What stops the Community Benefit Sector from achieving its potential to build a healthy, vibrant world? I know I ask that question a lot – it is the “B” side of the question that guides all our work at Creating the Future. (The “A” side of that question is, “What would it take for the sector to achieve its potential?”)
An answer that has consumed my focus lately is one that doesn’t receive a lot of discussion. I hope that will soon change.
It is the fact that in this sector, everyone is an expert. Or at least that’s what we expect to be.
Most organizations that put themselves out there as “solving a problem” consider themselves experts at their work – or if they don’t, they are soon encouraged to do so. Environmental experts and human service experts and historic preservation experts and music experts.
Then there are the funders and consultants and nonprofit resource centers – all vying for who is the smartest person in the room.
And of course, while board members are not experts at the mission, they are frequently recruited for other expertise.
Experts experts everywhere.
What conditions does that assumption of expertise create in this sector? Here’s just a bit of what we’ve found.
1) An expert has the answers, and therefore takes that posture. The expert gives advice, prescribes solutions.
2) The recipient of that advice may or may not want the advice, even if they have asked for it. (Have you ever noticed how often you yourself ask for advice and then bristle when it is given? Have you ever noticed how often someone will ask YOU for advice, and when you give it, they will argue with you about why it wouldn’t work for them? Have you ever noticed how often you say or think, “Well if you didn’t want my advice, why did you ask for it?”)
3) Each of us has wisdom and experience and ideas of our own, that can be tapped to create possibilities.
4) None of us likes someone else telling us what to do. Yes, even if we have asked them for it. Just because we have confessed our weakness (hard to do) and asked for help (hard to do) doesn’t mean we will be happy about the answer!
5) This sector’s modus operandi – experts upon experts – has unwittingly created a situation of pervasive defensiveness. Walls go up. Questions go unasked. Learning and possibility stop. Rather than “all of us working together,” we unwittingly create “us” and “them.”
The end result of this Culture of Experts is that it becomes hard to learn, easy to fail, impossible to achieve the results our communities deserve. Operating in a Culture of Experts actually makes us more vulnerable to being whipsawed by circumstances, as we sometimes have more of a stake in being right than making a difference.
Success in the Community Benefit arena doesn’t come from being the smartest and the fastest and the best. Yes, you may become the best funded organization, or the consultant with the most clients. But success in the Community Benefit world is about – well – Community Benefit! And none of us can do that on our own.
It is clear that this sector’s potential can only be reached if we link arms together to create the healthy, vibrant communities we all want. To accomplish that, many of the systems we rely upon in this sector will need to shift, from competitive systems that keep us apart to systems that encourage and nurture interconnectedness and interdependence.
And I am beginning to wonder if the assumption of expertise isn’t one of the pre-conditions to changing those systems.
After all, our assumptions and expectations guide our actions, and our actions guide our results. Without a change in assumptions, systems will not change. With so many systems (fundraising, governance, planning, etc.) continually failing to create the change we all know is possible, how many of those failures are at least in part the result of experts believing they know best for others?
Which leads me to the bigger questions:
What would it take for us to give up this notion that we funders and consultants and organizations are smarter than those with whom we are working to effect change?
What would it take for us to rejoice in learning together as equals?
What would it take for “leaders” and “experts” to be those who bring out the leadership and expertise in everyone else?
And how might we change the systems we use for doing our work, to reflect that shared wisdom, that shared learning, that shared leadership?