We Don’t Do That… Do We?

Sea gull sitting on a fake sea gullA thought occurred to me today, as I was reading a post from yet another well-meaning business person wanting to donate his skills to a “nonprofit” because those “poor nonprofits” so badly need business skills.
Well-meaning. Patronizing. Maddening.
We all see varying degrees of this in individuals and institutions who speak from their self-appointed place of wisdom to teach us “poor nonprofits” how the big kids do stuff.
We know they mean well, but still we feel defensive, angry. We think things like,
You want to teach us? We accomplish more with a single dollar than you could accomplish with ten times that amount!”
We think, “You think we don’t know what we’re doing? You try this job and see how long you last, Mr. I’ve-Made-A-Million-Bucks-So-I’m-Obviously-Smarter-Than-You.”
We think, “Another savior in a suit? Didn’t we have one of those mess up everything last year? Now we need another one?”
We think all kinds of defensive, how-dare-you, put-upon thoughts.
And what do we say in return?  Mostly we say, “Thank you. We would love to have your help. We appreciate everything you are doing for us.”
Time to Look in the Mirror
I learned a long time ago that what I find annoying in others is something I am probably doing myself.  The more annoying I find it, the more I’m likely to be doing the same thing.
And so maybe it’s because my podcast interview with Brett McNaught from buildOn is still fresh in my mind.
Or maybe it’s because I’ve been reading The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, a compilation of unabashedly radical essays that suggest the only road to change is by the people themselves.
Or maybe it’s because last week’s #NPCons twitter chat was about Working from Abundance. And that for ninety minutes, some of the smartest people I know talked about what it means to build on the strengths of our communities, the strengths of our consulting clients, the strengths of ourselves as consultants.
Or maybe it’s because one of the people in that #NPCons chat was Dan Duncan, a faculty member of the Asset Based Community Development Institute – the organizational heir of Saul Alinsky’s work.
Or maybe it’s the workshop I taught in Phoenix last week, focused entirely on community engagement as the road to sustainability of mission and vision. Maybe it’s the effect of watching 70 people in one of the most conservative cities in the whole U.S.A. – many of them professional fundraisers – become excited, even if only for a moment, about community organizing as the only logical road to lasting community change (and lasting program stability).
Whatever it is, it has hit me that many (most?) organizations treat our communities precisely the way we resent being treated by those well-meaning but glaringly out-of-touch business people.
To test my theory, let’s change just the person speaking in my opening scenario, and see if that shoe doesn’t fit.  Imagine that I am not a consultant or the founder of an organization resenting the intrusion of business people who think they know it all.
Imagine instead I am a neighborhood person living in a “low income barrio neighborhood.”
I was reading a note from yet another well-meaning organization wanting to bring  their skills to the neighborhood because we “poor people” so badly need help.
I know they mean well, but I got so angry! I thought, “You want to teach me? I accomplish more with a single dollar than you could accomplish with ten times that amount!”
I thought, “You think we don’t know what we’re doing? You try to live our lives every day, and see how long you last, Ms. I-Have-A-Degree-In-Social-Work-So-I’m-Obviously-Smarter-Than-You.”
I thought, “Another savior in a suit? Didn’t we have one of those mess up everything last year? Now we need another one?”
I confess, I thought all kinds of defensive, how-dare-you, put-upon thoughts.
And what did I say in return?  I said what we always say. “Thank you. We would love to have your help. We appreciate everything you are doing for us.”
Just as we resent being told by the business world how to do our work, perhaps it’s time we take a good long look in the mirror.
The communities we “serve” – is that what they need? Do they need us to come in and “help” and “serve”? Has that created lasting change?
Or do they instead need someone who can help them see their own strengths – just one among many other resources they use to build their own lives?
For me it comes down to a statement that has haunted me since I read it in The Revolution Will Not Be Funded.
“Instead of imagining domestic violence survivors who could organize on their own behalf, antiviolence organizations viewed them only as clients in need of services.”
And isn’t this what we resent the business world for?
Again, let’s rephrase and see if the shoe fits:
Instead of imagining Community Benefit Organizations who can effectively work and thrive on their own behalf, business people see only “nonprofits” in need of service.
Physician Heal Thyself
I have written quite a bit about community engagement.
I have written that the tokenism approach boards take regarding “diversity” is really a symptom of a lack of deep engagement – that if the Community were creating the programs WITH an organization, that the issue of diversity would magically disappear, as community members would BE the organization.
I have written about my own personal experience, repeated so many times over the years, where “low income” community members provide financial support for a service they feel is theirs, feel provides them with something they need and want.  We saw it when we built and ran the Diaper Bank in Tucson – school kids on the “poor” side of town raising more money in pennies than kids on the “rich” side of town raised in $10’s and $20’s.
Which leads me back to the realization I had long ago – that what I find annoying in others is something I am probably doing myself. As we consider what it feels like to resent the well-meaning but patronizing business person who believes he knows better than we do, perhaps it is time to consider how much of those same assumptions and behaviors we are guilty of ourselves.
Photo: “Do I Do That?” shot at Fleur’s Cafe, Moeraki, New Zealand

