Reflections, failure and privilege

Open CoLab

Why send a year-end review? When everyone's inbox is flooded with so many others?

This as much about accountability as anything else. I launched this newsletter last January, building on a small list of partners, clients, and the remaining followers of a largely defunct blog. I never meant this to be a replacement to the blog, but I did offer up an effort to connect new ideas and practices from across the social change sector.

How'd I do? A subscriber list that started with about 80 grew to over 200. I've gotten positive feedback and engagement on each issue. But a schedule that started monthly quickly became bi-monthly, as I found carving out the time for a quality product was harder than expected.

What was I doing instead? Mostly client projects that I tend not to talk about publicly. One of the joys of consulting is getting to step inside an organization facing a critical juncture—like a strategic rethinking, a multi-partner convening, or the launch of a new initiative. But it helps to keep much of that on the inside, especially while it's underway.

To give you a window on my work, this year included:

  • Working with the team at the Open Contracting Partnership to craft their new strategy for the next five years, launched in May.

  • Facilitating the Open Government Partnership's all-staff retreat in DC in October. Also: helping them improve their systems for monitoring, evaluation, and learning, and facilitating a partner convening in Brussels.

  • Designing and launching a facilitation training that I ran in-house with several client teams (public sessions may be coming in the new year).

  • Writing a piece for SSIR on strategic agility; ping me if you want an ungated version.

  • Helping Oxfam America with their strategy process in a largely writing/editing role, finding the right words for the ideas coming out of their consultations and planning.

  • Running a board strategy session earlier this month for an emerging initiative focused on accountability in the food sector.

  • Advising Luminate on their approach to non-financial support (including technical and strategic services) for their portfolio of investees.

Those projects all finished in 2019. Going into 2020, I'm continuing to work with the Open Government Partnership on their three-year implementation planning. I'm helping long-time client Global Integrity update their strategy. And I just started a project with the Open Society Foundations and a few great collaborators on anti-corruption.

(Note: Having "Open" in your organization's name is not a requirement for working with me, but birds of a feather and all.)

What about the failures? It took several pitches to multiple outlets before SSIR decided to run the piece mentioned above. I saw a few real dry spells in the client work as proposals got rejected and pending projects got delayed. I submitted a half-baked book idea to an agent and didn't get so much as a response. I also didn't get a response on the one full-time job I applied for (something I do about once a year). Oh, and while screensharing with 50+ people on a conference call, I opened an irrelevant website.

More interesting than failure: let's talk about privilege. Most of my projects come through my professional networks: repeat clients, referrals, old colleagues in new roles. They call me up because I have a set of skills and expertise uniquely suited to the challenges they face—and I've worked hard to develop those capabilities. But every opportunity I've had to build my network and capabilities traces back through advantages that aren't available to everyone: good schools and health, financial and family stability, the assumptions others make about me based on my gender and race, being raised a native speaker of the world's dominant language, and more. Even the ability to list the failures above without worrying how I'll be judged.

Lots of social change organizations are only starting to grapple with what these factors mean for their work. I try to prod their thinking, even (especially) when it seems outside the project focus. But while many are looking at the diversity of their staff or board members, the inclusiveness of their work processes, or the role of equity in their strategies—I've never known one to reflect on their roster of consultants. Maybe it's time to think about that.

Year-end reads

Though this isn't a full newsletter of ideas and links, here are a few good pieces to feed your holiday reflections.

Philanthropists Bench Women of Color, the M.V.P.s of Social Change

This NYT column from Vanessa Daniel got a lot of shares, including from a lot of foundation staff, but I wonder how many philanthropists are seriously putting her core recommendation into practice:

Every foundation ought to shift a majority of its giving to groups headed by people of color. We must write checks that support multi-issue organizing led by women of color on a large scale. And instead of awarding grants for individual projects, donors need to move toward multiyear, general-support funding so groups can expand. This is how we build the power of communities to win, defend victories and win again.

Are IGNOs ready to give up their power?

Writing on the From Poverty to Power blog, Deborah Doane assesses the #ShiftThePower movement. She answers her headline with "no" (sorry, spoiler alert)—but she thinks they're getting closer.

Anti-Monopoly Money: Behind Millions in New Funding to Battle Bigness

John Freund covers a new $10 million fund to fight monopoly, with support from Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, Open Society, Ford, Knight, and others. As has often been said: if accumulated wealth isn't disrupting the power structures that led to its accumulation, it's merely perpetuating them.

This may be the largest wave of nonviolent mass movements in world history. What comes next?

Are we seeing more mass protests, but not more movement success? Erica Chenoweth and a team of collaborators try to explain the disconnect. Four big takeaways: 1) nonviolent movements are contending with violent flanks; 2) technology and social media work for both sides, protestors and authoritarians; 3) dictators have learned how to mobilize counter-protests; and 4) despite their strengths, leaderless (or "leaderful") movements struggle to negotiate.

Community System Solutions Framework Offers an Alternative to Collective Impact Model

Rong Wang, Katherine R. Cooper and Michelle Shumate write on SSIR with a new way (and I always love a good 2x2—see below) for thinking about cross-sector collaboration, as an alternative to the popular "collective impact" model.

Who else to follow

Since I'm rarely able to publish as frequently as planned, I'll leave you with recommendations for a few other newsletters that manage to regularly publish good content.

Have a great holiday season. See you all in 2020.

Dave