“Sometimes it feels like CPR. No one person can do it alone. You can do chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth for only so long, and then you need someone else to take over. In the meantime, you need to be able to call on someone to get the defibrillator, and someone else to call 911.”
I heard these words recently at a meeting of leaders of community benefit organizations. At first there were nodding heads around the table, a sense of shared sadness and frustration at how tough the job often feels – feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, protecting the vulnerable.
There was fear, too. What happens when nobody responds to that call, when there isn’t anyone to take over? “We’re so lean, everyone is doing all they can,” said one agency leader.
A colleague nodded and responded, “I can’t possibly ask any more of my team.” One by one, my overwhelmed colleagues expressed their fears and frustrations.
Then something remarkable happened. One of these leaders, a seasoned pro, asked, “What if people knew?”
The group began to talk about what the reaction might be if the community realized how stretched the safety net really is and the risks that represents. Some at the table feared a negative reaction, from board members who might criticize, to donors who might look elsewhere to support “healthier” causes.
“But we’re all feeling this way,” said one. “It’s the same across the entire social services sector,” said another.
And then the questions began to change.
“What would it make possible if people did know just how tough things are, how close to the edge we operate?”
A brief silence.
“Well, for starters we might get more help.”
“We might see more donations, and be able to actually improve things.”
“The valuable work we’re doing might not be taken for granted as something that will simply always be there.”
The conversation, now very animated, started to focus not on the individual frustrations around the table, but on the shared outcomes we were seeking.
The more we spoke, the more we moved from the “truth” of turf and scarce resources, to a different truth – the truth of the vision that permeates all our work, connecting our efforts on so many levels.
Of course the food bank is connected to the shelter, and the counseling agency to the literacy campaign, just as the library is connected to the friendly visiting program for seniors. The mission of each overlaps, the impact each of us wants to make is tremendously intertwined.
Then the discussion struck gold.
“We need to tell that different truth, and tell it as often as possible.”
Efforts to achieve missions that have been seen as separate have often hidden that truth – that we all want the same things for our community. By asking different questions, though, we leaders reframed how we looked at our shared state of frustration. We talked about how often we hear, “That’s so-and-so’s mission,” or “We have to be careful we don’t duplicate X.”
And when the discussion turned to the need for more collaborative approaches – focused on the overlap and intersect between missions, rather than seeing mission as “turf” to be protected – that’s when things really got fired up.
When we looked at the many missions that reinforce, support, overlap, or intersect with each other, we were focusing on opportunity and potential, rooted in what is best for our communities, not just our organizations – opportunities to partner, potential supporters, co-creation opportunities, innovative resource collaboratives, and shared approaches.
The more we spoke, the more we decided to create more of these mutually beneficial, mutually supportive approaches. When we altered the lens through which we looked at our shared challenges, we discovered a new perspective that could replace frustration with optimism in our work. And we committed to help each other to do just that.
We also committed to encourage others to see their own individual missions as parts of the collective community landscape. We vowed to ask different questions, fueled by the enthusiasm we experienced by simply shifting the context of our work to a systems context – something shared and interconnected, building infrastructure for creating a thriving community.
What an inspiring conversation!
The German chemist, Justus von Liebig, said, “Receiving a new truth is like adding a new sense.” The leaders who took part in this powerful conversation are now reinforcing for each other the possibilities we all share.
One sent me an email yesterday and signed it “Hope you have a day full of all that’s possible!”
Another tells me he has re-written his CEO message for his agency’s next newsletter to reflect the “truth” that he now realizes has great potential to strengthen their work.
We all have our antennae up now, seeking signs of that truth, indications of shared possibility. And we are cross-pollinating these in exciting ways.
“Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is the truth,” said Mahatma Gandhi. I love that, because it honours what each of us can do to benefit our communities, just by speaking truth.
Of course it was also Gandhi who inspired us to “be the change” we want to see in the world. Telling our truths is exactly that – being what we want to see in others. Supporting others when they do the same is something we can all do, spotlighting not our differences but our shared aspirations.
Seeing our communities through a system lens, acknowledging and supporting that which connects us, is a tangible way to invest in that infrastructure we all desire – one that will strengthen the capacity for “extraordinary” in our communities.
“The cosmos is full beyond measure of elegant truths, of exquisite interrelationships.” ~ Carl Sagan
All images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.