Turning the tides on child drowning
Rebecca Wear Robinson
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Use Political Science to End Drowning.

by Rebecca Wear Robinson on January 9, 2013


What type of organization are you? The brilliant political scientist, James Q. Wilson, showed that, “all organizations share one essential trait: They must attract the resources necessary to achieve their goals and survive by offering incentives or inducements to join and support them.” What does this mean in simple language? You won’t survive unless you can attract people and money. Easier said than done. Let’s suppose that your focus is the prevention of drowning. Problem is, that’s a huge, complex and multi-layered focus. It’s sort of like a political party saying ‘we want everyone to be happy’. People are complex. Different things make them happy, so if ‘be happy’ was the only political party in the U.S., Congress would probably resemble the lions vs. underdogs games in the Roman Coliseum even more than it does now. It’s OK to have ‘drowning prevention’ be your overlying mission, but unless you are very specific on the type of organization you have and how you are going to specifically prevent drowning, you won’t have the focus necessary to attract and retain supporters and money.

What type of organization are you? There are three types of incentives – solidary (incentives that promote a feeling of solidarity, of ‘we’re all in this together), material (money or products), and purposive (having a higher purpose or ‘the vision thing’). Let’s look at what type of drowning prevention organizations might fall into each category. International Life Saving Federation is an example of solidary – an international organization that is working to bring everyone working on drowning prevention around one table, particularly at their biannual conference.  The National Drowning Prevention Alliance is another example.  Companies that manufacture life jackets, rescue equipment, fencing and pool alarms are the most obvious examples of offering material incentives. The final category is probably the largest, but also the most difficult to translate into a successful organization – purposive. This would include organizations that focus on teaching child water safety, pool safety, water safety information, culturally-specific programs, lifeguarding, surf life saving, etc. Why is ‘purposive’ so difficult? Because people are attracted to high ideals, but can be frustrated by real-life limitations and then leave the organization or withdraw financial support. The example James Q. Wilson gave was the Sierra Club – a broad vision of saving wildlife may require some pragmatic negotiating with ranchers, farmers and hunters, and that can leave the all-or-nothing folks feeling disillusioned. Same problem in drowning prevention. ‘Fence all pools/water’ just isn’t practical. Neither is ‘have a lifeguard at every beach 24/7’. I’m not saying give up on your goals, I’m saying, set them reasonably but to a level that still attracts people, and funding, to your organization, and be very specific.

It’s crucial be clear on what your goals if you want to be successful – and by successful I mean your organization is financially viable and you are attracting and retaining supporters. Drowning prevention is an incredibly complex issue, so there is plenty of room for every single organization out there – if each organization chooses a niche and focuses effectively. Take ending child drowning. Teaching water safety is different from swimming lessons, which is different from survival swimming, which is different from making backyard pools safe, which is different from bathtub safety, which is different from open water safety – all of which change based on the age and location of the children. Which aspect are you addressing and how focused is your plan?

Take a hard look at your organization. Are you trying to be too much? Are you aiming for solidary and purposive at the same time? If you are purposive are you clear on what your goals are and are you willing to be pragmatic in how you reach your goals or is it ‘my way or the highway’? If we are going to prevent drowning, we need all three of the types of organizations, but we need them to be operating at peak efficiency. Are you?

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