Shifting Conditions That Hold Problems in Place

Two of my colleagues/friends have written very useful posts reflecting on practices that can enhance any year end reflections and new years planning you may be cooking up. Many of you who know me how much I value what emerges from practice and my learning path is to understand these things from a complexity perspective in various systems. Recently a client pointed me to a FSG blog post which had a link to a quote that has enlivened this path.

Social Innovation Generation in Canada defines systems change as “shifting the conditions that are holding the problem in place.

Savor that one for a minute.

For me, the blog posts noted below give us some ideas about shifting those conditions that are holding our problems in place!

First, Mike Parker of Liminal Coaching shares a great set of ideas framing the complexity of todays work world (work in the broadest sense!) What is wonderful is that if you keep reading, you will get to Mike’s gift: the value of daydreaming in helping us navigate our complex worlds. Yes, daydreaming. He riffs on the time management Pomodoro practice and creates Liminal Pomodoro – a practice to relax and let your mind do its work in that daydreaming state of mind. This might be helping conditions in our own minds that are holding our problems in place. Read the post – seriously. Then go take a Liminal Pomodor break and come back and read the rest of this post. Who knows, you may see it in a whole new light!

The second post comes from Michelle Medley-Daniel from the Fire Adapted Network Community. I had the chance to work with Michelle and hear team last year and we played with many complexity informed practices such as Liberating Structure. Michelle informed me that what she learned during that retreat had continued to add value over the year – which of course made my day.

Michelle’s reflections came around the US Thanksgiving holiday and reflected one of my favorite themes, abundance and ditching the scarcity mindset. To me, these are not Pollyanna-ish practices, but survival skills. When you take a different perspective, you have the chances of shifting the conditions that are – yes – holding the problems in place. I’ve snipped the high level essence of 2 pieces of advice below, but let the beautiful pie picture lure you into her full posting.

How Practicing “Enough” and Looking Ahead Can Support Social Innovation

Idea 1: Adopt an abundance mentality and give scarcity thinking the boot!

  • Give freely.
  • Check your pace; make space for your priorities.
  • Practice gratitude.

Idea 2: As you reflect on the strategic opportunities that lie ahead, consider how people think about the future.

In the times of the immense wildfires in California, and the work that Michelle and her colleagues do at the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network, this advice seems urgent and important.

Let’s shift the conditions that are holding the problems in place!

KM4Dev and Bev and Etienne Wenger-Trayner – April 6-7 2017

Care about communities of practice? Care about how we build and share knowledge in any context? In international development? Like hanging out with fun and interesting people? Then get yourself registered for a regional KM4Dev gathering here in Seattle on April 6-7. Our focus is communities of practice: the heaven and everything else. (Registration)

Our goal is to share practical experiences of the application of Communities of Practice (CoPs) and explore what is working, not working, when and why or why not. As practitioners, we will share stories and cases on day 1 to extract patterns and insights with a particular focus on the purpose of a CoP in a particular context, its fitness for purpose and practices that support success.

On day 2, tighten your seat belts as we will host a rare public workshop with CoP leading thinkers, Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner who will share their Value Creation Framework to  identify and measure value created by communities and networks. Together, the two days will link the essential anchor of purpose, with an emerging framework for assessing our progress towards purpose. I don’t know about you, but there are not many frameworks that really dig into the value of CoPs and networks… too many just measure activity. This is a GOLD MINE, my friends. Don’t miss it!

This is a practitioners workshop, using examples and experience, bolstered by theory. It is not a “CoP’s Introductory” workshop nor a review of CoP theory. Come with your real world stories, challenges and insights, prepared to share, think, and make sense of our work. We will use a variety of participatory methods, many drawn from Liberating Structures, to engage and unleash the knowledge and energy of everyone present.

Don’t work in international development? We still love and welcome you!

We will gather in the brand new Centilia Cultural Center at Plaza Roberto Maestas, hosted by the long time Seattle institution, El Centro de la Raza. In the south end of Seattle, steps away from a Light Rail station, the Center itself is a hub of community and network activity of the Latino community in the area.