11 thoughts on “We Don’t Do That… Do We?”

  1. Oh my goodness Hildy, this is beyond profound to me! Like the tipping point…I had been learning little bits here and there about working with different communities, diversity, etc. This ties it all together. Convergence has been my word today and this feels like a huge convergence…you are spot on!

    I know that when I work with clients at Jobs for Youth I can’t rescue…tho that is my tendency. I know that I can’t preach…because it isn’t real effective. My hope is to inspire through engagement. But I always struggle with where to put myself mentally so I don’t hit verbal land mines, and so that I am approachable and real. You just gave me that place where I want to be. You named it and defined it and now I will be able to find it whenever I need to go there. It isn’t about rescuing! It is about working together and from a place of abundance…and that is another convergence…from what I took away from NPCons and what you are saying here.

    Thank you! You just can’t imagine what this has done for me!

  2. Wow. Phenomenal post.

    When we talk about “creating community”, how do we do it? Probably more often than not, we organize that community around our services or our latest campaign or event instead of finding the best way to empower that community we serve to organize themselves.

    You post reminds me of one I read last week from Todd Johnson, entitled, “Is Philanthropy Killing Africa?” (http://friendsofethiopia.blogspot.com/2010/07/reflections-from-ethiopia-is.html) I’ve been haunted ever since I read it because it talks about philanthropy inadvertently stripping a community of their entrepreneurial spirit which, to me, is a tragedy of epic proportion.

    On a more positive note, World Pulse has done a phenomenal job empowering women across the globe to find their voice – let them serve as a model to all of us. Their success has come from exactly what you describe: providing a platform for a community to find their own place in the world and giving them the tools to connect in a powerful way.

  3. Lovely Hildy…thank-you truly.

    I have just one question though. Why do we need to resent the well-meaning business people at all, who just don’t know any different – yet? Is that not also a choice we get to make?

    As someone who is immersed right now in working with only business people who ARE stepping up, stretching their minds and hearts, and voluntarily contributing who they are (not just what they do) in a cause to promote and champion Creating the Future…

    Because they “believe” and they came into it engaged in the larger vision the way you would have dreamed and because they are want to be a part of something bigger, and not because they want to “fix” anything…

    I would truly like to point out the obvious bias that is here and has come out in some of your other writing, and ask that we stop pointing fingers period?

    Just some food for thought.
    In Spirit, and with Gratitude,
    Trae Ashlie-Garen

  4. Love this post! I love your humility, your optimism, and your clear cut solutions, Hildy. Yes, the problem isn’t with the well meaning business person, it’s with us, the nonprofit community. Why wouldn’t the world see nonprofits as “poor nonprofits” when our primary communications with the world are almost invariably asking for money?

