In recent posts I have complained about the ‘all good news all the time’ interactions among members of the nonprofit culture community…between funders and funded, between board and staff, between arts administrators and their local legislators. As usual, management luminary Peter Drucker made the same point a decade ago.
In the promotional materials surrounding the Peter Drucker Foundation’s handy and well-used Self-Assessment Tool, Drucker had this to say:
Nonprofit institutions need a healthy atmosphere for dissent if they wish to foster innovation and commitment. Nonprofits must encourage honest and constructive disagreement precisely because everybody is committed to a good cause: your opinion versus mine can easily be taken as your good faith versus mine. Without proper encouragement, people have a tendency to avoid such difficult, but vital, discussions or turn them into underground feuds.
Another reason to encourage dissent is that any organization needs its nonconformist. This is not the kind of person who says, “There is a right way and a wrong way — and our way.” Rather, he or she asks, “What is the right way for the future?” and is ready to change. Finally, open discussion uncovers what the objections are. With genuine participation, a decision doesn’t need to be sold. Suggestions can be incorporated, objections addressed, and the decision itself becomes a commitment to action.
It seems to me that ‘tendency’ is a great word for such qualities in nonprofits. There’s something in the system we’ve created (the system of financial support, tax subsidy, and the like) that increases our collective tendency to avoid and obscure honest discussions. It’s easy to blame the individual players for this outcome, but it seems a more productive effort to look more closely at the ‘game’ that encourage them to do so.
There’s a great concept in systems and game theory: If you want to change things, don’t try to change the players, change the game. When the game is rigged toward certain kinds of behavior, you can change the players all you want, and the results will eventually be the same. The players should certainly be held accountable for their behavior. But they’re only part of the problem.
I’d be interested to hear what elements of the nonprofit culture ‘game’ all of you think lead us to be less than honest with our funders, our supporters, our constituents, and ourselves. Send them along!