Come both days or just one (same price either way). Just JOIN US. Register HERE. Questions? Leave them in the comments.

“Things We Need in Order to Do Our Jobs and Make the World Better Dammit” (TWNODOJMWBD)

From 2004 Hero's Journey WorkshopI strongly recommend all of you who (still!) read this blog and who work in nonprofits, care about the role of service in our communities, have been served or have served a non profit, (etc. etc. etc.) to read Vu Le’s post, General operating funds, admin expenses, and why we nonprofits are our own worst enemies . So that means ALL of you who are readers from the US. And this applies to NGOs as well, so that probably means ALL of you.

I have worked for non profits as staff, consultant and/or volunteer most of my adult life and all I can say to Vu is AMEN! The farce of fundraising language used to drive me crazy as a non profit staffer. The way we fund and account for money in US non profits is insane, and take that in the context of the proliferation of non profits, the whole thing starts sinking. And if you think the US is crazy, look into large NGOs and UN agencies. Mama mia!

And at whose expense is this farce? Those we seek to serve. So get our your checkbook, bitcoin, credit card or even cash. Walk over to your favorite non profit and give them money with no strings.

Accountability you say? Here is the magic sauce. After you fork over your money, fork over your time. Pay attention to what’s happening around you. Then you become part of the real accountability process. Is something good happening that the organization with and for its constituency? Is there learning happening through both successes and failures? Are more people talking about and aware of the organization and its mission, bringing in more support?

Vu also outlined 7 ways non profit staff can help shift towards more honest funding and accountability. I’m putting in some snippets here:

  1. Stop saying “100% (or 98%, or 95% or whatever) of your donations go into programming.” …The next time you attend a fundraising event that says “100% of your donations…,” forward them this blog post. Or, raise your paddle and then loudly proclaim, “I want my donations to support administrative expenses!”

  2. Publicly recognize funders who support general operating funds. …These are our strongest allies, like Unmi Song of the Lloyd A. Fry Foundation or Paul Shoemaker of Social Venture Partners. 

  3. Stop using the term “overhead” or “indirect.” We need to change these crappy words and phrases with all the negative connotations. …From now on, in all our annual reports and in general, let’s call it “critical infrastructure” or “core support” or “Things We Need in Order to Do Our Jobs and Make the World Better Dammit” (TWNODOJMWBD)

  4. Stop artificially deflating numbers and apologizing for percentage spent on critical infrastructure….“There is no standardized way to calculate admin expenses, so the comparison is meaningless. Plus, we strongly believe that investing in critical infrastructure like staff development leads to much better outcomes.”

  5. Stop seeking the approval of charity watchdog organizations like Charity Navigator, Charity Watch, and Better Business Bureau/Wise Giving Alliance. …until they figure out a way to accurately measure organizations’ effectiveness, their rankings are misleading and distracting.

  6. Write in a line-item for reserve funds in your organization’s operating budget. … Build in a line for reserves, and if anyone whines about it, explain why it’s important and ask them to support it or else to stop asking about sustainability.

  7. Push back, and be willing to lose a funder. …Sometimes, telling the truth or refusing to break down our expenses and forcing people to focus on outcomes, or refusing to accept funds to do things that would ultimately cost us more than it brings in revenues, may cost us a funder or donor, but this short-term sacrifice may be far better for our organization and for our sector in the long run.

I’ve forked over my money. Now I have to hold ME accountable and return to forking over time.

A confession: A few years ago I did some work for Social Venture Partners here in Seattle. I was deeply impressed with how they operated at every level and their strong intentions to see and work at a systems level. I almost became an investor, but personally felt outside of the culture of the other investors so I shied away. But as I read Vu’s comments about the value and importance of how SVP invests in its communities with both money and time, I am reminded how important these approaches are. Whether I join an SVP, or I find a kindred approach, I reconfirm my intention that it is not just what we do to support our communities, but how we do. And funding all facets of the work is critical.

