Inverting the Hierarchy

The relationship between funders, not-for-profit organisations and the people and communities served tends to look like this:

 FUNDERS (government and non-government)…

decide funding (which, when and how much) for:


decide services (to whom, when and how much) for:


In other words we have something of a hierarchy. I am part of this hierarchy wearing all my different hats, and what I see is that funders and not-for-profit organisations almost always have a genuine concern for making a positive impact, and often go to some lengths to understand and measure this.  However, one of the key unintended consequences of this hierarchy is that people and communities can then be seen as simply the end point of the system. We call them “consumers”, “patients” and “service users”; we see statistics rather than people. At its very worst, there is a subconscious desire for people to stay “in need” as this justifies the existence of our professions and organisations – something I once heard described as “an industry built on the back of other people’s disadvantage”.

What if we inverted this hierarchy to this:


and, when required, drawing specialist support from:


when required draw financial resources from:

FUNDERS (government and non-government).

 Under an inverted hierarchy we would perhaps have less need for services and for funders, as we would be more likely to look after ourselves and each other. And in fact initiatives like Whanau Ora and Community-led Development aim to do just this.

How well are they working? What other models are there? And what would it take to invert the hierarchy more often?

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  1. Thanks Kate.

    I like the inverted hierarchy proposal. Community-Led Development (not the DIA version) and traditional community development are the closest to what I think you’re talking about.

    Whānau Ora in my experience (as a member of a Whānau Ora Regional Leadership Group, advisor for whānau/hapū interested in accessing WO support and as a passive observer) is that the whole initiative had good theory underpinning it but got bureaucratised like every other government initiative. The WO version 2 doesn’t look like it will be much different – TPK taking a massive slice (millions) off the top of what was allocated even though they’re supposed to be taken out of the picture, then the NGOs managing the new look Whānau Ora are taking their millions for administering it and no doubt a fraction will trickle down to other NGOs and then to whānau who will have plenty of compliance still as the Public Finance Act and typical scrutiny of public funds require a high degree of accountability and low risk spending.

    I’d like to learn more about the UK Localism Act 2011 to see how that is operating as it appears to have attempted to give more power to communities to set their priorities for central and local government spending. I like the idea of neighbourhoods/villages/hapū accessing public and private resources to support their development where necessary as individuals and nuclear families/whānau are not the right place for those finances to go in my opinion – that can entrench social isolation whereas collective responsibility for managing externally sourced finances seems to be a better mechanism for developing stronger social capital and mutual aid that builds resilience and connectedness to other people and that place – in turn reducing the transience and mobility our society has encouraged which ultimately is to all our detriment I think (I need to firm up my opposition to ease of mobility but haven’t done that thinking yet!).

    Anyway, these are just my initial responses to your piece – thanks for sharing. 🙂

  2. Thanks Kate … ( and Manu).
    By inverting the dominant approach to ‘helping’ people you raise a significant number of creative possibilities. You are asking some powerful questions – this is exciting. My hunch is that the shifts in ‘mind sets’ that these will trigger will not simply be an inversion of the dominant approach. This is unlikely to actually result in any real change …. just a binary ‘switching’ process. Moving to more effective solutions will involve ‘co’ responses from many perspectives / players. How we listen / weave / hold these multiple perspectives into a coherent direction / response is likely to be key. At times I think – wow – this will be hard … be then I need I realise that is how Nature functions all the time. It is also what people / whanau / communities do every day.

  3. I could’t agree more – basically this represents the difference between an enabling approach and a directive one – and asks the question of how to decouple resource from power!? (which Manu points out is not straight forward!)

    A capability building approach that enables experimentation, empowerment and innovation will likely get better and enduring results – particularly when working in a context of complex social and community development – but funders have to become less focused on predetermining outcomes, and more committed to providing efficient, effective, and enabling infrastructure.

  4. I see some challenges here. I agree however with Alex’s call for funders to be more “committed to providing efficient, effective, and enabling infrastructure”.

    But simply inverting the hierarchy without nuance would be a bit like razing a city to build again. (Not that you’re actually advocating that). The piggy in the middle is the community organisation/N-F-P, which usually has a fixed cost associated with its existence (basic overheads and staffing). if we had:
    PEOPLE AND COMMUNITIES HELPING THEMSELVES AND EACH OTHER… , people and communities might be limited in being able to draw support and resources from the community organisation, because such entities can’t just hang around until they’re asked to dance. What would likely happen is simply that community organisations/N-F-P would die off, but come back into being as ephemeral creatures, as particular community initiatives rose up and died down. This would likely result in a lower level of activity than at present, or simply the rise of ‘consultants’ with laptops – dynamic, sure, but hardly the way to get transformational change for thriving communities.
    That said, there is definite merit in acknowledging the hierarchy and looking at how it can be challenged.
    One of the things the N-F-P middle tier can potentially do, and something that would be particularly valuable, is explicitly focus economic activity on delivering social and environmental outcomes, and make the case WHY this is important. Because if we are to have thriving communities, we have to move social enterprise into the mainstream, and actually transform our economic system to recognise the wellbeing created by the N-F-P sector and work to build “wellbeing economics” (great read from Paul Dalziel and Caroline Saunders).

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