Do I Know You?
For me one of the most difficult, and often frustrating, aspects of my role in funding and working with charities is dealing with inconsistency. Stated simply, I want to know what to expect.This is usually fairly straightforward in smaller organizations where the dominant influencers are just a couple people and there is general sameness in the programming and projects. Larger organizations with greater complexity, regional remoteness, and more independent staff are bound to have more diversity. I want to be clear that I like diversity; I even enjoy a certain level of internal organizational tension and some surprises along the way. What I don’t like is trying to deal with an organization in which I can’t get my mind around what they’re really all about because I can’t identify the core commonalities that unify the diversity. Distinctives matter. Many years ago I worked with a national organization that was involved primarily in high schools and university/college campuses and summer camps. At that time there was a strong entrepreneurial culture under which staff were given great latitude to pursue their unique vision for their work in their own community. It brought out the best in a lot of people and some fascinating work was being done. The problem was that there was so much independence that it was nearly impossible to be sure that there was anything in common between the programs, core values, theology, and vision from one location to another. This led to some tension when staff gathered as each needed to justify there place within an organization that seemed to have no unifying vision except to provide administrative support to these local efforts. No one seemed to know what it was that bonded us, or what would mark someone or something as outside our interests. I have been encouraged to see that new leadership in that organization has done the painful work of restoring a clear centre from which diversity can extend. Today I know what it means if I meet one of their staff, regardless of where in the country they work. As a funder and someone fascinated by leadership I find that empowering. I know who they are. I’ve seen other organizations move in the opposite direction. They have embraced entrepreneurial leaders strongly and are willingly taking the risks associated with doing so. It may cost them in terms of central identity and create internal challenges, but they are convinced that this is an appropriately bold strategy. I can appreciate the thinking behind this approach but in the long run I think it almost always undermines the organization. Eventually the diversity becomes too great, the tension and uncertainty grow, and it becomes too difficult to find and reinforce the core commonalities that make working together at all worthwhile. I find it almost impossible to trust an organization where every staff and program is precisely alike. there needs to be enough fluidity to adapt to personal strengths and contextual circumstances. Leadership that only values uniformity rapidly becomes outdated and irrelevant. What I love to see is an organization where I can immediately identify a shared vision and deeply held values; where the name means something. Then I know how to proceed to understand the uniqueness of each expression the grows from that root. It’s been immensely enjoyable for me to work with some organizations to help them identify their core commonalities and explore how to work them out with plenty of room for creativity in implementing programs. I’ve seen the joy and freedom that comes from knowing what is essential and what can flex. I’ve appreciated the energy released when an organization truly knows and can communicate who they are. Do I know you?