The Thermodynamics of Philanthropy

My father is a pharmacist by profession, but a "mad scientist" by hobby.  When I was a little girl our father-daughter bonding consisted of kitchen science, plant picking and bug dissecting.  You can imagine, much to his dismay when I didn’t do well in math or science, thereby not leading to a profession in the medical world.  But what these father-daughter moments did do was provide me with a healthy sense of curiosity and critical thought.

As my career began to flourish and I launched Dexterity Consulting, I started asking questions around the philanthropic trajectory.  One question was pretty basic – is there a scientific equation that can be applied to the motivations of giving and community building?  This question is what led to the creation of the matching algorithm that is in the back-end of Place2Give.  Think the e-Harmony of charities… but I didn’t want to stop there. So what if we can match donors – how does this actually translate into strengthening the sector and building communities?

The next question I asked was around energy.  It takes energy to create things.  If philanthropy is a tool for building communities then perhaps it can be seen as an energy equation.  I started with researching basic concepts around inertia, entropy, and energy creation (btw – energy isn’t created… it just is manipulated… one of the many things that I learned).

Inertia is what makes an object stay in motion and other objects stay still.  Put into social systems terms, inertia could be an analogy for why/how some organizations can keep existing long after their social issue has been addressed or their effectiveness has been outlived.  Inertia doesn’t explain how organizations get to a point of motion.  Enter the law of entropy and thermodynamics. (Check out this website on Social Entropy).

The main exported resource in Alberta, where I live, is energy.  It seems like a natural fit that I would us this for a source of guidance on this question.  Typically we think of energy as something tangible like fuel for our cars or wood for our fire pits; energy is actually a combination of things that, when put into a system, actually can change things in the physical space (what physicist call “work”).  Certain types of energy are better than other types because of the output (quality of “work”) that is generated. High quality energy allows us to use the output in multiple ways (think of all the different uses of natural gas or hydrogen power).

Breaking this energy concept down further – there’s Kinetic Energy which is generated by objects in motion; and Potential Energy which energy that is trapped in something.  In order to create an output from potential energy you have to “untap it.”  This is typically done by driving a force from Kinetic Energy into the object that holds the Potential Energy.

Phew – how does thermodynamics fit into this?

Thermodynamics is about the heat that is generated by the manipulation of energy.  There is always energy – the quality of that energy differs and changes as the source is used/manipulated.  The more energy is used, the more quality is degraded.

In applying these concepts to the creation of community systems – communities that have access to high quality energy are more sustainable and produce higher quality of “work”.  Communities that have limited access to high quality energy, or only have access to lower quality energy cannot be sustainable.  The output of the services, the attractiveness of top-notch employees and volunteers, the number of lives that can be supported will be limited to the quality of the energy that found within the system. 

Why is this important?

Your time, talent and treasures are an integral part of the energy system that makes up our communities.  If these resources are misaligned, misunderstood, under-valued or wasted the quality of the “work” generated is degraded.  As donors, the resources that you put into the community system, is like the catalyst that will generate the quality of “work” that is required to fulfill the mission/mandate of the organization and/or the issue that you are hoping to influence.  Understanding how your donation is being used within this system is critical to manage your expectations of the outcomes and impact that can be generated from your donation.