May 7, 2010

Giving Our Problem-Solving Muscle a Rest

Here's something from a different world - the world of personal coaching/personal development. There was a message in this for me - and possibly a good reminder for others who are thinking big about small grants and working from a "we begin with residents" perspective.

Tara Sophia Mohr's recent "No Problem" post on the Change Your Thoughts - Change Your Life blog explored the assumption that working on problems is the most powerful vehicle for change. She pointed out that the most powerful work we can do on ourselves often begins when we are not faced with pressing problems - when there is an open space without an urgent problem or issue sitting in the middle of the conversation. She also talked about problem-solving and problem-identifying as just two modes of working - and that maybe we over focus (or over-value) these two modes at the expense of others. She listed several other modes of working that we often forget when we're in our problem-solving mode:

The Observer
: The one who just notices how things are.
The Curious Child: The one who examines and explores, led by curiosity.
The Celebrator: The one who appreciates, praises and celebrates what is.
The Creator: The one who brings new things into being, not to solve a problem, but to add something to our world.
The Nurturer: The one who connects, and supports - who strengthens others with words and caring.

Those of us who work in philanthropy have highly developed problem-solving and problem-identifying muscles. As responsible stewards of the money we have to grant, we are good a honing in on problems and identifying promising solutions. We look for others who have that talent and invest in them. And in these challenging economic times, when our organizations are focusing on how to do more with less, it seems that we've become even more laser-focused on problems, trimming off anything that's seen as optional, anything that can wait. I've heard too many accounts of grassroots grantmaking programs being put on hold so grantmaking can be focused on basic services. And, interestingly enough, a growing interest in grassroots grantmaking with a social justice/community organizing edge or an issue oriented edge - developments I thoroughly support, yet developments that come with a new set of challenges about what it means to work from through a "we begin with residents" lens - challenges associated with who names the problem and identifies appropriate solutions.

Tara's post encouraged me to wonder about how these challenging economic times have impacted the way I've been thinking about grassroots grantmaking and Grassroots Grantmakers, the network. I'm now thinking about how I can open up some space and give my problem-solver muscle some rest. Her post has helped me remember that when I'm also using my skills as an observer - when I'm in a mode of curiosity instead of fixing - when I'm remembering the value that creativity and nurturing have brought to so many "stuck" situations in my life - I'm in the best possible position to use grassroots grantmaking as an effective problem solving strategy. It's then that I remember that grassroots grantmaking is a powerful strategy because of two quite simple things - its challenge to the way place-based funders name and frame problems, and its focus on regular people as essential contributors to community vitality. It's not about me and my expertise as a problem solver.

This might be a good reminder that we all need to examine our problem-solving muscle from time to time to see if it's gotten so big and strong that it's crowding out other modes of thinking and working - and maybe even limiting what we are able to do.

  • Are we providing space in our own work and for the groups that we are funding to think, dream and plan without all eyes glued on a glaring problem in the middle of the circle?
  • Are we recognizing, honoring and rewarding only the expert problem-solvers but pushing the observers, explorers, inventors and nurturers to the side?
  • In this time of perceived or real scarcity, has our focus on being responsible stewards turned us into closet advocates for the problems that we have determined worthy - and inched us out of the "we begin with residents" orientation that opens the door to new possibilities via grassroots grantmaking?
I'm curious about how you use your highly conditioned, Arnold Schwarzenegger-like problem solving muscle and stay in a "we begin with residents" posture - and what you are learning about developing and using other modes of thinking - observation, curiosity, creativity and nurturing - in yourself and in those that you support through your grants. Chime in here with a comment or contact me directly via email.


  1. Thank you for helping us love the world in all of its imperfection.

    It's true, sometimes we're so myopically focused on the problem that we forget to honor who else we can be.

    Thank you for reminding us.


  2. Janis,
    I was so delighted to discover this post. It's an amazing coincidence because I'm quite certain you didn't know that before I became a coach and transitioned my career into the personal growth world...I worked in philanthropy!
    I was surprised to find your exploration of the "no problem" topic in relationship to grant-making and so enjoyed your insights.
    It's true - what if we approached communities and social problems by asking other questions besides - what's the problem, and what's the best way to solve it? What if instead we asked, "what does this community most want to create and what resources can they leverage to get there? what if we asked, "what is already remarkably strong here, and what does that imply about where we should head next?"
    This always has a double effect. In the immediate term, it generates a different conversation, different action plans and solutions. In the long-term, it impacts how people see themselves and reality itself - as a locus of problems, as something/someone that needs fixing, or as something else?
    I hope you'll come visit over at my blog and continue these conversations. There's actually a post on a related theme "Loving Reality" up today.
    Tara Mohr