The Practice of Generosity

Jessica and Christy

I spent this past weekend spectating while friends and family achieved acts of extraordinary physical exertion. On Saturday, I watched my friend, Greg, complete a full Ironman in Sonoma County — a 2.4-mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bike ride, and ending with a full marathon (26.2 miles). On Sunday, I watched my sister, Jessica, run her first marathon, which might seem modest next to an Ironman, but is well past the threshold of sanity in my mind.

I will never truly understand what compels people to push their bodies to such extremes. What I have come to understand is the important role that community plays.

My sister runs regularly with friends, a few of whom also participated in the marathon. Those who decided not to run the whole thing volunteered to act as running buddies for parts of the race. My sister had someone running with her for the last 12 miles — no small thing at that point in the race, when your body is constantly telling you to quit. (She’s pictured above with her friend, Christy, who ran the last six miles with her.)

I ran with her from miles 14 through 18. I’m in decent shape, but I’ve never run in an organized race or for more than nine miles (I consider five miles a long run), so I had a hard time relating to my fellow runners at that point. What I could plainly see was that most of the runners were in a lot of pain. Many ran with a labored gait, and many others stopped repeatedly to walk. All along the way, several people had stopped to catch their breath or stretch.

It felt surreal to be running with so many people at once and to feel strong and fully conscious while everyone else seemed to be in pain and slightly unaware. I was in awe of the grit and perseverance of my temporary companions, even while questioning their sanity. Then again, while it was meaningful to experience this viscerally, I wasn’t altogether surprised by it. After all, they had all chosen to run 26.2 miles.

What surprised me was the overwhelming generosity — from the people cheering on the runners every step of the way to the volunteers to the runners themselves, who were constantly looking out for each other, gladly sharing their water and other aids to those in need. There was a bond of mutual support between the runners that was unmistakable, extending well beyond specific actions. I saw knowing nods and glances that seemed to acknowledge the hundreds of hours and miles of perseverance that they all knew each other had experienced. There was no faking it. You couldn’t be there if you hadn’t put in the time.

Everyone cared about each other, and everyone rooted for each other. It felt pretty awesome to experience that first-hand, and it made me wonder what the world would be like if we were all like these runners, if we could all feel that constancy of mutual support.

Upon further reflection, I decided that we are already all like that. We do fundamentally care about each other, and we are fundamentally generous with each other. We just aren’t necessarily conscious about it, nor are we conscious about practicing it. Running brings it out in people, but there’s no reason why we couldn’t be more like that in other aspects of our lives.

My friend and colleague, Renee, is constantly asking about the principles of effective collaboration, a framework upon which we can build and practice. I find these requests challenging, because I feel like these principles have already been articulated by many people, that the framework already exists and is widely understood. Having Renee is a useful foil, because it forces me to challenge and test my assumptions, and it’s surfaced lots of places where I’ve been wrong.

However, I have one nagging belief that has not yet been disproven. I believe that the main reason that it feels like there’s no clear framework for effective collaboration is that the suggested principles seem too simplistic, too obvious.

For example, generosity is a clearly an important principle in effective networks. “Of course!” you might say. “But there must be something else! That can’t be it!”

Are you sure?

At Leadership Learning Community’s Creating Space conference last May, there was a brainstorming session on modules for developing network leadership. We had a number of smart, creative minds in the room, but we got stuck almost immediately. People seemed overwhelmed by the complexity of it all.

I suggested that we focus on one thing and encouraged folks not to censor themselves. Simple, “obvious” ideas were more than okay. They were great!

We chose to focus on generosity as a practice. The group generated a slew of good, interesting ideas. One of them was a generosity award, which anyone could award to anyone else. All they needed to do was to fashion the award out of pipe cleaners and give it someone. It was so simple, we decided to test the idea right then and there.

People started fashioning awards to give to their peers, and three things became immediately apparent.

  1. There were some highly skilled pipe cleaner artists in the room.
  2. People had no problem identifying acts of generosity that had happened over the course of two days among a group of people who largely did not know each other.
  3. Simply naming the generosity that was already happening in the room was itself an act of generosity, one that created a stronger bond and greater sense of community among the group.

Many of the principles of effective collaboration are simple and obvious, but that doesn’t mean they’re wrong or insufficient. If we’re going to make progress in the world, we need to start with the simple, the timeless, the human. We need to commit to these things, to practice them unrelentingly, and to give them time to work before we give up on them and seek something new.

