An earlier version of this essay was first posted to Philanthropy Northwest.
Paul Schmitz’s recent essay makes a strong case that “collective impact efforts must be as rigorous about culture as they are about data and strategy.” His five recommended practices—collaboration; inclusion; community engagement, continuous learning; integrity—all seem related to my observation that conversation is the missing secret sauce in forging community-based sustainable change.
Collective impact efforts risk being saddled with the unexamined baggage of much of our current institutional giving. Philanthropy can be so hidebound, risk-averse and endless meeting-oriented because it has largely forgotten the step of conversation that is essential to the dance of informed forward motion.
Before I sing the praises of conversation, I want to recognize how the professionalization of the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors over recent decades has brought a welcome shift towards evidence-based accountability. Thanks to our more rigorous use of data, we know better what to stop doing, when to switch strategy and when to double-down. But somewhere along the way, we have lost our ability to listen and align because our emphasis on what’s measurable has caused us to slight the dialogue and shared sense-making that are essential to sustainable community. Building and maintaining trusted relationships and networks across difference are not “nice things to do” – they are common sense and glue, the user testing and iterative calibration essential but too often missing from the shiny new initiatives philanthropy engineers without enough front-line input and then too often implements without reality-checks from the target communities.
I have been exploring a concept that caused a wide swath of “creative disruption” in my world view. While I was copacetic with philanthropy moving from “doing to” → “doing with,” I was shaken by my resistance to the notion that the next evolution in giving might be “doing with” → “doing as.” How might this shift in mindset to shoulder-to-shoulder collaboration change the longstanding power dynamic inherent in “giver” and “grantee”? If we were to view ourselves as community members all working towards a common goal, what would become of the reductionist “othering” we often use to railroad a way forward in complex systems? I began asking groups I was working with — especially funder collaboratives — what “doing as” could mean to them and why it might be a useful distinction.
“Doing as” reflects both the increased intimacy and ownership collective action promises. Parker Palmer, the noted educator, speaks of how groups that have fluency with their own identity—the “who” and “why” of their shared cause—can iterate and prototype more deftly than groups that are only comfortable functioning at the level of action — the “how” and the “what.” We have all been in too many meetings that degenerate into pissing matches of opinion because we haven’t taken the time to clearly articulate a common ground of shared beliefs, tone and approach. In a recent retreat discussion with a group that had been meeting for six months in a county-wide collaboration to reduce poverty, five of the eleven leaders present spoke for the first time of how they had grown up in or experienced poverty as an adult, acknowledging that this experiential expertise meant they were “doing as” and well as “doing with.” This is the kind of foundational information that meetings rarely elicit, but conversation can reveal, building authentic trust and leveraging difference in pursuit of the common good.
I hope that building our muscle and facility for conversation will help us correct our inclination in philanthropy to privilege experts and forecasted results over on-the-ground community knowledge and the real-time course-correction any project unearths with implementation. We can’t build stronger communities without finding new ways to include and unleash innovation and ownership from the entire system—bottom up, fringe in, center out— especially as the increasing stratification of our society exacerbates this tendency to create needy “others” to be done to instead of “neighbors” to be done with and as. Innovation and game-changers often spring from co-sensing and co-creating — the loose connections and unlikely bedfellows of conversation.
One next step would be to risk starting your next meeting with an aligning soupcon of conversation, perhaps a go-round of participants with an open-ended question like the following:
- What season are we in? Does everyone agree whether we’re planting or harvesting?
- What would ensure our failure? Think of this as a pre-mortem inquiry, a way to playfully tease out the biggest threats to a shared enterprise
- Heresy hoe down Invite in a little creative disruption by asking those around the table to skewer one piece of conventional wisdom or orthodoxy they no longer believe in
- Blind faith bets Invite in risk pursuit by encouraging participants to champion those things in which they have beyond-rational belief or would double-down on investing in based on trusting their gut sense.