    Only tonight I opened several tweets and emails from nonprofits I believe in that seemed like they might be real communications. But they just wanted money. That’s a transaction, not a conversation. I certainly understand just how much nonprofits need money, but if all we can do is tell the world how desperate we are, why would they see us as capable? It’s not a conversation. We are endlessly in the position of supplicants – not a position of strength – pleading for support.

    And the conversation we need to have is about finding the strengths in our community, as you say. That’s a complex conversation, but there’s room for everyone and everyone’s story in it – the business person, the community at large, the constituents of the organization. Those would be stories of power. What couldn’t be done if everyone were listening to everyone else? I’d be opening those emails and tweets from nonprofits with a whole lot more interest and excitement because they might actually want to talk.

  5. Whoa, this is like reading a recap of my 2009, surrounded by MBA consultant types wearing gray suits, it took while for me to realize they where also full of ‘off strategy / old model’ gray ideas!

  6. One of the gifts you bring to the world is your ability to help people and organizations see a new perspective. This post is just one more example 🙂

    My background in social work taught me to ask people what they needed and work from their strengths. Perhaps that is why this post resonated so much with me. It challenges our assumptions about helplessness and asks us to look at what each person/organization has to build on.

    How different would our world be if people saw the possibility in each other and helped develop that possibility?

  7. Thanks, everyone, for the wisdom you shared in your own responses. I think it is important to remind ourselves that the way organizations work with communities is not by accident and not because of a lack of compassion. It is because that is how we are taught to do this work.

    And as the field of “helping” becomes more professionalized, that “professional distance” is reinforced at every turn. Don’t get too involved with “clients.” Find a way to turn it off, to not feel, not connect.

    We’re taught all that! We get degrees and certifications in that!

    It therefore takes bucking the trend to move from that detached “giving to” the community, to begin sitting on the floor in someone’s living room and building things together. What was, for thousands of years, the only way one would think to enter a community – humbly, quietly, graciously – is now considered “new” and “quaint” and often “radical.”

    Truth is, though, our communities need us all to be an “us.” Can you imagine what it would make possible if that were at the core of the work we all did?

    (Go ahead – imagine it. I’ll wait. 🙂 And then share those imaginings here, ok?)


  8. So now your comment Hildy, raises another question for me. If we as consultants are part of the “us” then what specifically is our role? Maybe it is about everyone coming to the table (or the floor) as teachers and as learners without one role higher or more important than the other. So we as consultants may have things to teach, but we also have things to learn…those we work with are our teachers as well.

    This REALLY does frame things in terms of abundance…gotta be aware of a community’s strengths or at least be prepared to learn about them if I want to work with them. Otherwise I am only involving 50% of what is going on…what I know. Hmmm…seems as though the ONLY way to do this well is to talk about functioning as a team sitting on the floor together. (Does that mean I can skip the skirts and continue to wear blue jeans?)

  9. Heidi:
    I’m smiling, as I have been re-writing some of the pages that describe our consultant immersion class. And so much of what we talk about in those classes is just what you are asking. If a consultant is going to be a catalyst for improving communities, that’s not about learning new tasks or new tools – it’s about thinking and being differently inside that work.

    But how does one describe that adequately? When what we are talking about is at the essence of how we be, rather than the easy-to-describe “learn 3 new tools…” – how does one describe that in words that share how infinitely practical such work is?

    And so I am smiling at how you have delightfully encountered that question of “essence and being” in your aha. It is indeed about abundance – and then the question becomes, “Whose abundance? Abundance of what? Towards what end?”

    Now imagine what all that makes possible for clients and communities! Isn’t it incredible? (You are getting a glimpse of why, when we talk about our work, it is always off-the-charts joyful…)

  10. Oh man, this post is so brilliant.

    I have been struggling with seeing again and again the nonprofit patronizing toward those they “serve.” Megan mentioned a post about international aid above, but nearly every social service I’ve seen this. It’s disheartening.

    How lovely, then, to read your piece and know someone understands this and eloquently persuades us to rethink our own patronizing behavior.

    Thank you for this.


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