The Tension of Independence and Cohesion

Tuesday, April 18, 2017
Notes from the CEO

How can social good organizations work together to achieve collective goals… when organizational independence and the realization of autonomous goals is a dominant mindset?

In the mid-1980s, I had the good fortune to volunteer for a theatre program being run out of the Hamilton Downtown Family YMCA. This initiative brought together people with physical, emotional and mental disabilities with able-bodied volunteers to produce both original and established theatre pieces.

In one performance I played the role of narrator, reciting an original story created by one of the participants, Bill, who was born with severe cerebral palsy. Despite significant physical challenges, including arms that needed restrained due to his continuous spasms, Bill was a vibrant, creative individual. For this particular piece he wrote about the parallels of living in a federal/provincial system and living with cerebral palsy. He wrote about the intentions of the mind to send signals to his limbs and their inability to receive the messages and function in a coordinated fashion. In brilliant fashion, Bill drew comparisons to the functioning of federalism (at times!) in this country.

Over the past couple of years, I have been giving much thought to the ideas of cohesion and independence as the sector seeks to achieve its goals – from re-framing public opinion away from a narrative dominated by cost to the creation of a modernized legal, regulatory, and statutory operating environment.

Time and time again, Bill’s words have resonated for me the challenges of being able to achieve both a measure of cohesion that will enable the leveraging of the collective strength of this sector while balancing the need to respect and honour organizational independence. From the human brain to federalism to acting as a collective, this is tough work!

It is critical, however, that we continue to make progress. 

The ability to make significant changes to the most important issues facing charities, nonprofits and all forms of social good organizations rests on the ability to channel the power of this sector much more effectively.

In thinking about this conversation, I would like to invite consideration of three factors.

Increased cohesion does not automatically equate to a loss of independence

“There is a David and Goliath element to all lobbying campaigns. The most privileged, connected and funded organization pales in comparison to the size, manpower, and resources of government.”

~ Scott Proudfoot, Hillwatch.com

Far too often, the view of working on issues bigger than the mission or cause of an organization is viewed as a detriment. It has been my observation that an ‘either/or’ mindset is deeply embedded in the sector, implying that the dedication of any time and resources to a broader issue results in a negative impact on the organization’s cause. As a sector, charities and nonprofits hope to influence decision makers about issues of importance that will enable the good work to thrive. Yet, this ‘tension’ between cohesion and independence is a barrier to success, one that must be re-imagined if the sector is to make significant advancements in the way it is perceived and valued. The sector already is both viewed and often views itself as the underdog – chronically under-resourced, the ‘Third’ Sector and not quite the same as other parts of the economy. To begin a process of reframing this perception, the sector will need to find a balance. Organizations can look beyond their individual causes to support broader initiatives AND know that their particular areas will be respected, valued and better off as a result of the collective work.

Cohesion doesn’t mean unity or consensus

“Many CEOs and leaders think that silence is indeed golden, that consensus is bliss. It is – sometimes. But more often what it signifies is that there are no respected processes for surfacing concerns and dissent.”  

~ Margaret Heffernan

Within the context of influencing change, it is unrealistic to think that a sector comprised of 170,000 organizations will achieve consensus on any one issue – let alone on a wide range of options. Over the past couple of years, I have seen organizations opt out of supporting sector-wide initiatives because one of fifteen items didn’t align perfectly with their perspectives. This is a valid concern.

It is also paralyzing.

With a mindset that collective action can’t move forward without perfection, consensus or unity, this sector will not be able to leverage its significant strength. 

I am optimistic that sector leadership can talk about the ability to move forward, individually and collectively, with a view of achieving cohesion. Where cohesion represents fulfilling a direction or goal, organizations will be able to find their place in bringing forward different voices and perspectives, yet not allowing ‘difference’ to detract from a powerful, determined march forward.

Macro wins mean micro success 

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”

~ Helen Keller

The link between support for ‘big picture’ activities and a direct connection to the everyday work of organizations is a key component for mobilizing sector leaders. This is harder than it sounds.

At first blush, it would seem that macro issues like a new social norm for giving, enhanced tax benefits for giving and a modernized legislative framework would intuitively be of great value for local organizations. Changing the overall operating system into one that sees people internalize the value of giving (and are rewarded on their taxes for doing so) or creating policies that eliminate barriers to success, should be appealing for organizations at local, provincial and national levels. 

If past history is any indicator, framing macro issues in a manner that inspires and evokes a response from local leaders has been extremely difficult. Sector leaders will need to be mindful that communications efforts must be designed in a manner that invites organizations to directly and easily see the benefits to themselves. 

I am inviting you to think about Bill’s ideas. To begin a conversation at your Board table and with your staff about how your organization can play a role in actively supporting collective efforts. To share your insights and opinions with sector leaders so that we can learn and adapt. To begin a process of harnessing the amazing potential that is present within this sector and succeed in our collective aspirations.

Sadly, Bill passed away over a decade ago.

I am thankful for his wisdom and insight as they have provided a framework for thinking about these important issues.

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