October 14, 2013

Dinosaurs and the Next Generation: The Tough Work of Institutional Change

When I look for the seeds of change in the big thinking on small grants world, I most often see them in the next generation of grantmakers - the newest (and often youngest) people on a funding organization's staff.  Because small grants programs are not typically big budget operations, they are often assigned to the newbies.  And it is these people with their fresh eyes, new ideas and energy that become internal champions for breaking open the assumptions and processes that are masking new opportunities for co-production and community change.

That's why White Courtesy Telephone blogger Albert Ruesga's post - What the Next Generation of Grantmakers Wants to Accomplish - caught my eye.  Albert shared this list that younger people in philanthropy produced when asked what they want to be remembered for in philanthropy:
  1. Being an ethical partner in community transformation
  2. Collaborating with others in and outside the field; inspiring collaboration especially with nonprofits
  3. Addressing the problem of the capitalization of nonprofit organizations
  4. Making a meaningful difference on some difficult, complex issue; helping to achieve justice, beyond charity 
  5. Bringing about systemic change 
  6. Keeping the field honest about what it has accomplished 
  7. Keeping inalienable rights in focus; addressing the structural barriers to social change
  8. Redistributing philanthropic dollars to native communities; helping to empower these communities 
  9. Focusing on accountability and governance; being accountable to the people we ultimately aim to serve 
  10. Empowering people to “stir the pot” of philanthropy; remaining accessible to stakeholders
Albert shared that list with the same feeling of humility that I feel when I witness the courageous internal change-making role that some of the big thinking on small grants staffers assume within their organizations.  He also pointed to two inter-related challenges that I have seen (and personally experienced):
  • What can we do to avoid simply turning newer (and I'm using newer instead of younger on purpose) practitioners into older practitioners - sucking out their aspirations to be replaced by those that are more aligned with the status quo?
  • How can we encourage and support newer practitioners to continue to give voice to these life-giving ideas - in a way that makes change but doesn't cost them their jobs?
Albert concludes by telling younger people in the field to take heart - that we narrow-minded dinosaurs will someday go extinct and their ideals will eventually have find more fertile soil to take root.  I agree in part, but think there's more to it than that.

I think this is somewhat but not mainly generational. I think there is something about what happens after people come on board as staff - how they find their way, how their aspirations find a place to take root and grow, and how they see (and are seen) by the institution. I think the hope that shines brightly in Albert's column can only be realized if we acknowledge and get smarter together about what it takes to advance change inside our philanthropic institutions.

When I came to philanthropy more than two decades ago, my wish list would have been very similar to the younger generation list that Albert shared. And, to my surprise, my steepest learning curve was about the work that was needed inside the foundation to make the room for a different type of work out in the community. It was that internal work that kept me up at night.

I know that I am not unique in that experience. There are those of us oldies who have experienced times when we had to decide if we were going to let go of our ideals in order to keep jobs - and know people who went both ways. There are those of us who found encouragement to hold tight to our ideals and keep going - primarily through association with others who were or had been in internal change making positions. There are those of us who learned through success and failure about pacing - when to be quietly persistent, when to push and when to pull back.  And also how to take care of ourselves so that we do not find ourselves in the pit called burn-out.

There is a a cyclical part of this process that comes from naivete about what change requires and the powerful institution-preserving, hard-wiring that contributes to the power of institutions and systems to resist or slow-down change. When we talk about what it takes to shift an institution - especially ones that have a noise-cancelling mechanism (aka an endowment) that tunes-down messages from the outside world - we can probably find more stories of hope and earnest intentions than real change. Isn't it because our intentions are so earnest, our hope is so real, and our experience has shown us how hard it is to overcome institutional resistance to change that we find the stories of remarkable institutional shifts to be so inspiring?

So besides waiting for the dinosaurs to die off, I am wondering what more can we do to prepare people who have the vision of philanthropy that Albert described to be the most effective internal change agents possible? What can we dinosaurs who have been around a while do to give the new staffer who is coming on board to staff a grassroots grantmaking program (which contributes to at least 8 or the 10 aspirations for a new philanthropy that Albert listed) a clearer heads-up that the change-agent job is just as much about what happens inside the foundation's walls as it is about what happens in the community? And what are the tools that we can offer them to help them be effective as internal change agents, keep their jobs, and use the progress they see as fuel to keep going?

I welcome your thoughts on these questions.

1 comment:

  1. AnonymousJune 12, 2014

    Yes, I remember choosing to put my career at risk to support an unpopular but true idea that went against the grain of bureaucracy. 99 percent of the time it was an old guy (usually male) with power that would rather cut his own legs off than see innovation or what he perceived as a shift or loss of his power. I paid a dear price to resist the drift toward mediocre response to the public. However, the assumption that every one old is an dinosaur and resistant to progress can be a disservice to young and older workers. I remember a 22 year old fresh out of some obscure bible college with a BA in psychology, frighteningly unread and uninformed trying to direct me into something I'd learned 15 years before was a myth and based on stereotype. The young man was rude, dismissive, arrogant and I would have happily poured in my masters degree knowledge and 20 years of valuable experience, but he thought he knew it all already. He hadn't began to understand the intricacies of the questions. The generation gap was one sided because I successfully gave many young people a leg up, some tools, support, connections, but the guy who assumed because I was older I had nothing he needed to hear lost out on some valuable resources. I saw some gifts that could have been honed and polished, and powerfully directed but he wouldn't have it. Later, HR had to get involved because of his many mistakes with clients, all of which could have been avoided if he had ears to hear from a dinosaur.