Unintended Consequences Mock our Best Efforts

The dog was just a puppy, and it came rocketing across the street with its tail down. The dog’s owner, rummaging in his garage, the door open, yells out to dog. It’s some kind of lab mix and it jumps up on us with joy. We are mindful of the traffic on the street, and corral the pup by its collar. The owner trots over and we pass the dog back to him.

“Is it a lab?” my wife asked.

“Some kind of mix,” he said. “I got him from a shelter. They don’t euthanize here, so we went down to Riverside where they do, and rescued him.”

My wife has volunteered for years at the local Humane Society, where they struggle to find owners for their orphaned pups and kittens. Their pledge to not euthanize was designed to reassure locals of a mutual responsibility to manage their pets. Unintentionally, the Humane Society has also “rescued” their charges from death, and by doing so has removed that action from the scope of the people who come in to find a pet.


The local blood bank in Santa Barbara ran as a non-profit organization for decades, as a vital partner in local health and medical services. One day it announced that it was selling its operation to a for-profit blood services organization that would help manage the blood supply with new organizational tools and greater funding for new technologies.

Within a month, the number of  blood donors to the blood bank fell to the point where it was in danger of failing both economically and in its roll to provide for the local demand. Soon after, the blood bank resumed its operation as a non- profit organization, and the volunteers returned.


A large, federal agency funded digital library effort struggled for years to achieve greater impact. During this time, the project was run by a funded core of organizations. They had originally drawn up a community governance plan, but this had never been implemented. A cadre of volunteers, people who shared the vision of the effort, soldiered on with committees and working groups, but nothing seemed to gel. The agency provided some additional funding for new work, and the project parceled out these funds to a handful of former volunteers. Almost immediately, the remaining volunteers stopped volunteering, and the entire effort was soon defunded. One might argue that it was not the presence of money, but the lack of community that doomed the project, however, the impact of money was immediate and damaging.


The presence of money can interrupt the work of a volunteer community in unintended ways. But these do not need to be unexpected. If money is made available, it needs to be managed by the volunteers (they need to have a say in the budget), and it needs to support their voluntary efforts, not pay them for the same work.

As for the unintended (perhaps even perverse)  impact of not euthanizing stray pets; instead of, say, holding mock executions to give people the joy of rescue, there might be opportunities to advertise the burden of maintaining these pets, and the need for them to have real homes.

Photo Credit: Stephen Poff on Flickr

Community, Democracy, and IT work


ANOTHER FAMILIAR SCENARIO: Those of you from the IT world recognize this room: PPT up the old wazoo. But then it’s over and the work plans that have been listed on slide 17-23 (if not 117-123) are slated to become deliverables. The listserves get busy, the telecons are scheduled. Perhaps your IT group tracks tasks on BaseCamp and pings you whenever someone else has completed something. But if your not in the critical path, you might not know what others are doing and what your next step is. You might be able to volunteer a couple hours this week, but how do you know where these are best spent?

There might be a couple hundred people like you in the virtual organization (VO) that surrounds this particular project. Some were brought in to advise, others because of a current interest. At the core, decisions are being made and money spent. But the whole idea was that this was more than a distributed project among a small group of  paid Co-PIs. Most of the room was excited about helping move this forward, looking at the outcome as their payback. The workshop cost the government agency $100k to put on, and spent up three person-years in a week.  It had the carbon footprint of a small town.

The feeling of engagement that many participants experienced at the meeting lasted a few days. The funded Co-PIs went back to work. The larger VO languished as everyone else’s calendar’s filled up. Opportunities to pull in the talent and skills of the larger community passed by and dried up.

This doesn’t have to happen.

What is the answer?

One answer is, of course, cash. Spread the funding around and more people pay attention. But that is rarely possible. Another answer is community: grow it, use it, let it manage the work. And give it just enough funding to help people work together.

Be warned: when you let the VO community run the project you invite a range of voices into the room. You have to deal with competing interests and conflicting priorities. The good news is that these interests and priorities were there hidden (more or less) all the time in the VO, so dealing with them is something you can now do and move on. Otherwise you face these same issues when the project of over. To succeed, the VO community will need some form of internal governance. Since you are working with IT professionals, you’d better treat them like peers.

Your peer-based VO community will demand something that looks a lot like a democracy. Do not be afraid. You know that’s not how business gets done. At least you think you know that. In VO communities, democratic governance paves the way for volunteer participation, for leadership, for constructive criticism, and for active attention to the goals of the project. Try getting things done without it.