Drawing the Right Crowd to the Mission

Any organization draws a particular crowd. Companies that want strivers demand long hours. Restaurants that want a fancy atmosphere might require men to wear a jacket. Churches that want young parishioners hire young staff and trendy musicians.

A few ugly examples:

  1. Environments with high-trust access to children draw abusers.
  2. Churches that offer comfortable services and demand nothing attract and encourage shallow Christians.
  3. Markets for goods whose quality is hard to inspect—like snake oil and education—draw fraudsters.
  4. Private schools offering better-than-the-rest education with limited seats develop methods for rationing access that tend to exclude poor kids.

For a mission-driven organization, staying true to that mission over time can be hard. If the organization’s structure and policies tend to attract a different crowd than intended by the founders, focus is likely to shift over time. Policies outlast and overpower charismatic people.

People-focused nonprofit organizations with providers and clients must be mindful of both sides of the interactions they facilitate: they need ideologically-aligned providers and must effectively access their target community.

So how can a mission-driven organization shape which people it attracts? Rules and services should be chosen carefully to serve the organization’s goals. These are the push and pull factors which determine the type of people who will be able and interested to join. Some rules act mechanically to select a population – like background checks and income limits. Others rely on self-selection, targeting individuals for whom it’s easiest to comply with the rules or most valuable to receive the service.

Direct approaches to sorting people can be simpler to design but hard to enforce in practice. Criteria that can be faked – like illness certified by a doctor’s note – invite lying. In contrast, self-selection mechanisms are designed to draw out people’s true feelings and incentives. In the Bible, King Solomon was brought a baby by two women claiming to be the mother. The preferred direct approach today would be a DNA test, but all Solomon could do was ask – which obviously provoked lying. (A little like when immigration officials ask if you’ve ever participated in terrorism.) Instead, he proposed a policy that was absurd on its face but managed to self-select the true mother. He proposed the baby be cut in half if neither side would give up; the real mother reacted in horror – elegantly revealing who was faking.

Ideally, direct mechanical effects of a policy and its indirect self selection effect should support each other. For selective universities, requiring applicants to write essays allows them to mechanically choose good writers, but scares away many would-be applicants who are unwilling write an essay.

Self-selection works by drawing in those who have the easiest time meeting a requirement (or most value a benefit). Wise sages sat at the top of a mountain so that only those people with very important questions would seek out their counsel. Restaurants that require patrons to wear a suit jacket don’t care about the jacket per se, and many of the patrons would prefer to not to wear the jacket. But it’s a mechanism for the fancy patrons to isolate themselves from the riff-raff. It’s easier for a fancy person to wear a suit jacket to dinner than for somebody who normally does not wear formal clothing.

In some cases, either the mechanical effect or self-selection effect of a policy will dominate. One study looked at mandatory job training required for people who were claiming unemployment insurance for a long time. The job training indeed helped get people back to work – but only because more claimants found jobs before the mandatory classes started. In this case, the direct effect of the rule – teaching job skills – was swamped by the indirect self-selection effect of weeding out claimants who did not want to attend a class.

Jesus told his disciples, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore, be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” When designing any mission-driven organization, pick the rules and activities carefully. The balance of direct and indirect effects of policies must not only achieve the organization’s goals today. They must also attract true believers to the cause. Otherwise, the mission of the organization will drift over time.

Written on September 3, 2022