‘Doughnut’ thinking for NFPs

This post looks beyond the ‘donut’ chart and geometric descriptions of toroidal shapes to reflect on three doughnut metaphors. These are drawn from philosophy, economics, and organisational design with a view to offering insights applicable to nonprofit governance.

Doughnut topology

A toroidal shape, also known as a torus (‘tori’ is the plural), is a three-dimensional geometric object that resembles a doughnut or ring. It has the following topology:

  • Circular Cross-Section: this means that if you were to cut it along its central axis, you would see a circular shape.
  • Central Hole: this void is often referred to as the “ring” or “doughnut hole”. Its size can vary in relation to the overall size of the torus.
  • Continuous Surface: the surface curves around both the inside and outside of the central hole.
  • Rotational Symmetry: you can rotate it around its central axis, and it will look the same from various angles.

See also https://wiki2.org/en/Torus

Doughnut metaphors

The doughnut metaphors mentioned here are somewhat loose, in that the charts offered in support of the model or theory being promoted might more accurately be described as target charts (see illustration below). Rather than the central hole being an empty space, they tend to place substantive core content in the area normally reserved for a void.

Most of us probably only use donut charts as an alternative format for a pie chart. Target charts allow for nested data to be presented in an alternative format. Simon Sinek’s ‘Start with Why‘ chart is perhaps the best-known example of this.

Other toroidal shapes that could be used as readily as doughnuts include inner tubes, o-rings, bagels, and flotation rings. We might surmise that the doughnut offers a sweeter, more appealing, metaphor than the other options.

Originally a small round lump of dough fried in lard, the doughnut is thought to have acquired its hole when bakers realised that could bake them faster by increasing the surface area exposed to the hot lard or oil. They may also have recognised that more cinnamon, sugar, or icing could be applied, and so increase the popularity of the product (while simultaneously increasing dental decay and obesity of course).

The alternative spelling of ‘donut’ is dated to about 1870 in the US, although a ‘donnut‘ was described as ‘a pancake made of dough instead of batter‘ in 1848 (Source: Etymonline).

Doughnut philosophy

In his 2001 paper “Doughnuts,” Achille C. Varzi from the Department of Philosophy at Columbia University explored the philosophical aspects of holes and their relationship with the objects that contain them. His paper challenged the traditional view that holes are mere figures of speech. He advocated for taking holes seriously as entities with their own properties, and significant roles in spatial (and I suggest, metaphoric) structures.

Traditionally, when someone says, “There is a hole in my doughnut,” it’s interpreted as “My doughnut is perforated.” This aligns with a viewpoint that holes are insubstantial, and should not therefore be reified or considered as actual entities.

Varzi proposes an alternative viewpoint arguing that holes, just like material objects, have a significant role to play in our understanding of spatial structures. This view recognises the complexity of the relationship between holes and their hosts, between void and matter (much like the artist’s figure and ground). He emphasises the importance of treating holes as fully-fledged entities and exploring their properties and topological characteristics.

He also points out that while topology can provide a framework for understanding holes, there are instances where topology alone may not suffice, and explicit reference to holes becomes necessary. Varzi demonstrates that looking at the surface topology of the hole can yield a better understanding of the holes themselves, and make distinctions that the topology of the object’s surface might miss. (Is a doughnut without a hole really a doughnut?)

See also https://www.openculture.com/2015/08/philosophy-explained-with-donuts.html

The header image above uses a light-hearted response to the Optimist’s Creed – much beloved by doughnut/donut marketers across the globe – to propose a more (w)holistic approach in which the doughnut and the hole are recognised as equally significant.

See also https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2015/12/15/doughnut-holes/

Popular culture also offers us donut humour, especially via Homer Simpson – e.g. “Hmmm, tori!“.

Doughnut Economics

Kate Raworth‘s 2014 book “Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist,” offers an alternative economic framework that focuses on environmental sustainability and social equity.

In this model, the doughnut-shaped diagram illustrates a safe and just space for humanity, where the inner circle represents essential social and environmental needs (such as food, water, health, and education), and the outer circle signifies planetary boundaries (like climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution). Raworth argues that economic policies should aim to keep humanity within this “doughnut” by avoiding both social shortfalls and ecological overshoot.

The model calls for rethinking economic growth and development to ensure well-being for all while staying within planetary boundaries. See also https://doughnuteconomics.org/about-doughnut-economics

In her book, Raworth outlines seven key principles for reshaping economic thinking to better address the challenges of the 21st century. These principles offer a framework for reimagining and redesigning economics in a way that addresses contemporary challenges, including environmental degradation, social inequality, and the well-being of all members of society. This approach promotes a more balanced, impactful, and sustainable vision of economic development for the 21st century.

