing, exploring and discussing with peers of different countries. What I learned from students is that dealing with complexity is much more than a learning goal decided and imposed from the teacher or the programme, but a desire, a need coming directly from those who face this complexity every day in their truly global classes.

Welcome to a new generation of future managers, who are used – much more than us, millennials of the first years – to deal with complexity and to feel at ease.