A Public Conversation Among People Who Care
March 09, 2005We shape our arguments, and they shape us
It's been interesting to watch the media and others frame the nature of the Rand study as against instrumental arguments, and for intrinsic arguments. This columnist in the South Florida Sun Sentinal was about as extreme as they come in this regard. And I've enjoyed the depth and context of this weblog conversation immensely. To me, it's the conversation, not the conclusion, that the Rand study is really about.
We've all agreed (as Ben and Glenn have noted) that we will use any reasonable argument to advance a cause in which we believe. You want economic impact? Sure, we've got that. You want educational benefit? That's us. You want pro-social behavior among at-risk youth? We're the folks that can deliver. And the Rand study doesn't say these arguments aren't true, just that they lack the depth, nuance, and evidence of causality that you'd like to find in a policy conversation (but honestly, seldom do).
In my work (training and fostering management professionals primarily for the nonprofit and public arts), the true blessing of the Rand effort is the way it helps us frame and understand the arguments we use.
Persuasive and resonant arguments are among the most essential 'soft tools' of cultural management. And as with any tool, if we are not the master of it, it will master us. Two of my favorite statements will help to make this point. The first is an old constulant's aphorism:
If you only have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.
The second is attributed to Winston Churchill (the font of all great quotes):
We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.
Adrian has already spoken wonderfully of the ecological implications of our instrumental arguments (more and more fixed cost and infrastructure, without the operating support to truly maintain it). I'm speaking here, instead, of the individual organizational and management implications of using arguments without truly understanding their basis and their aftermath.
For example, when you promise economic impact for your facility, you are making a promise about volume...more heads equal more hotel beds equal more drinks, more babysitters, more dinners out. To the extent that that volume comprises more affluent people than not, more good news for economics. The rub is that volume and affluence often run contrary to the reasons you formed as a nonprofit in the first place.
The answer, of course, is to use these arguments, but use them with mastery, with insight, with elegance, and with care. All of those attributes are difficult to attain when your industry is closed and silent about how the arguments work (or don't work).
Which is why this report, and this conversation, is such a welcome breath of air.
Posted by ataylor at March 9, 2005 06:28 AM