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Rethinking Who

I am so envious of people who can easily speak many languages. I continued taking Spanish all through college in hopes that some day I would be comfortably bilingual. At one point I could read Spanish and, with a lot of difficulty, write a coherent short essay in Spanish. Speaking Spanish? Never happened past short phrases in the present tense. I finally concluded that all my wanting and determined trying didn't work out because everything I did was in the classroom, and I just couldn't learn that way. I finally realized that there may be something about my own hard-wiring that made learning another language at that point in my life more challenging.

I remember some very earnest questioning from a community foundation president with a group that CFLeads convened to talk about community engagement a few years ago. This was one of those times when that topic was hot (once again) and some big foundations were partnering with affinity groups and consultants to encourage more funder attention on community engagement.

The question that this president asked came to mind after the round of telephone conversations that I've been reporting on in my last couple of posts. It was this:

"What training can we send our staff to so that they can learn how to do community engagement?"

What I have been hearing resonates with my experience in Spanish class. It's not mainly about training or expanding your vocabulary and tool box. What I'm hearing from people in foundations who are connecting a more resident-centered identity with their practice is that they need people on board who have different wiring, experience and credentials.

One thing I have noticed over the twenty-five years I've been staffing or hanging out with those who staff foundations is how credentialing has evolved. I was hired for a community foundation job twenty-five years ago because I had a blend of experiences that made me right for the job of designing a new small grants program for neighborhoods. I had been a neighborhood leader and then used that experience to land a job heading up a small neighborhood intermediary. Oh, and I also had a master's degree in Urban Anthropology - but this was of secondary importance. What was most important was that I was hard-wired to believe in the power of groups of everyday people, and saw my job as helping groups grow their confidence, vision and ability to act. Once I was on-board as a foundation program officer, I found other tasks on my to-do list, such as managing scholarship funds, field of interest funds, special funding initiatives, and our modest discretionary grant programs. For these other tasks, I had to learn a new language that included all of the foundation jargony words that normal people don't use. I needed that along with my academic training, but it was my hard-wiring and community experience that I turned to when I lost my bearings and didn't know what to do.

What I have noticed is over time is that who gets hired for foundation jobs has changed. Where it was once unusual to find a staff full of people with doctorate degrees, that's not too uncommon now. And if not doctorate degrees, it's Masters of Nonprofit Management or Public Administration. More and more you see people with Masters in Philanthropic Studies. And if you don't come in with academic training in these areas, you can get a certificate in this and that - philanthropic leadership, philanthropic advising, philanthropic studies, and even philanthropic communication.

This all rolls up into my observation about how much philanthropy - and the job of working for a philanthropic organization - has professionalized in the last quarter of a century (feeling old while writing this). And, as it's professionalized, it has professionalized around the idea that knowing how nonprofits work and what it takes to help nonprofits become more sustainable and professional is a highly desirable if not essential bundle of knowledge.

You can imagine how surprised I was to hear that the credentialing that I just described isn't working for the people that I'm talking with. One person said that their shift from traditional to community-oriented funder has come with an 80% turn-over in foundation staff. She said that the first wave of change came at the program officer level, but that the change had even reached who works well as receptionist. She said that those who enjoyed the in-the-office anonymity that came with work that was mostly about processing grant proposals had a very hard time making the change. And that if the foundation had not been willing to lift up a different expectation of how people relate to people, they would have been dead in the water.

This particular foundation leader said that their first decision about hiring a new set of program people was to de-emphasize professional credentials (college degrees and certificates) and over-emphasize relationship credentials. She said that they have found that people who have some experience with community organizing practices and tactics bring more to the job than people who have credentials out the wha-hoo. She said they have learned to look for people who have both strong relationship building skills and an ability to see things at a systems level. Micro and macro, with a deep-felt belief in the power of people at the center.

On a similar vein, another foundation leader talked about the shift from power over to power with. He said that he looks for people who are really interested in people - people who can make friends and engender trust. He seeks people who have a deep willingness to learn and humility about what they don't know. He pays attention to who understands the importance of pushing power out the door and how to do that.

Another foundation leader told me that he has learned that whoever they hire has to have both head and heart and deep connections at the micro-community level. That goes for everyone - from the receptionist to the financial manager to people on the program team. He said the he looks for people who are generally smart, have intellectual curiosity and a good balance of head and heart. He is looking for people who understand the importance of information and data, but who have empathy for the person on the street and practical realities. It is how they balance head and heart that is at the top of the list for him.

I heard a lot about supporting people to take risks. This includes welcoming opportunities for internal debate and challenging basic organizational policies, such as how much working from home is allowed, and who is important enough to attend board meetings.

This all sounds like common sense to me. But a big foundation experience reminds me of how far we've strayed from valuing the head and heart part of real-time community experience. I was with a group of evaluators in a big foundation's meeting room, sharing insights from interviews I had conducted for another project. The lead of this foundation's evaluation team started talking about how marvelous it was that I was sharing "lived experience". At first I didn't pay attention to this term, but it kept coming up again and again. The most wonderful thing since sliced bread. And then it hit me. Perhaps I am the only one in this room that has some lived experience and knows people to call who have lived experience. Perhaps everyone else, with professional credentials a mile long, only knows community as an intellectual construct.

That experience told me just where I want to be - and what I think the people that I'm talking to have learned works for them. It's that it really does matter who is on first base - and playing all the positions on the team. Whatever special expertise they need for to do their job, their first credential is lived experience at the community level and some hard-wiring that tells them that it's okay to bring their faith in people and their heart with them to work.

My colleagues with the Asset Based Community Development Institute have been digging into this "who" question, using the term "gapper" to describe people who work with a foot in the institutional world and the community world, serving to build bridges between these two worlds. There's some good thinking going on there that I'll get to in another post.


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