You may wish to consider whether your nonprofit organisation would benefit from applying Raworth’s seven principles to reimagine and redesign your organisational economics:

  1. Change the Goal: Shift the primary focus from maximising financial resources to ensuring social well-being and sustainable impact. Instead of measuring success solely by fundraising and financial growth, set goals that prioritise the well-being and positive outcomes of the communities and causes you serve.
  2. See the Big Picture: Embrace a holistic perspective by understanding the interconnectedness of your nonprofit’s mission with broader societal and environmental issues. Recognize that your organization operates within a larger ecosystem of stakeholders, and consider the wider implications of your actions and initiatives.
  3. Nurture Human Nature: Acknowledge the diverse and multifaceted nature of your staff, volunteers, and beneficiaries. Incorporate insights from psychology and sociology to create a supportive and inclusive culture that values the well-being and potential of all individuals involved.
  4. Get Savvy with Systems: Apply systems thinking to better understand the dynamics of your nonprofit. Consider how feedback loops, partnerships, and programmatic interactions affect your outcomes. Use this knowledge to make informed decisions and develop more effective strategies.
  5. Design to Distribute: Focus on creating equitable systems for resource allocation within your organisation. Ensure that the benefits of your programs and services are distributed fairly among your target populations. Address issues of inclusivity and accessibility to reach a broader audience.
  6. Create to Regenerate: Embrace regenerative practices by considering how your organisation can positively impact the communities and environments it serves. Implement sustainable and circular economic models within your programs, such as recycling, upcycling, and social impact initiatives that contribute to the regeneration of resources.
  7. Be Agnostic about Growth: Challenge the assumption that nonprofit success is solely measured by the expansion of programs or fundraising. Instead, focus on the quality and impact of your work. Be open to different ways of achieving your mission, which may not always involve rapid growth but can lead to more significant and lasting positive change.

Handy’s Doughnut Principle

Charles Handy‘s “Doughnut Principle” is a concept that explores the proposition that organisations should focus on their core responsibilities, exercise judgment and creativity in the discretionary zone, and avoid taking on responsibilities that are not central to their mission and purpose. This concept encourages a clear and focused approach to organisational responsibilities. Handy introduced this concept in his book “The Age of Unreason,” (Harvard Business Review Press, 1991).

Handy’s Doughnut Principle describes organisational functions in one of three ways:

  1. Hole: The core (hole) represents the central and essential functions of an organisation. These are the activities that are crucial to the organisation’s mission and success. In a for-profit context, the core typically includes activities directly related to the production of goods or services, as well as strategic decision-making. (Note: Interestingly, Handy appears to align with Varzi here).
  2. Doughnut: The doughnut itself represents goals and activities about which discretion or judgment must be exercised. These activities are non-core, But they are supportive of the core, or helpful adjuncts to it. These functions can include support services, administrative tasks, and other non-core activities.
  3. Periphery: The periphery describes activities that are neither core functions, nor supportive of your purposes, and so they are outside the scope that should be addressed within the organisation’s operations.

Key implications for nonprofits

  1. Focus on Mission: Nonprofit organisations should prioritise and invest in their core functions, which are directly aligned with their mission. The core functions in a nonprofit context might include program delivery, fundraising, and community engagement. It’s essential to concentrate resources and efforts on these areas to achieve the organisation’s goals effectively.
  2. Efficient Resource Allocation: Nonprofits often operate with limited resources, so it’s crucial to allocate resources wisely. The Doughnut Principle suggests that nonprofit organisations should assess their ‘doughnut’ ‘and peripheral activities, and eliminate or streamline those that do not directly contribute to their mission. This can free up resources and reduce inefficiencies.
  3. Strategic Partnerships: Nonprofits can benefit from forming strategic partnerships with other organisations to handle ‘doughnut’ activities more effectively. For example, collaborating with another nonprofit or outsourcing certain administrative tasks can help reduce costs and free up resources for core activities.
  4. Adaptability and Innovation: The Doughnut Principle also underscores the importance of adaptability and innovation. Nonprofits should be flexible in responding to changing circumstances and be open to innovation in both core and ‘doughnut’ functions. This adaptability is especially important in an ever-changing environment, where nonprofits need to stay relevant and effective.
  5. Sustainability: The Doughnut Principle encourages nonprofits to focus on sustainability. By ensuring that core functions are well-supported and that ‘doughnut’ activities are efficient, nonprofits can better sustain their operations and achieve long-term impact.
  6. Donor and Stakeholder Communication: Nonprofits should communicate clearly with their donors and stakeholders about how their contributions are being used to support core functions and the impact they are achieving. Demonstrating a strong focus on core activities can help build trust and support from donors and the community.

See also:

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