Working on a cause or leading a movement today means managing a team of people whose ages, backgrounds, work styles, expertise levels, and personality traits can be all over the place. And the backgrounds of your donors and stakeholders can be just as varied. Sooner or later, it raises the question: Are you prepared to manage the inevitable (though often hidden) tension that arises between young and old, new and experienced, impetuous and measured?
I've heard lots of stories in which a seasoned nonprofit veteran sees a new recruit to the cause begin to get attention for her ideas and becomes disgruntled, even resentful, while the new hire just thinks the more experienced colleague is being unreasonable and stubborn. Meanwhile, the tension between them mounts, with each wishing the other would just go away.
The same kind of tension can occur between organizations, creating a monumental stumbling block to significant, sustainable change as donors and supporters sort themselves into opposing camps.
That's more than a shame. According to the World Economic Forum's Global Risks Report 2019, "The world faced a growing number of complex and interconnected challenges in 2018. From climate change and slowing global growth to economic inequality, we will struggle if we do not work together in the face of these simultaneous challenges."
In other words, if we expect to make any progress on the urgent challenges at hand, it's imperative that we all do what we can to minimize this kind of tension.
I know, it sounds difficult. But it's not; it just requires a shift in mindset. You could, for example:
- Reach out to organizations or individuals you've never considered as a potential partner and initiate a conversation around a mutual purpose or shared goals related to something you have in common.
- Look to form partnerships that actively benefit constituents who are undeserved, or not served at all.
- Create joint ventures and co-marketing opportunities that focus donors' attention on a single objective, rather than distracting them with multiple appeals and calls to action.
How and Why It Works
Consider the World Economic Forum's System Initiative on Shaping the Future of Food. Through the initiative, WEF hopes to facilitate the creation of "inclusive, sustainable, efficient, and nutritious food systems through market-based action and collaboration in alignment with the Sustainable Development Goals." Among other things, the initiative hopes to improve the ways food is tracked from where it's grown to where it is consumed (a process known as "traceability"). For traceability to work, however, unprecedented collaboration involving governments, tech companies, agribusinesses, retailers, food producers, and civil society leaders will have to take place and become the norm.
One key to success will be the reception afforded new entrants and players in already established food production and distribution systems.
Remember how I started this post?
- Will new concepts and challenges to current approaches be openly and honestly debated and weighed?
- Have "safe places" been established for the deliberate, authentic sharing of knowledge?
- Will stakeholders grant the space, time, resources, and tolerance for risk that are needed for real, sustainable innovation to take place?
In my opinion, the real issue hampering collaborations today arises from the very human desire each of us harbors to be the person who solves or dramatically advances an issue. Irony notwithstanding, that impulse is perhaps the biggest obstacle to any organization or group of people being real drivers of change.
Getting In Our Own Way
In a recent post here on PhilanTopic, I wrote about how we, as representatives of our organizations, want people to keep our nonprofits top-of-mind and appreciate us for the work we do, but that such a mindset runs counter to how people in real life actually engage with a cause, in that it tends to make us, rather than the people we want to help, the focus of attention.
Similarly, when we choose to partner with other organizations, it's often because we're interested in having more people learn how great our organization is. From annual reports that lack any discussion about things that failed to inauthentic marketing language, the message for donors is predictable: Our organization is the best positioned to solve a particular problem, and we’re working harder than anyone else to do so.
Such a mindset comes at a huge cost: over time, we lose sight of the bigger goal and shut ourselves off from new ideas that could help us address the problems we all want to fix.
Remember that the next time you're in a meeting and the discussion starts to pit a seasoned veteran against a new person, the way it’s always been done against the “let’s think different” approach, the way your organization does things against the way a partner does things. Only by recognizing that we all have biases and acknowledging that neither we nor our organization have a monopoly on good ideas can we hope to advance meaningful and lasting social change. It may not be easy, but it's definitely worth the effort.
Derrick Feldmann (@derrickfeldmann) is the author of Social Movements for Good: How Companies and Causes Create Viral Change, the founder of the Millennial Impact Project, and lead researcher at Cause and Social Influence.