Updated: Apr 11, 2022
I hadn’t thought about thermodynamics since high school, probably, until I was turned on to the idea that those laws might have some applications to organizations as well. It started when I read this article about nonprofit governance in particular situations. The second law of thermodynamics (or the “Law of Increased Entropy”) recognizes that within a closed system, energy is used and decays over time. Inevitably, as energy becomes unusable, the system becomes more disorganized and chaotic.
I know of plenty of nonprofits that can be described that same way, but linking that to the openness of their system was revelatory. The authors of the article address nonprofits that are organized primarily to serve their own members – for example, faith communities and clubs. They maintain connection to the outside world for recruitment purposes but aren’t primarily accountable to external audiences. As a more closed system, the authors point out that they are subject to the same sort of decay – showing up as infighting and inefficiency.
I feel the analogy isn’t just applicable to that class of nonprofits, however. The less external input a nonprofit gets, the more focused it becomes on its own preservation as opposed to a wider social purpose, the more its energy spins out in ineffective ways.
I wondered if other laws of thermodynamics were applicable to nonprofit life as well, and did a quick refresher on the set. The first law states that in closed systems, the energy gained (or lost) by a system is equal to the energy lost (or gained) by its surroundings. My mind went to organizations where staff and leadership are exhausted after a bruising couple of years, fried by pouring all of their resources into surroundings with seemingly fathomless needs.
So how do we respond to these challenges? Luckily, unlike the universe, we don’t have to keep our organizational systems closed and can generate energy within them and add energy to them.
The authors of the article linked above propose that even organizations designed to serve their own membership deliberately include externals in their decision-making – imagine how people’s behavior in meetings might change even if they just knew they were being observed by people who had an outside perspective!
Nonprofits who have drifted towards a focus on themselves can refocus governance on results, with enlivening questions about what really matters (Hildy Gottlieb has great examples)
Organizations that are depleted by their service could experiment with re-imagining their role in relationship to the community, and seeing what energy new partnerships might generate.
It’s fruitless, as we’ve been reminded, to attempt to change the laws of physics – but the good news is that at least in an organizational context, we can benefit from the lessons without being trapped by them.