Suzanne Julian is a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in Public Administration. She is currently working with the STEP leadership team in Pamlico County as part of the Carolina Economic Revitalization Corps program.
Archbishop Helder Pessoa Camara of Brazil is purported to have said, “When I fed the poor, they called me a saint. When I asked, ‘Why are they poor?’ they called me a Communist.” Leaving the political label aside, the work of public servants puts us face to face with a similar dilemma: given limited resources and persistent, urgent problems, what do we do? How should we divide our resources between addressing the source of a problem and addressing its symptoms?
I’ve been thinking about these issues this week from the perspective of a grant-seeker, as I search for funding resources for Pamlico County. I’m finding, as many of you probably have, that it isn’t easy to find funding for programs that merely address symptoms. Hungry people need food, underfunded agencies need staff members, old sewer systems need repairs or expansion. These needs are persistent and predictable; there’s something unsexy about them. And grant-makers’ reluctance to put money into solving the same old problems year after year is understandable. It makes sense to try to broaden the impact of your contribution as much as possible by applying a lasting solution, rather than a Band-Aid. Yet in the meantime, we need short-term solutions also. As public servants, we are charged with a tough task: doing something about those immediate, persistent problems, while simultaneously working towards correcting the systematic failings that cause them in the first place.
The symptom-versus-system dilemma overlaps with a related one: innovative answers versus well-known solutions. Many funders—both foundations and governments—are interested in funding new and innovative programs. Surely it’s important to spur innovation by rewarding new and clever ideas, and by nurturing creative and promising solutions. But what’s the proper balance between the innovative and the routine? Grantmakers are often focused on “new” and the “innovative.” What about plain old “necessary”? What about the situations where we know what works, but it’s expensive? Is there room for both?
The issue that’s been illustrating this tension for me lately is wastewater funding. Pamlico County faces what will be a familiar situation to many readers: an old and problematic wastewater treatment system. Development and growth are limited by the capacity of the sewer system. Installing a new, larger, technologically up-to-date system that served a large area would boost economic development in the region—or would at least remove one of the impediments to it. But large-scale sewer systems are expensive. In a county positioned at the beginning rather than the peak of its economic development, where many individual families and businesses struggle by on thin margins, who’s going to pay for a brand-new sewer system?
There is funding for wastewater infrastructure out there—but it’s limited,and it’s more frequently in the form of loans than grants. I can’t blame the grantmakers for not being too terribly interested in straightforward wastewater system construction. Grantors want their money to have effects beyond the gift itself. They want to leverage their contribution in some way so that their funds build capacity, or boost the “triple bottom line” or generate large-scale momentum towards a given solution. They like new and promising solutions to old, entrenched problems. Sure! Who doesn’t? But sometimes we need to keep the old solutions around, too. We often need to provide sustained funding of processes that are not necessarily ground-breaking but that work.
These dilemmas, like the social challenges they represent, are not going away anytime soon. The question is salient for anyone involved in deciding how to distribute resources, from foundations and individual donors to social-service agencies, non-profits, and governments. Do we invest in what’s new, daring, ambitious, and system-changing? Or do we tend to immediate, daily, persistent, and symptomatic needs? I suppose the answer is, unsurprisingly, that we pick some place in between and make the best effort we can. We try, uneasily, to do both.