Conversation 2010

Making new sense of our commitment to lasting change through philanthropy

Held April 28 - May 1, 2010
Williamsburg Lodge, Colonial Williamsburg, VA

Fourteen social sector leaders assembled in Colonial Williamsburg for GHC Conversation 2010, held April 28 through May 1. The story of our conversation is indicative, perhaps, of the process many individuals, organizations and society at large are experiencing.

Loose From Our Moorings: We found ourselves seemingly grappling for our moorings during a sustained turbulent time unlike any other we had experienced. During this time, it is becoming increasingly evident that things are different, yet it remains unclear what is emerging. Seemingly, we are unsure what we value in this time and we search for clarity of understanding of what is most important during "this moment" in our personal, organizational, and globally-connected lives. For some, this moment is characterized by scarcity, increasing polarization, and rootlessness. We see the symptoms of a clash of cognition, a clash of values, and a clash of operations.

Unwilling (or unready) to let go of what has worked well before, we find ourselves working harder to control our environment. Leadership conversations narrow around "sticking to our knitting" and focusing more intently upon the quantifiable scorecard to gauge our effectiveness. Frustration builds as we realize that this posture is increasing ineffective and out of balance. Constantly in search of the big idea, we speculate about the locus of control or influence of that idea, wrestling sometimes with the question of "Who leads" during times like this. Ultimately, we come to understand and appreciate that leading requires a recognition and willingness that each of us must play multiple roles at different times-visionary, leader, facilitator, follower, teacher. Leading requires equal parts personal insight and personal courage to recognize the need to be in a different conversation than those before. We are called upon to be aligned and authentic with our organizational leaders (CEOs, boards, executive teams) and with our funders (donors/partners), born of our recognition as practitioners that our approaches to philanthropy and, oftentimes, the application of those donated resources are not working as well as we'd hoped and is unlikely to be adequate to the challenges of the future.

The Big Idea: Our conversation emerged around the notion of a central big idea-the search in our world and in our work for some things that are powerful, lasting, and necessary; the things that should be grounding a lot of what we do. We discussed the locus of ideas and the power or the process of creating ideas. We explored whether a deeper understanding of the control of that opening or the influence of that locus could inform our processes for creating big ideas. It became important for us to try to better understand what might be the process of creating big ideas that undergird much of our work. We asked: how we could do it better? Who are the gatekeepers? What is the process that works and when doesn't it work well? What are the barriers? Does philanthropy facilitate this process of becoming more creative? We thought the process was, of necessity, interdisciplinary or diverse. There are principles to it, focusing the tension, finding the running room, creating the ability to incubate ideas--a way to spark dreams, distill them and work through testing and refining. Powerful big ideas emerge from a field of potential and possibility. Effective leaders will understand this and be able to read and create a formative context, an open environment, and a sense of expectation within their organization. It requires people or a process (or both) to be working simultaneously inside and outside/back and forth. The continuous movement from opening to creation to distilling options to implementation naturally requires leaders to play multiple roles-at times the visionary and the leader; at other times the learner, the teacher, the follower, the facilitator. We are hardly ever acting in just one of those roles.

Personal Courage, Authenticity, and Alignment: Our conversation surfaced the idea that an institution shares with its donors/partners a set of beliefs in some process of imagining and responding to some dream or some shared opportunity that can resolve an important problem. Our role is to set the table for that shared imagining to occur. This early process can be fraught with-and enriched and framed by-some unstated things like imagination, identity, beliefs, and a dream of something that could resolve an important problem. That process is rooted in the personal courage to have authentic conversations with people. The process is also framed by our response to the environment, choices which have opportunity costs and which put pressure on our tactics. We explored the questions of whether and how we can be sure we're being authentic in seeking new ways to tap others' intentions or sources for good. It could be different for individuals and groups. We told a story about "seeking the source from behind the rock" (in reference to an old BC comic strip) that requires a relationship over time where both the rock and the seeker are different each visit. Our conversation moved from the ephemeral to the practical in how to do this. We talked about how to do the alignment, a way to do culture building. We concluded that for individuals and organizations to enrich these connected conversations, to get better at them, would require working beyond silos. Connect the silos, but don't get stopped by them. Leaders will have to help their organizations create a new and intentional learning agenda to see their operating environment as a whole system which is ever in flux, constantly seeking change.

Both/And…For a New Culture of Philanthropy: Over the course of our conversation, we sought to more clearly recognize the multiple tensions and the seeming dichotomies that exist. Some of those tensions stem from development professionals feeling liberated by "whole system" conversations, yet feeling that "the reality is" and "at the end of the day" development work is "all about the money." After repeated exploration, we came to see that this perspective is unconsciously sapping the energy from people-development professionals, organizational leaders, and the donors/partners themselves. It becomes unintentionally and unnecessarily limiting of choices and learning. The cornerstone question of "what is most important about this moment" creates for us an opportunity for reflection and a new opening. Rather, we came to recognize this as a "both/and" situation. It is both the reality that many people have an expectation that development folks (in their silo) should just go raise money and it's an opportunity to say that in order to perform in a richer, more robust, and more fulfilling way, we have to re-perceive the culture and practice of philanthropy. We cede the higher ground when we lose the both/and and end up submitting to the sole and narrow expectation that it is the responsibility of one team or unit to raise money. Storytelling helps accomplish this. We have to have a different type of conversation. To bring about a new culture of philanthropy and a deeper appreciation of philanthropy, we have to lengthen the time and thought horizon. While this won't solve the immediate demands of the quantifiable scorecard keepers, it seems to be the right thing to do and may be the only real alternative left. We're stuck having to change the way we perceive the world. We must reframe the development tension in the most creative way we can-through the processes, the tools, and the metrics. Horizons need to be reconsidered. As long as you are held captive by the old world's rules, you won't break through.

