5 Things We Know, But Keep Forgetting

Philanthropy411, in partnership with the National Network of Consultants to Grantmakers, is currently covering the Council on Foundations conference with the help of a blog team.  This is a guest post by Crystal Hayling, Winner of the 2010 James A Joseph Award from the Association of Black Foundation Executives.

by:  Crystal Hayling

I was honored to be selected by the Association of Black Foundation Executives to deliver the 2010 James A. Joseph Lecture Saturday night. Below is a synopsis of my remarks. The full text can be found at http://crystalhayling.wordpress.com/

Maybe I’m just hard-headed, but some lessons seem to keep coming back for me. In an effort to remember and hold them a little tighter, I’d like to share those thoughts with you. So here they are. Five Things We Know, But Keep Forgetting.

Number 1: We need to take more risk.

When we define risk in philanthropy we place it outside of our own walls and begin to assess the grantees’ risk of success or failure. But I am talking about us taking more risk. And I mean heart-stopping, “omigosh what have we just done?” “is that even legal?” kind of risk. It needs to feel dangerous.

To quote the great American philosopher Chris Rock (who is in fact quoting his mother), “She would always say, If they don’t pay your bills and they can’t beat your ass, what do you care what they think of you?”

Number 2: The time is now.

The time is now.

We all feel it. That sense that everything–the good and the bad – is accelerating. We feel the urge to both slam on the breaks and floor the gas pedal as if our lives depended on it.

It is easy to get lulled by the successive iterations of 3-5 year strategic plans into believing that time stretches out before us like a freshly paved road. It does not. Our destiny is rushing toward us.

We need to re-envision our relationships, our communities.

It means all hands on deck. Nonprofits, governments and for-profits too. And you and I are going to have to give up a bit of our thirst for purity in order to quench our desire for impact. The current groundswell of interest in social venture investing is not a fad, it is the wave of the future. Some of the work for the greater good will be done by people wearing suits and making money.

Number 3: Design matters.

Design matters because some of history’s most effective social change actions utilized a structure perfectly designed to achieve the outcome. Large scale nonviolent social protests were an organizational innovation perfectly designed to engage those most impacted using the resource they had most available—large numbers of people who were fed up and ready to stand up.

This structure was a hugely important innovation. Which one of us here is helping to nurture the new structures or products that will reshape our world?

Design matters because the way in which we give money is dramatically changing. The new giving characterized by contests and games, where the wisdom of the crowd directs the dollars–this is just getting started. And what if the crowd-sourced philanthropy isn’t a one stop deal, but becomes an iterative process—which as we all know is the very definition of good design.

Number 4: Technology is just a tool. But it’s a power tool.

Technology isn’t the savior. It isn’t the devil. But it is up to us to figure out how to use it toward the best service of the communities we care about.

We could spend a lot more time helping our grantees harness the power of cell phones, Twitter and FourSquare for the benefit of low-income communities? Maybe we should be creating ProPublicas in each barrio and housing project? The nonprofit open source software group Ushahidi, which means “testimony” in Swahili, used text messaging to gather real-time data on violence following the elections in Kenya. We often say our communities are in crisis. Well how could these technologies help East LA or the Bronx?

The power of technology is not new. The civil rights movement in the US would not have been nearly as successful had it not been for the proliferation of a relatively new technology at that time: the television. Were it not for the images of proud and determined Black people being beamed into homes across the country, many historians have argued, we never would have gotten to the Civil Rights Act in such a relatively short period of time.

Data is simply the information we use to make sense of our solutions. Data can be statistics, but increasingly data is stories, texts, photos and videos. We do not have to fear that data paints a single dimension of complex problems so long as we help communities control their own data. Technology is simply the tool we use to gather and tell our stories.

Number 5: We need new leadership.

In thinking about Ambassador James Joseph and his legacy as I was preparing for this talk, I read an interview where he talked about the importance of leaders using soft power. As he defined it, hard power is the ability to make others do what you want. Soft power is the ability to convince and inspire people to want things you want, based on shared public values.

I believe we are seeing a dramatic shift in effective leadership skills with Gen Y’ers. They refuse to see the stark delineations we have created between getting and giving, working and living. If we get out of the way, they are going to lead us to rethinking organizations and communities.

The Xhosa proverb states, “People are people through other people.”

Each day there is a choice. Only one choice really. Love or fear.

Because in the end, the most important thing we know and keep forgetting is that in this struggle for a better world our hearts have to change before our minds will. And then, only then, will we be the change we want to see.

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