Can I Be Frank?

Sitting down to write this post, ideas were swirling around my head, colliding into each other. I had just read several recent reports and blog posts set aside in a “food for thought” email folder. There was Open Road Alliance’s startling—but not surprising—research finding that “Funder-created Obstacles” were the most common type of roadblock mission-driven organizations face. (See more on this report below)

There was “Blunt Talk, Sharp Thinking: A Profile of the Mulago Foundation,” from Leap of Reason Ambassadors Community. This piece offered a glimpse into the grantmaking philosophy of a funder that provides only unrestricted grants and states on its website: “We don’t invest in organizations that don’t measure impact. They’re flying blind and we would be too.”

I also found the Foundation Directory’s new “Open for Good” report advocating increased knowledge sharing and transparency among foundations and other philanthropists. The call-to-action report offers practical how-to tips to overcome common barriers to information-sharing and transparency.

Another saved email directed me to published insights from a TechBoston-sponsored series of funder-grantee dialogues on the often-fraught subject of data and evaluation. (I have written about this previously; see The Disconnect Between Funders and Grantees on Evaluation.) The candid discussions, moderated by a skilled facilitator, led to agreed-upon strategies to narrow the gap in understanding and expectations. Among the recommended ways both parties could improve the tough conversation:

  • Talking frankly about how power dynamics affect their relationships.
  • Engaging in ongoing dialogue that is facilitated by a third party who is experienced in creating a safe space.
  • Talking about and planning the evaluation process well before the grant begins.
  • Creating clear definitions of key terms pertaining to data and evaluation.

Among my takeaways from these thought-provoking pieces is the resounding message about the importance of deeply listening to each other when hard conversations are called for and the need to be clear, honest and open in our own communication. We must be able to speak candidly about our fears, hopes, assumptions and expectations of others–and to listen and really hear what our colleagues say about their own ideas and feelings. A tall order, to be sure, given how much trepidation most of us carry around about how others perceive us, which is compounded by the sometimes serious consequences of showing vulnerability or admitting failure. But I’m heartened by conversations about “the growth mindset”—which purports that we are constantly evolving, both personally or in our work. And that to learn important lessons in this upward trajectory, we must pause, reflect and courageously take stock about our own missteps and mistakes. It seems obvious, even if we often resist it, that meaningful social change is impossible without risk, that challenging the status quo involves upsetting those who benefit from it or are too timid to risk failure. I’m grateful for the pioneers and thought leaders like Open Road Alliance, the Leap of Reason folks, the Foundation Center transparency advocates and others who believe in the power of openness, honesty, courage and vulnerability to advance change agendas.

Please let me know your thoughts about this.

Graphic from Open Road Alliance’s Roadblocks Analysis Report