Addressing the Big Questions with Generosity, Clarity and Consensus
As we continue to be barraged by the distressing news of the growing chasm between our politicians, quite the opposite can occur within the circles of non-profit and philanthropic endeavors. Tough economic times have created opportunities for non-profits to work together, clarify purpose and resolve, and respond to higher and more universal values. Rather than asking what best serves one’s narrow set of interests, smart organizations are now asking:
What is most beneficial for all?
In tough times, fear causes individuals and groups to naturally draw inward to conserve and protect their resources. But what are the underlying motivations of that inward action? Action motivated by fear and the pursuit of a short-sighted agenda are producing diminishing returns in an era of limitations. Actions motivated by generosity and in response to the needs of the community are producing new and possibly counter-intuitive results.
Organizations that have taken time to reflect upon and reshape their purpose, values and assets are coming out stronger than ever. They are seen as attractive funding and collaborative partners, and their leadership is confident about their direction, message and viability. Most important, their constituents and supporters trust and know that their short-term needs will be addressed, and their long-term visions will be realized.
So at your next board or staff meeting, I encourage you to conduct your own 2010 census survey and ask the following questions -
What do we do?
Whom do we serve?
Where do we provide our services?
Why do we do what we do?
If we were completely successful in completing what we do, what would the world look like?
What makes us unique among all of the other organizations that do what we do?
What are our values? What do we stand for, and how do we treat each other?
Select a random sample of the surveys and review the responses. Are they conveying an aligned message? Or are the responses inconsistent? This simple survey will provide a wealth of information on where you stand, how you present yourselves to the public, and where key members of your organization believe you are headed. If the messages are inconsistent, your organization would benefit by spending some time discussing these questions and clarifying your statements of purpose. If your messages are aligned, you can begin the process of answering the big question, “What is most beneficial for all?”
I was recently in Washington D.C. facilitating a board retreat for a 30-year old national organization where we spent two days pondering these questions. It had been many years since the organization had really reflected upon these questions and the world and their constituents had changed radically in many ways, even though some things remained the same.
By the end of the weekend, every single board and staff member present was able to agree upon a one-page document that answered all of those questions through the articulation of their statements of purpose. And that’s not to say that the weekend was devoid of tension and disagreements. Quite the contrary. But when I posed the question, “What is most beneficial for all?”, people dropped their personal agendas, took a breath, looked at the bigger picture and reached consensus. Just two miles away in the chambers of Congress, it was clear that consensus was not being reached. In reflecting upon consensus, I was reminded of the following definition recently sent to me by a client,
A group reaches consensus when all parties agree upon a single option, and each group member can honestly say: "I believe that you understand my point of view and that I understand yours; whether or not I prefer this decision, I support it because it was reached fairly and openly, and it is the best solution for all."
I am hopeful that our politicians and political processes can someday develop the capacity to reach consensus on a variety of major issues affecting our society. In the meantime, I can trust that our non-profit and philanthropic organizations will continue to lead the way by their good examples of building consensus, and meaningfully addressing the big questions.