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Tinkering in an Age of Efficiency: KaBOOM! and Its Unique Philosophy

by Deborah Philips, MBA ‘14 (4/24/13)
Deborah Philips, MBA ‘14

A group of SGE immersion students learn what it means to lead a sustainable organization with innovative thinking.

The concept of treks is often mystifying to my family and friends.  I explain it as a “field trips for adults, where we visit companies that work on sustainability.” Yet I know that explanation falls short, and our recent visit to KaBOOM! illustrates that a trek is so much more than a mere field trip for grown-ups.       

KaBOOM!During the SGE immersion trek to Washington D.C., the class visited a group of companies that placed emphasis on sustainability in constructing their business models. Among the host of companies, KaBOOM! was one of the most memorable. The exciting work environment, the unique management philosophy of the founder Darrell Hammond, and a host of other factors have shaped KaBOOM! into what The NonProfit Times describes as one of the best nonprofits to work for.

KaBOOM! is a nonprofit social enterprise with the mission of helping communities build playgrounds. It’s a rigorously creative organization founded over 15 years ago by Darrell Hammond. KaBOOM! is a unique business model among nonprofits: it generates an estimated 95% of its revenue from earned income. Although financially successful, KaBOOM! nevertheless values its work  with the community more than its financial success. 

A conversation with the founder Darrell Hammond yielded keen insights in managing an organization that constantly makes inciting innovations.

Mark at KaBOOM!Hammond believes that the future will be built by tinkerers. Hammond spoke about creativity as being a combination of ideation and iteration. He drew a contrast between the speedy computer genius who can write new codes at an astonishing pace, and the tinkerer who sits down for extensive hours figuring out how things work. As we look for the next innovative solution to solve the evolving problems we face, we need tinkerers: people who will take things apart and figure out how they work; who will play and try different solutions to fix what’s broken or improve the product.  

When it comes to conflict resolution, Hammond says that the organization continues to look for innovative solutions. A question was posed regarding where Hammond draws the line when taking on corporate partners whose core business may be at odds with KaBOOM!’s values. For instance, part of the concern for a playground initiative program like KaBOOM! is that childhood obesity is approaching epidemic levels. The rise in consumption of fast food, sugary sodas, and unhealthy snack foods is often blamed for this.  However, the producers of these products may also make attractive business partners. Hammond’s response to this dilemma was that the national debate over obesity has focused on only half of the equation: if we ensure children are getting enough exercise (play), then we would not need to count their calories. Hammond says that in the context of potential conflict, it is important to find the root of that problem. If KaBOOM! and its corporate partners can agree on the importance of children’s health and the need to drive change, then together they can identify how to reach those goals.

KaBOOM! Group

As for the topic of organizational structure, Hammond said that, “culture is how and why you do what you do when no one is looking.” He then gave some compelling examples demonstrating this philosophy, cases where decisions were made even when the sacrifices made in the name of community as a result of that decision may not be so transparent to those outside the organization. It was clear that this faith and devotion to work was what earned them trust among their clients, loyalty among their staff and buy-in from the communities in which they work.