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Time for our sector to draw a new fish!

By Vu Le
January 15, 2020

Grayscale photograph of a betta fish with gorgeous finds and tail
Photo by topcools tee on Unsplash

Reprinted from Nonprofit AF.

A while ago, I read about an experiment where kids were asked to draw a fish. One group was just told to draw a fish; the other group were told the same thing, but they were also given an example of a fish drawing someone else had drawn. The kids in the first group creatively drew all types of fish. The kids who were given the example, with few exceptions, drew fish that were very similar to the example. (I can’t seem to find this study or article again; if you know it, please put the link in the comment section).

I bring this up because it is yields a good lesson for all of us. And that lesson is: Flossing in an important part of good dental hygiene. OK, that’s not the lesson, but that’s still an important reminder. The lesson is that all of us in this sector have been given so many fish drawing examples—fundraising fish, capacity building fish, leadership fish, board governance fish, hiring fish, etc.—and they constantly and unconsciously affect how we think about and do everything.

If you think about it, so many of the things that we do are done a certain way because that’s just how someone else told us things should be done. There are few legal requirements. Which means most systems and practices are traditions that we pass down, and after a while, we just accept that that’s how we do them, the way the kids who were given a fish drawing example instantly assume that that’s the way a fish should be drawn.

For instance, boards. Boards, the way they are traditionally structured, let’s be honest with ourselves, are some of the most harmful forces in the sector. Dedicated volunteers who see 1 percent of the work and barely reflect the community but get trusted with vast power and decisions over the whole organization? With great appreciation to the awesome board members we all know and love, but how the hell does this make sense? I know I’m not alone in thinking about how destructive the traditional board structure is. I’ve talked to amazing colleagues, like Vanessa LeBourdais of DreamRider Productions, on different board structures, and will elaborate in a future post.

Another example: Grantmaking. One of the biggest and most time-wasting headaches in our sector. Seriously, we need to get a handle on this, because the communities we serve can no longer afford for us to collectively waste millions of hours to fulfill the whims of various foundations each year. Why do we do it this way? There’s no law requiring foundations to have burdensome applications, or any applications at all. Yet we still cling on to this weird, archaic, Hunger-Games-based system for resource allocation.

Yet another example: Leadership. We inherited a fish-drawing example of how leadership should be structured, a hierarchical system with one person at the top of a pyramid who has outsized power over everyone, including people who have way more knowledge and experience on certain things than this person at the top. Why did we accept this to be the norm? Why can we not try some different structures?

As much as I love our sector, there is a lot that we need to improve on. Unfortunately, we have so many philosophies and practices that we have learned that may have worked once, but are now ineffective or, worse, harmful to the people we serve. The way we do fundraising, for example. Our scarcity mindsetEvaluationhiringcapacity building, etc. We need completely new ways of thinking and doing things. It is 2020. We need to draw some new fish. Our communities depend on us to draw some new fish.

This, however, is easier said than done. All of us have other people’s fish drawings deeply embedded in our minds, for practically everything that we know. Once you see someone else’s drawing of a fish, you can never unsee it. It then unconsciously affects your thinking and behavior and makes is extremely difficult to change things.

This year, I joined the board of Creating the Future, a collection of brilliant and attractive folks experimenting with systems change. CTF has been trying to figure out a new model/paradigm for boards. However, as the CTF board members discussed how we could ourselves could be and do things differently, we were constantly pulled by the gravity of our traditional experience with boards. Basically, we were given a board-fish drawing as example, and now even as we try to draw a new board-fish, we are still consciously and unconsciously influenced by the board archetype that has been embedded in us.

And just like with boards, there is a grantmaking fish drawing that we were given, and it has embedded itself in our minds. Most of us, even frustrated grant applicants, have accepted that there is no way to get around grantmaking. So we talk about “improving” or “streamlining” grant processes. Last year, I proposed that we should just knock it off with grant applications altogether. This was shocking to a lot of my colleagues, because it directly challenges an archetype that we have believed to be immutable.

This reliance on archetypes is probably evolutionary, an important factor for our species’s learning and thus survival over the millennia. If someone found an effective way to hunt or grow crops, why would the community jeopardize its survival to do something in completely different ways? But the downside is that as our society and its problems become more complex, these ingrained archetypes significantly hamper our ability to come up with and implement creative new solutions. In many ways, because of these archetypes, we have developed a learned helplessness, where we just accept that things are the way they are, and there’s no way to fundamentally change them, and so the only thing we can do is improve them a little bit at a time.

It is 2020, and it’s time to directly challenge the archetypes that we were given. Nothing is immutable, except the importance of flossing. We must reexamine every philosophy and practice. Our guiding question has been “How do I make this slightly better?” Now it needs to be “Who came up with this system/process, and why the hell do we keep using it?” We must be as relentless as a 3-year-old who constantly asks “why?” Why are boards structured this way? Who says the ED/CEO should have so much power? What gives foundations the authority to set priorities for the sector? Why shouldn’t we invite donors to a conversation on undoing racism? Who says we can’t give 10-year grants? Why don’t nonprofits send thank-you notes to job applicants for their time?

This does take a lot of practice. But the effectiveness of our work and the well-being of our community depend on all of us being aware of the thinking and processes we were given, and to challenge them continually. It’s time for our sector to draw a new fish.

Or maybe a platypus. Or why do we need to draw? Maybe it’s a sock puppet show. Time for our sector to have a sock puppet show about a platypus. You know what I mean.

Tags: Social sector