Adaptation and the Nature of Complex Systems: Ultimately, our conversation reaffirmed a shared belief that this moment is different. As we are trying to understand it, we should look to the adaptation cycle in living, evolving systems as a helpful framework.

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It is essential for organizations seeking to adapt that they develop greater resilience. The nature of change processes follows a certain path through the tension. The rules no longer apply. We've recently been through a complete disruptive time which is leading to new frames, new constellations, new opportunities. The reorganization is not yet clear and it is still turbulent. No one is telling us how to navigate the right side of the map. The typical institutional (and individual) response is to demand clarity! We need to imagine how the system works and fits in a different way and get the players together in innovative ways. The backside path provides room for innovation where the old structures aren't working. In this reorganizational mode, there is a chance that the whole system will morph into something totally unknown or it will re-gather itself into a new shape with a new set of rules.

It is the nature of complex systems-in nature, in business, and in philanthropy-to go out of balance. There's a fight between old habits, the old order and the new. Not everything of the old order still makes sense. We must recognize there will be more disturbances. We must further recognize that we can't fight against the disturbance; we have to live with the disturbance and figure out how to respond to it in a different way. Complex systems cannot be fully predicted, understood, or controlled. What is important at this moment is that we should be looking for the new places for opportunity. If we still need philanthropy as a creative catalyst, then this is the adaptive process we need to figure out and embrace. This is the time and the place for fertile reexamination by all of us.

The adaptive game you choose to play is reflective of your mental model about the way opportunities are triggered (as reflected in our discussion of different games played on the same boards-checkers, chess, and weigi or "go."). If we had a different set of lenses about the opportunity matrix, we could, perhaps, deal more effectively with the imaginative tension among these things.

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Leading with Love, Curiosity, and Humility: The leader creates the environment where the whole organization can foster these openings and transformation, helping people re-perceive their operating environment, their institution, and the world. We must re-perceive the environment and make sense of it. As leaders, we draw vision from the environment. If the leader goes "external" in an open, honest, and connected way, then she is more likely to connect with the inspiration, openings, and opportunities to see and connect big ideas and to interpret the relevance of her organization in that light. If going external gets interpreted as simply taking the organization's internal agenda and "talking points" beyond the organization's walls, then the openings and opportunities will be masked. The qualities of great leaders are love, curiosity, and humility. In an increasingly complex world, the formative context of growing new leaders begins with a continuing liberal arts education and requires ongoing learning about whole systems and collective creativity.

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From left to right, Conversation 2010 participants are:

  • Gary Hubbell - Gary Hubbell Consulting (Wisconsin)
  • Shari Lynn Scales  - George Fox University (Oregon)
  • Marv Baldwin - Foods Resource Bank (Illinois)
  • Ken Bartels - Bartels Consulting (Illinois)
  • Tom Soma - Ronald McDonald House Charities (Oregon)
  • Glenn Williams (Virginia)
  • Bryant Cureton - Elmhurst College (Virginia)
  • Lisa Scardina - Providence Health & Services (Oregon)
  • Joe Zanetta - Providence Little Company of Mary Foundation (California)
  • Pearl Veenema - Hamilton Health Sciences Foundation (Ontario)
  • Ken Hubbell - Ken Hubbell & Associates (Arkansas)
  • Garrett Brennan - Focus the Nation (Oregon)
  • Kevin Matheny - Oregon Independent College Foundation (Oregon)
  • Don Taylor  - The Minneapolis Foundation (Minnesota)

GHC Conversation 2010 Participant Comments

"Gary Hubbell designs an enriching personal and professional experience for invited participants. It is a "Family" commitment as Jana Hubbell thoughtfully considers the venue, it's special features and the comfort for all. Ken Hubbell complements his brother's style through an amazing graphic and artistic illustration of concepts and ideas. With considerable planning to facilitate diversity of perspective and experience, participants are provided a unique opportunity to live the magic of philanthropy for a few days. Make no mistake, this is hard work as the collective experience is enriched by meaningful Conversation that is lasting."
Pearl F. Veenema, FAHP

"I can't think of a more stimulating and rewarding opportunity for both personal and professional development. It's the most unique and stimulating "continuing education" I've received in my 30-year career."
Tom Soma

"For a senior professional, this was one of those rare and wonderful opportunities to listen and learn. It was a veritable spa to luxuriate in, providing opportunity for consideration and contemplation. Just an absolutely thoughtful, first-class, professional experience!"
Kevin Matheny

"Deeply engaging, insightful and freeing..."Conversation" participation gives us a critical edge in our success as non-profit leaders. Our cohort attacked the tough... and the hidden... questions. Kudos to Gary Hubbell Consulting! One considers it a high honor to be at the table."
Shari Scales

"Enlightening, unusual in format and context, distinctive in scope and participation."
Ken Bartels

"It was so helpful to step off the treadmill of building and running an organization and be surrounded by experts in mission-driven philanthropic work. Unfortunately, when our world feels so urgent right now, it's rare that we actually take the time to think deeply about the social change we're seeking in our communities."
Garett Brennan

"Intimate, in-depth exploration of critical issues in leadership and philanthropy."
Tom Soma

"Gary and Ken Hubbell are masters at tackling difficult topics and organizing a stimulating discussion. The Conversations are an incredible opportunity to think great thoughts in a beautiful setting with seasoned colleagues in the world of advancement and fundraising."
Joe Zanetta

GHC Conversation 2010 essays


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