Fortunately, while we may forget these principles in our every day work and lives, there are plenty of good models that remind us of their simple, yet critical importance as well as their strong desirability. Running with my sister, watching her, my friend, and their people persevere, and experiencing their community firsthand was a wonderful reminder of what the world would be like if we were all more generous with each other.

A Funny Thing Happened the Other Day on the Internet…

This past week, I spent two days in Tiburon supporting my former colleague and bootcamper, Dana Reynolds, who was facilitating the Code for America staff retreat. Any time spent with the good folks at Code for America is going to be inspiring time, and I couldn’t help expressing this sentiment on Twitter after the retreat was over:

Total time spent tweeting this: Maybe 30 seconds.

Then a funny thing happened. Someone named Jang from Korea responded to my tweet with a question:

I didn’t know Jang, so I glanced at his Twitter profile, and I saw that my friends, June Kim and SeungBum Kim, followed him. That was a good sign, so I responded, resulting in the following exchange, each message less than 140 characters:

I was planning to send an email to some folks at Code for America to follow up, but it wasn’t necessary. Conversations on Twitter happen out in the open, and Cyd Harrell, Code for America’s UX evangelist, saw the thread and responded. This is what happened:

I don’t know what’s going to emerge from this whole interaction, but something good will. At worst:

  • I learned something new about an issue I care about in a country I care about
  • I made some new connections
  • I facilitated some new connections
  • I strengthened some old connections

All from simply tweeting how I was feeling one evening.

This is what can happen when you have ways to communicate with lots of people transparently and with very little friction. But it’s also critical to recognize what underlies the technology that makes this sort of thing possible: people, trust, relationships, and literacy.

Bottom line: This sort of thing makes me very, very happy.

Changemaker Bootcamp: An Experiment in Practice and Mentorship

Starting today, I will be embarking on a new experiment, which I’m calling, “Changemaker Bootcamp.” I’ll be creating a space for changemakers in organizations to:

  • Get clear about the kinds of shifts they’d like to see in their groups (be they their own organizations or broader)
  • Get clear about how to facilitate those shifts
  • Practice the skills necessary to facilitate those shifts

I have two wonderful guinea pigs co-learners, who responded to a quiet call on this blog last month and who will be embarking on this journey with me. (I’ll be saying more about them later, and they’ll be saying plenty about themselves and their projects on a group blog.) We’ll meet for 90 minutes once a week for the next four weeks, at which point we’ll all reflect on what we’ve learned, and we’ll figure out what happens next.

Why Am I Doing This?

The Brief Summary:

  • I am passionate about figuring out ways to boost the world’s collaborative literacy, which will result in a world that is more alive.
  • The biggest barrier to changemakers developing these skills are finding productive opportunities to practice them.
  • I’ve had the unique opportunity to learn and practice these skills for the past 10 years. I’d like to create similar opportunities for others who are similarly motivated.
  • I am anxious to explore ways to create “balance bikes” for changemakers — structures that help changemakers learn these critical group skills. This bootcamp is a first experiment in this.
  • I love this stuff, and I’m excited to try something new, challenging, and potentially impactful.

The Longer Summary: I devoted the past 10 years to practicing skills for helping groups work more skillfully together. I had to carve out my own path, and while it was meaningful and gratifying, it was also painful and arduous. While I was tremendously motivated (some might say obsessed) and worked hard, I was also very lucky. I had amazing mentors, peers, and partners, people who believed in me, encouraged me, offered me amazing opportunities to try stuff and to learn (despite lots of stumbling), and provided me with critical feedback.

I want to give back, but I want to give back bigger than I got. I want to leverage what I’ve learned over the years, my wonderful network of friends and colleagues, and whatever reputation I might have in this space to give other changemakers safe opportunities to practice, stumble, and learn.

When I left Groupaya at the end of last year, I thought the best way to share what I learned would be through writing. I’ve changed my mind. I have some good stories and I might have a unique spin on how I articulate what I’ve learned, but I don’t have much to say that hasn’t been written a thousand times already. There are already lots of books and articles on collaboration, collective intelligence, learning, openness, participatory processes, and facilitating change. Lots of them are decent, some of them are very good, and some are even extraordinary.

What’s missing are safe opportunities to practice these critical skills. My friend, Jon Stahl, wrote a provocative blog post about social change movements two years ago, where he summed up the problem as follows:

Social change work is hard, long-term work.

