For community benefit organizations, does form always follow function?

For community benefit organizations, does form always follow function?

Posted on July 31, 2013 by Pam Truitt

Form follows function. -  Louis Sullivan

I’ve heard this phrase for so long that I say it without thinking. And, until recently, I’ve always associated it with the design world—how the ‘space’ is used will determined what it looks like. For grins, go to and type-in ‘form follows function’. The first few images remind me of The Jetsons! The thinking, however, is all about streamlining.

Lately, however, I’ve been applying this principle to business models.

I recently met with four community benefit organizations experiencing similar symptoms: overlapping (and tired) board members, unable to scale or leverage, shrinking memberships and declining revenues. Volunteers are frustrated and it seemed to me like lots of folks are just spinning their wheels.

This was my first meeting with them, and it was important for each organization to help me understand who/what/when/where/how. At one point, one gentleman said, “All these groups need to merge." I asked the group if a merger would help accomplish their individual missions. Would they be able to blend their talents from four to one? Would a singular organization provide flexibility for growth and change? And what about their cultures--how would they adapt? The collective reply was, “We don’t know.”

Form follows function - that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union. Frank Lloyd Wright

Design buffs already know that Louis Sullivan mentored Frank Lloyd Wright. No surprise then, when Wright modified Sullivan’s famous line. And in my humble opinion, rightly so.

The four organizations are talking about their future and asking themselves—

What can we do together than we can’t do alone?

Where do we have common challenges and opportunities?

What would community reaction be to a different approach?

What will we look like?

How can we streamline our operations so that we can produce better programs?

What are your thoughts? Does form follow function….or are they created together?

  • Learn about these and other concepts used in TPF's approach to philanthropy.


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