I recently had coffee with a staff member of non-profit organization here in Chicago. I was meeting her to get to know the organization – as I love the work it does and want to see if can contribute while I’m in the area. I asked a lot of questions. I then played back to her what I thought I was seeing – my understanding of the situation. It went something like this: “So, you came here with a heart full of passion and excitement and now you are sitting here frustrated because you have ideas and no one’s listening. In the struggle for money and the stress that goes with that you are deflated. The passion that brought you to this organization has walked out the door because it was getting suffocated. You are frustrated because you feel you cannot communicate with the people in the offices over there (pointing to the offices down the hall). You are working here in this organization that is meant to help strengthen communication in communities, yet within the organization you feel that people don’t communiate with each other very well. And you are sad because you have the sense that this organization can do amazing things and you want it to do amazing things – but it seems stuck, trapped and it is taking you with it.”
The woman let out a sigh when I was done. In NVC training, this is called the ‘audible sigh.’ It refers to that sigh people let out when they feel a sense of relief at having been fully understood.
I experienced this meeting as a reminder of what it can mean to be the change we want to see in the world. So many non-profit organizations are in a similar situation. Staff are frustrated. Money is tight. People come in passionate and energized and leave burnt out, disgruntled and perhaps even cynical. Often, serious amounts of energy go into crafting fundraising applications and trying to sell the work of the organization as a worthwhile investment. Equal amounts of energy and time go into writing up performance reports. I can’t help but wonder “What if all that energy went into working with the people the organization was set up to serve?”
I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering this – it is not in any way a novel question.
But the point isn’t the energy put into fundraising. The woman I met was frustrated by poor communication, by the sense that she wasn’t being heard, by her creativity and passions being crushed. Isn’t that what we – social changemakers – are usually meant to be all about, met to be growing in this world? Aren’t we trying to nurture and sow seeds to grow ideas, actions, collaboration, creativity and thriving communities?
I can’t help but wonder: “If we aren’t able to do all these things in our organizations, how are we going to be successful playing a supportive role to make this happen on our doorsteps and in the wider world?
Again, I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering this – it is not in any way a novel question.
Next question that comes to mind: How do we jump off this train, and head in a different direction?
Again, I’m not unique in asking this. A lot of people are asking it and responding. My friend Liam (@hackofalltrades), for example, is writing a book on this – on jumping off the train. His focus is on how organizations can be more like people – in particular, how we can build organizations, e.g. NGOs, charities, and non-profits that operate in line with how people generally tend to create and thrive together. His argument is that too many social change organizations are locked into conventional corporate systems and cultures that stifle and suffocate, rather than expand and unfurl our individual and collective creative potential. He wants to offer up an alternative. His ideas are best represented by his own words – I encourage you to check out his blog posts at Concrete Solutions.
And he’s definitely not the only one writing, thinking, experimenting on this subject. I am highlighting his work in particular because he’s a friend and I’m excited for him that he is writing a book to tell his story and disseminate his ideas. Also, his recent posts have really engaged and energized me!
The rest of this week I’m going to reflect on the following questions – inviting you to do this same (if not this week, then maybe another week):
- In what ways am I already experimenting with jumping off the train?
- In the future, in what ways might I experiment with jumping?
- What kind of support do I need/want to jump?
- What makes me afraid to jump?
And, perhaps not surprisingly, throughout the week, I’ll often be hearing this song in my head: JUMP!
Hi VeenaA thought-provoking post, as usual. I think I’m experimenting with some little jumps. For example, I’m one of a team of four staff in my organisation who each have responsibility for the monitoring and evaluation of a different part of our new 3 year business plan. In looking at what has been accumulated from the individual projects and ideas from staff around influence and networking, I’m concerned that we could end up collecting things which are numbers and case studies and not learning anything ourselves about what inclusion means and how our practice helps or hinders collaboration or influence. Luckily I have support from colleagues and my manager to do something different around this part of our plan. I’ll be bringing staff together and asking them to think in ways which we don’t usually together, and hopefully get buy-in to regular reflective sessions around this part of our activity. What makes me afraid to jump? That people will think I’m blocking things, holding things up, trying to do things too differently, essentially that they are OK carrying on inside the stifling corporate systems and culture Liam describes and that I am disrupting that by asking for something deeper and more human.A future jump I’m planning is a paper to challenge some of the thinking in a big project our organisation has. Initially I’ll probably only share this with my manager, because his support enables me to jump, whereas I fear what some of my colleagues think of me and my politics, and I don’t feel confident to make such a jump with them.