Like most hard work, it takes a lot of practice to get really good at it. Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers claims that it takes about 10,000 hours (10 years) of practice to really master something.  I don’t see why social change organizing/campaigning should really be any different.

People who have the skills to be outstanding social change activists have lots of choices and opportunities in their professional life — they have the leadership, analysis and “getting things done” skills to be valuable in many fields.

So, given these realities, are social change movements structuring themselves to attract highly skilled potential superstars and to retain them for the 10 years it takes to attain mastery… and beyond, into the most highly productive years that follow?

Creating opportunities for others to practice skills for effective changemaking will be far more impactful (and frankly, far more enjoyable) than writing a book.

What Will I Be Doing?

“Bootcamp” isn’t simply a marketing term. I’m loosely modeling this after fitness bootcamps, with an emphasis on building core strength, creating good habits, and doing rather than discussing. This will not be a “training” in a traditional corporate sense, as my emphasis will not be on delivering content, but on learning through practice.

I had lots of interesting conversations as a result of my call for co-learners, but I decided to focus on San Francisco-based changemakers embedded in organizations who had specific projects on which were embarking.

I limited it to San Francisco to keep this first experiment simple.

I’m focusing on changemakers embedded in organizations and who are not formally leading their organizations because I think that’s where the biggest opportunity for impact is. It is the opposite strategy of when I was a consultant, where we only took on projects that were sponsored by C-level leaders. We did this because we felt it would give our projects the greatest chance to create sustainable change and, frankly, because C-level leaders were generally the only people with budgets big enough to afford us. That was good for business, but it also increased the chances for impact, because it meant the organization had more skin in the game. It was the right strategy as a consultant, but it’s not the most impactful strategy from a systems perspective.

I also favored changemakers who had specific projects in order to keep the work grounded. I think the skills they develop will be applicable to everything they do, but I want to have specific goals in mind to create a sense of urgency as well as to tie this development process to their everyday work needs.

I will be doing the same exercises as my participants, since I myself am a changemaker based in San Francisco, and I have a specific project (this one) that I’m working on. We will all be working transparently, blogging about what we do and what we learn, because working transparently is a critical changemaker skill, something that we all need to practice.

I’ll also be sharing all of my “workout plans,” along with the metrics I plan on using to track my progress. I would be thrilled if others “stole” the idea and the plans, because we need a lot more people doing this kind of thing, experimenting with ways to do it more effectively, and sharing what they learn so that we can all benefit from it.

What Do I Hope to Learn?

  • Is this a model that helps changemakers learn the skills they need to be learning?
  • What are the actual and potential impacts of such a process?
  • How can I tweak the model to make it even more impactful?
  • How can I get better at implementing the model?
  • Is this a service that changemakers want?
  • Is there an opportunity to build a business around this?
  • Is this something I enjoy doing?

How Do I Follow This Crazy Experiment?

We’ll all be sharing our experiences on a group blog, where I’ll also be sharing annotated “workout plans.” I’ll also likely be writing some stuff here on this blog.

If you’re interested in following along and perhaps even participating in future experiments, please subscribe to my mailing list by filling out and submitting the following form:

* indicates required

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Strategic vs Tactical Philanthropy

The best thing I read this week was Sean Stannard-Stockton‘s blog post, “An Investment Approach to Philanthropy.” In it, he articulated a favorite theme of his — strategic versus tactical philanthropy — in a way that felt very clear to me.

Here’s my two line summary:

  • Strategic philanthropy is about trying to solve social problems
  • Tactical philanthropy is about investing in organizations trying to solve social problems

Sean was trying to articulate the difference between the two approaches without passing a value judgement, a tough proposition considering the name of his blog — “Tactical Philanthropy.” I think many of the folks who commented on his post got caught up in that, which is too bad, because they’re missing out on a very provocative question:

Is it possible to do both effectively?

Sean states that the competencies required to do these things are very different, and he suggests that it is very hard (but not necessarily impossible) to do both effectively. I’m not sure why people would find this such a troubling proposition. It seems to me that this insight helps unravel a number of fundamental tensions that institutional philanthropy often faces.

One of those is around leadership. Foundations want to empower other leaders, but in doing so — through convenings, through research, through hiring very smart people — they often become leaders themselves. What follows is this awkward dance where foundations either avoid exerting their own leadership for fear of overpowering those they’re trying to empower, or they exert their leadership too strongly, unintentionally reinforcing a power dynamic that is very hard to circumvent.

