Friday, July 30, 2010

Become Wheat: An Open Letter to Non-profit Executive and Development Directors (and those who work with them)

I’m done with guilt. I’m done with those stupid appeal letters with over-simplified solutions to complex problems. I’m done with being told I’m more fortunate than. I’m done with bombastic language about overstated impact. I’m done with trying to be manipulated for a singular organization’s financial gain. I’m done.

For the last two months, appeal letters have clogged my inbox and my mailbox. It seems I’m on everyone’s list from the Sierra Club to the Commonwealth Club to the Contemporary Jewish Museum to LYRIC to the Food Bank to…. The list is quite numerous. I’m on these lists because I care or I signed up or someone sold my contact information to an organization that thought I would care. For the most part, I do are. I just can’t afford to monetarily give, so I open the letters, do a quick read through, and toss it in the recycling bin. It is a complete waste of paper, and I end up disconnected from the majority of these organizations after reading the letter. As a connector, this worries me.

Finding connections between things is easy for me. Give me two random thoughts and I will find a path between them. It is what I do, and what I have done for many years. This skill has helped me tremendously in my career. It has resulted in hundreds of thousands, if not millions by now, of dollars of in-kind services and products. It has created a web of people and organizations working together to improve their communities. It is about collectivity and shared purpose. It is something I wish more organizations utilized in their appeals.

I want to be informed and involved. I want to see collective action taken by diverse groups of people and organizations. I want to be a part of something larger than myself. I know I am not alone. I know numerous artists, educators, youth workers, community members, business owners that also want to be connected, informed, and involved.

The majority of these people have limited incomes and already work for community benefit organizations and companies like me. They have passion, skills, ideas, and innovation in spades. They do not have money. What little money they do have goes towards food, bills, shelter, and/or social activities. They are already giving more value than they are taking in. Only asking for money, or more precisely having money be the central ask in an appeal letter, is a missed opportunity.

My work over the last ten years has specifically focused on sector, field, and movement building in the field of youth work/development. My jobs, be it paid or volunteer, have focused on creating identities, integrating arts education practices into every day learning, and bringing people together for equitable exchange of ideas and resources. Every time I bring people together, I am amazed at how open and willing people are to share. There certainly isn’t a lack of resources. Instead, it is quite the opposite: there is a deluge so large it overwhelms. This is in stark contrast to the messages promoted by appeal letters focused on scarcity.

This dynamic tension isn’t helping workers, policy makers, clients, employers, or communities achieve their missions or visions for a better world. Instead, it is pitting programs, organizations, and people against each other in a race to see who can collect the most resources rather than figure out the best solution to community issues. If everyone is looking out for their own bottom line, who is left taking a broader look and ensuring larger community aims are being achieved?

Take for example organization Alpha (made up name). I received an appeal letter from Alpha telling me, “Arts education is under attack. Children and youth have less opportunity for arts education than once they did.” Alpha continued with facts and figures as to how much the arts have been cut from education. They shared a compelling story about a child finding her voice because of their program, and they asked, “What would happen if Angelica didn’t benefit from our organization?” It was a fairly typical appeal letter.

A couple of days later, I received an appeal letter from organization Beta. They, too, are an arts organization providing services to low-income communities throughout San Francisco Bay Area. They, too, used a similar story, this time about Tran, and cited similar statistics. If I didn’t personally know these two organizations and if both organizations names were removed from the appeal letter, they could have been the same letter. Both organizations are even working towards the same shared vision: more exposure to the arts as a means to community building, academic success, and increased voice.

I tossed both letters in the recycling bin because they canceled each other out. My thought process was this:
  1. If increased exposure to the arts is the goal of both Alpha and Beta;
  2. And if Alpha and Beta are providing similar, not the same, services to schools;
  3. And if Alpha and Beta are both economically struggling as their letters imply;
  4. And if Alpha and Beta have the same target population;
  5. And if Alpha and Beta know each other (something I know but was not in the appeal letter)
  1. Why are they not working together more closely to realize the goal of increased exposure to the arts?
  2. Which organization is really more worthy of my money?
  3. So what if one folds? There is at least one other organization doing pretty much the same work.
This is coming from someone educated, who understands politics as related to youth programming and the arts, knows the funding landscape, and cares about the future of the arts and education, and even I am saying “So what?” There is a very large problem here.

There is also an opportunity. Everyone is struggling. Everyone. And even if it is unpopulist to say, even the wealthy are struggling. We are entering a new era of economics, value, media, arts, and community that has yet to unfold or solidify beneath our feet. This instability is shaking everyone, and it provides a solution within itself.

I am reminded of the story of wheat in the Bible. The lesson is simple: a single grain of wheat will break in the wind or as the ground shakes; plant a field of wheat and even storms cannot break the stalks. The wheat becomes malleable, gently swaying in unison, leveraging each strand for support. This metaphor needs to be applied to fundraising, capacity building, and social change. Together we are stronger and will not be swayed.

This means we must change our approach to organizational development and fundraising. We must no longer set up a false choice of fund us or else…. We must actively support others’ endeavors. We must acknowledge what we don’t do well. We must seek and make connections between things, ideas, organization, and people. We must become malleable.

In the last five years or so, more and more research has been done related to dispersive power, decentralized systems, circular leadership, and network theory. None of it is new. Most the research, be it Linked: How Everything is Connected to Everything by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi or The Spider and the Starfish by Ori Braffman and Rod A. Beckstrom or The Collaborative Heart by Twyla Tharp or The Clock of the Long Now by Stuart Brand or Tribes by Seth Godin are reflective of spiritual texts like the Bible, Koran, Tao Te Ching, the writings of Gandhi (not the religions founded on those texts). They reinforce lessons of personal accountability, collective action, long-term thinking, cause and effect. They teach love, welcoming, understanding, compassion. They remind us that there is something beyond our selves. “The Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” (aka separation) is only possible because of others. What are tribes but groups of people uniting around a common idea? Collaboration and community are essential ingredients to success that is both sustainable and transformative.

To make this functional, organizational leaders must reject current systems, habits, and conceptions of being. The hypothetical “wealthy donor” isn’t going to save you even if she/he gives millions of dollars. A new era is dawning and organizational leaders must reconceptualize power and dispersion. Those within organizations are assets beyond their job function. They are connected people who care about the community, clients, and success of programming and products. Old and current donors are more than their financial contribution. They are influences: they spread messages and stories of organizational impact to their friends, family, and colleagues. Foundations and funders are portals to other organizations that share similar goals, visions, values, and missions. The resources are there.

Next year, I am hopeful a new kind of appeal letter reaches my mailbox and inbox. It is a letter sharing stories of collaboration and collectiveness. It is a letter that asks its readers for insights, advice, connections, and resources. It is a letter from more than one organization.

I can see it now:
Dear Jason:

A new era is here. Last year, we shared Angelica and Tran’s stories. This year, we are sharing ours. It is a story of hope, unity, and community. And it is beyond our organizations. It is the story of the arts.

Alpha and Beta are pleased to inform you we are working together to increase our impact, spread our reach, and ensure every child that wants to participate in the arts does participate in the arts.

We want you to join us as we continue to ensure arts are proved to every single youth. It is a long road ahead, and we need support. Please consider:
  • Meeting with a staff member to learn about our programs, share your ideas, and help us find resources;
  • Sharing your story of how the arts has changed you, your friends, your children on our blog;
  • Or donating to either Alpha or Beta.
Your donation, whether monetary or non-monetary, whether to Alpha or Beta, will help ensure every child has an opportunity in the arts.

In Community,

Alpha and Beta and all of our staff, volunteers, participants, and members

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