I’ve been on quite the adventure since I last reported on my journey toward life balance and greater impact five months ago. In a nutshell:
- My mentor passed away this past July. I was already in a reflective state, but Doug’s passing kicked it up a notch, and it reminded me why I’m doing what I’m doing.
- I completed a second pilot of Changemaker Bootcamp, and I felt ready to take it to the next level. That process turned out to be simultaneously discouraging and hopeful. It was discouraging in that I wasn’t able to get the enrollment I had hoped for. It was hopeful in that I think I understand why, I felt a tremendous amount of support from most of my peers, and I feel a renewed commitment to making this happen. I just started a third pilot this past week, and I have strong interest from a few organizations to do a cohort bootcamp for them.
- I started doing weekly checkins with my friend, Seb Paquet, which are about to evolve into a much larger experiment on new, networked ways of working. More on this soon.
- I’m launching a new website next week. More on this soon.
- I recently took on a consulting project.
Yes, that’s right, I’m consulting again. Up until last month, I had been very disciplined about turning down consulting opportunities, staying laser-focused on my own experiments. Then, two things magically aligned. First, I started actively seeking organizations interested in doing a cohort version of bootcamp. Second, Rick Reed of Garfield Foundation made me an offer I almost, but ultimately couldn’t refuse.
The philanthropic and nonprofit sectors are notoriously poor at collaborating. The problems are both cultural and structural, and they are particularly frustrating given the social mission of these sectors. I’ve mostly avoided these sectors — particularly philanthropy — because I think there are bigger leverages for change with less structural and cultural baggage, and I’d rather focus my energies there. However, I’ve obviously made exceptions.
In 2003, the Garfield Foundation launched an initiative that would eventually be called RE-AMP (“Renewable Energy Alignment Mapping Project”). The goal was to reduce global warming emissions across eight states in the Midwest, but the approach was markedly different from other initiatives in the sector.
Garfield spent several months convincing other organizations — both foundations and nonprofits alike — to sit at the table together as peers and to go through a strategic planning process together to see what they would learn. It was a long, arduous process with missteps along the way, but in the end, these organizations aligned around a common strategy. The collective strategy was different from what many organizations — including Garfield — had originally set out to do, and it required these organizations to take a long look in the mirror to see if they were truly committed to letting go of control and following what had emerged from the group.
More importantly, the group developed networked structures for working together. Rather than creating a new, centralized organization to manage processes and make decisions, they found ways to pool resources and build the capacity of existing organizations within the network.
This investment in network alignment and capacity has helped shut down a number of coal plants and resulted in many new clean energy regulations throughout the Midwest, results that would not have been possible without these organizations working in concert with each other.
Rick Reed, the initiator of this project, has his roots in sustainability activism, but his current mission is to change the way philanthropy works so that it is more collaborative. RE-AMP was a great success, and now he — along with his co-conspirator, Ruth Rominger — want to see if the model can work in other areas. Earlier this year, Garfield Foundation put out a call to find networks of nonprofits and foundations looking to solve complex problems together. For the next three years, Garfield wants to work side-by-side with one of these networks, providing both financial and knowledge resources, to help it achieve its goals.
I first met Rick a few years ago at a talk he and Heather McLeod Grant (who wrote a wonderful case study about RE-AMP) gave. Heather invited me to join Rick and Jennie Curtis, Garfield’s Executive Director, for dinner afterward. As it turned out, Rick was aware of some of my work, about which he had some kind and generous things to say.
When Garfield put out its call for proposals earlier this year, Ruth called me to explore the possibility of getting involved with the project. The obvious thing would have been for me to be part of the pool of potential consultants for the network that emerges from this process, but I put the kibosh on that idea. I wasn’t consulting anymore.
Still, we had a wonderful conversation. I was curious to hear more about what they wanted to do, and I was taken by how much of a learning mindset Ruth (and, as I would later discover, Rick) possessed. They did not make presumptions about their past success, nor did they apologize for it. They had a sense of conviction around the basic principles in which they did their work, but they were also very conscious of how nonlinear their learning was, and they were not looking to impose a recipe onto others. They are both smart, creative, and passionate, and they both have a very nice presence.
Flash forward to this past August. I was ready to test the Changemaker Bootcamp model on cohorts, and I was looking for pilot groups, so I started calling up various people I knew — including Ruth — whom I thought might know of potential groups. As it turned out, both Ruth and Rick were intrigued by the bootcamp idea and thought that whichever network emerged from their process might be a good candidate.
Furthermore, Garfield was just about finished whittling down its 62 applicants to ten, but Rick was feeling a desire to bring in some external thinking to help raise the quality of their evaluation and possibly prune the list further. So he came up with the following ideas:
- Invite some network thinkers and doers to gather together for a day and to provide feedback on the potential finalists. He wanted to use this process as an excuse to surface a diverse set of experienced viewpoints into a robust evaluation framework.
- Invite some of these guests to participate in the subsequent site visits with the finalists.
They ended up organizing a workshop with three of my favorite people in the field — Taj James, Nancy White, and Odin Zackman. That alone was reason for me to participate, but I had two other selfish reasons. First, I am on an ongoing quest to synthesize my thinking into usable frameworks. Second, I wanted to see Rick and Ruth in action.
As you might imagine, that day was amazing. Rick subsequently invited me to participate in the site visits, working around my schedule so that I could visit as many of the candidates as possible. We’ve also been exploring the possibility of me joining the “brain trust” for next year. I’m still not entirely sure what that means, but I love the spirit of their intent, and if all the cards fall in the right places, I’m going to do it.
This project is different in significant ways from my past consulting projects, but the reality is, it’s still consulting. I left consulting for a reason, and for me to come back to it, the project needed to align strongly with some very specific goals. Truthfully, I struggled with this. I was hypersensitive about the possibility of rationalizing my participation rather than being disciplined and strategic about my choices.
I discussed my quandary with some close colleagues — Seb and Rebecca Petzel in particular — which helped quite a bit. But it was something that my friend, Mariah Howard, shared with me that really helped me see more clearly.
Improv is among Mariah’s many talents. She explained that, in improv, audiences love to watch performers scramble. A classic improv technique is to throw unexpected curveballs that force the performers to think on their feet. This opportunity, Mariah suggested, was one of those curveballs — new information that I didn’t have before when I was formulating my strategy and making decisions. She encouraged me to play rather than obsess.
My goal is to help as many people as possible improve their collaborative literacy by focusing on two specific leverage points: practice and artifacts. Those happen to be two things that Rick and Ruth value tremendously. I need a testbed on which to experiment with ideas. Rick and Ruth have created an amazing testbed in which the stakes are meaningful, and they have been extremely generous in inviting me to play with them. If we’re successful, it will be both a learningful and impactful experience.
I’m going to continue developing Changemaker Bootcamp (which will hopefully overlap with the Garfield work). I will continue to pursue my other experiments (although I’ve had to whittle down the list, always a good discipline). I’m going to leverage the tools and practices I’ve developed over the past year to stay focused on my goals, to adapt in thoughtful ways, and to live a balanced life. I’m going to take the time to reflect on and to share what I’ve learned. I’m going to take lots of pictures.
Most importantly, I’m going to have fun! I feel extremely blessed to even have the opportunity to do this kind of work with such incredible people, and I do not take that lightly. I love the whole range of projects in which I’m engaged right now. I’ve already walked away from the Garfield site visits inspired and challenged, and I’m looking forward to sharing more!