Choosing to focus on either strategic or tactical philanthropy, but not both, could potentially resolve these tensions. For example, a funder could decide to focus exclusively on creating systemic, network-oriented change by funding convenings and research and not investing in organizations. That would allow those foundations to establish more open, authentic partnerships with people who might otherwise be depending on those same foundations for their livelihood and are behaving accordingly.

The Networked Nonprofit Board

I’ve served on the board of the Leadership Learning Community (LLC) for four years now, and I recently became the board chair. The thing I love most about LLC is how it models its principles. It doesn’t just talk about how leadership should be. It practices it, and it shares its learnings, both good and bad.

Deborah Meehan, LLC’s founder and Executive Director, recently wrote a blog post about our most recent board meeting, where we spent an afternoon thinking about what it would mean to the board if LLC were a more networked nonprofit.

Of course, simply talking about the idea among ourselves would have been interesting, but not as gratifying. Instead, we modeled the idea by inviting guests to think with us. (Beth Kanter, one of our guests, reposted Deborah’s post on her blog.) Even though I and other board members (notably Grady McGonagill) spend a lot of time thinking about networks, the truth is that the LLC staff deserves all the credit for moving us forward in this way.

At the end of her post, Deborah tells an anecdote about me, which I’ve heard her share often:

Two years ago, when we extended an invitation to our community to join the design team for our national meeting over 20 people responded and our board chair, Eugene Eric Kim, had the radical idea about selecting the team, take everyone! Well, that would be an interesting approach to board recruitment wouldn’t it?

She always refers to this idea as “radical,” which always amuses me. What was so radical about it? Organizing a national meeting is super hard, so why would you turn down help? The more the merrier, right?

Those who answer “no” are generally designing for the worst case scenario. If your group is too large, you might get sidetracked. You don’t want to accept a bad seed. Etc.

These are all valid concerns, but designing for the best case scenario is equally valid. You can do more work with more hands. The larger the group, the more likely you are to attract a diamond in the rough. Etc.

I prefer to design for the best case scenario, but I’m no pollyanna. I’ve seen processes get hijacked, even by people with the best of intentions. If you’re going to design for the best case scenario, you want favorable conditions. In my experience, you want the following:

  • Crystal clear goals
  • A strong core group of committed, facilitative individuals
  • A strong network with shared language

If you have these three things, you should be designing for the best case scenario, not the worst. In the case of the Creating Space conference two years ago, we had all three:

  • People knew exactly what the conference was about and what organizing it would entail. It was the ninth time LLC was organizing this conference, so there was plenty of experience
  • The LLC staff was fully committed, and it had hired one of the best facilitators in the business, Odin Zackman (who also attended our board discussion on networks). There were also a few committed, experienced volunteers we knew we could count on, regardless of who else ended up volunteering
  • As its name suggests, LLC’s biggest asset is its diverse community, which is full of brilliant people who are strongly aligned around its values and who have fostered strong relationships and shared language with each other over the years

Like I said, given these circumstances, the idea of accepting everyone who wanted to participate didn’t seem too radical to me.

How can we apply this thinking to boards on a networked nonprofit?

There are obvious places where this applies, and there are places where it’s extremely challenging. The obvious possibilities center around leveraging domain expertise. For example, nonprofits often choose board members who bring specialized knowledge in certain areas, such as finance, fundraising, or technology. In this capacity, board members are acting as advisors, but also network weavers — people who connect the organization to their networks. There’s no reason why you couldn’t open up this role to anyone in the network who was willing to play it.

The biggest challenge centers around governance. Nonprofit boards typically have fiduciary and oversight responsibility. How would you handle this in a more networked way? Network-oriented organizations (membership networks, for example) generally approach this by making some number of their board seats elected positions.

I think a more radical shift is possible. Jack Ricchiuto’s essay on going beyond consensus beautifully describes how to move from planning to activation. I believe there’s a model that builds on this thinking, delegating as much as possible to small groups, with the board acting as weavers.

That all sounds well and good, but the devil is in the details. I don’t know what that model looks like, and I realize that there are some huge obstacles, including some legal ones, that make this very challenging.

Technically, as Deborah notes in her post, LLC does not have this problem. It’s a project of the Tides Center, which means that our board is technically an advisory board, even though we operate as an oversight board. This gives us a bit more leeway to play.

And play we will! At the end of the day, we won’t get to the answer by sitting in a room and thinking really hard. We’ll get there by staying clear about the overall goal, taking small, concrete steps, and repeating the cycle, failing early and often.