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  • Melinda Steffy

Horticultural vs. Mechanical

Ecosystem-thinking is one of Concentric's central frameworks.

Every organization has mechanical systems. Your CRM database. Your bookkeeping. The spreadsheet you use to track participant attendance or demographics. The process you use to record grants.

These are all things that are linear, logical, step-by-step. A new employee can easily step in and keep the machine running. If there’s a problem, usually it’s easy to diagnose, either the result of user error or an issue within the system itself. You could share your machine with someone at another organization, and they’d be able to replicate what you do. Mechanical systems provide stability and consistency over time.

But so much of nonprofit work — or any work that prioritizes people — is primarily horticultural. You’re dealing with ecosystems that are complex and subject to forces beyond your control.

A plant that grows beautifully in your yard may not do so well in your neighbor’s yard, because the light and soil and nutrients and pests are different. A new plant requires different care than an established plant. Tending one plant requires you to think about what’s happening in the whole garden. You might learn best practices from other gardeners, understand the basic science, but ultimately, you have to respond instinctively to what’s happening in front of you, in your own unique space.

The factors that inhibit human beings’ ability to thrive have deep roots in history and social constructs and real-life events. Responding to that requires hard labor, digging through a lot of muck, intentionally working to identify and eliminate toxins.

Nonprofit work is biodiversity, y’all. No monocultures here. We need staff and leaders who reflect diverse perspectives and experiences. We need funding sources from multiple sectors. We need to link up with other organizations to build a robust network. We need to look for unhealthy areas and re-design our gardens for maximum ecosystem health.

Our work is always changing. Sunshine and rainstorms, one year hotter than the next.

But the results are beautiful.

Plants are growing out of planters made from old tires and oil jugs, installed on the side of a building wall.


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