Ponderings on Network & Community Governance Part 1

Warning: LONG thinking-out-loud post! And note, the best stuff is in the comments!

For the last month or so there have been some very interesting conversations on the KM4Dev email discussion. One of them has been a reflection on the governance of KM4Dev, particularly the role of the current Core Group and the overall business model. KM4Dev has been around for over 10 years and grown to be a vibrant and respected community. It certainly is one of my very central communities of practice and I love and fret over it a lot. I was on the Core group from its inception until about 18 months ago when I stepped out, partly from burnout, partly from frustration, but keenly aware that my “just do it” attitude had longer term ramifications of people expecting me and the other “do-ers” to, well, just get it done. That is dis-empowering. (And I can be, um, a little dominating? 🙂 ) Now, back to the question of governance.

This begs the question, what kind of animal IS KM4Dev? A community of practice (CoP)? A loose, affiliated network of people interested in KM in development? A service? How should this inform our choices? Are there sufficient distinctions in the governance and supporting infrastructure of a larger network, versus a more bounded community? Or is it more dependent on the nature of that community or network?

As I read the messages, there were those who advocated a strong group for governance, for a paid secretariat staff. For formality. Others suggested developing multiple local offshoots and centralize the support functions in those volunteer hubs. From ideas for spin offs that embrace diverse business models, pleas for funding, to a very open, “let it be” model, all struck me as models that reflected each person’s world view.  Some  fundamentally urged the group to become more of an advocate for KM in development as a community, while others kept a more CoP-traditional perspective of the group as a place for its own learning. Do academics prefer more formality? What causes people to think paid positions are more generative for the community than volunteering? Are there ramifications beyond reliability? SOOOO many things to consider.

I then sent the following message to the group (this is just part of the message. It was a rambly, early morning thing!):

Here is my perception (NOT FACT) Those of us who prefer structure and some degree of formality discussed more about governance and secretariat (and I suppose, have a clearer idea about that differentiation. It is not a language used outside of development much here in the US!) Those of us who prefer informality (or perhaps, just fleeing too much structure!) emphasize the more emergent and adhoc options. Those who are taking a strong community lens focus on the community aspects of volunteerism and self organization. Those with a KM lens, (which in fact, have not stood out in my memory of reading these threads — INTERESTING) advocate for structures which focus on KM and finally, some have advocated structure that in fact advocates for international development.

How do we find your way forward with all these options? Furthermore, how do you discern options where people will “walk their talk” and pick up leadership. It is all nice and good to say “YOU should do this or that.” But in the end, if no one in the community is willing to step up to the tasks, all is probably lost. If no one cares enough to value and use what is provided – paid or not, what is it worth?

Consider this:  if you look at the number of people posting in the thread (less than 20?) compared to the list of members on the email list and/or our NING site (2500+), how do you reconcile the individual advocacy for a particular path forward with the huge, silent, larger whole? To whom does this “governance” thing matter? Is it important to those who simply see KM4Dev as an email list they can dip into when they need it – a sort of service? To those who avidly read, but rarely or never post for a host of reasons? To those of us who perhaps love KM4dev too much? 🙂

So I started doodling.  Is it useful to examine our governance and structure questions from a variety of lenses, and then find out if there is a sweet spot between them? From the conversation I discerned three possible lenses or perspectives including:  Community, KM (in development) and Advocacy for KM in Development. Here is what I sketched on my notebook.


For example, philosophically I absolute love the idea that KM4Dev should be more altruistic and more actively serve development. The realist in me says this is a structural mismatch, that indeed, by focusing on community and KM, we become stronger agents of that wider change through other, more formalized structures (of our orgs, etc) and we become INFLUENCERS as a network.  But that does not exclude forays into advocacy. The lenses do not imply “either/or” but simply help us explore from a variety of perspectives. Here is a very imperfect first try and looking across the three example lenses :  


If I look across the three, there is less difference between the community lens and the domain lens, while the advocacy lens presents unique benefits and needs. As noted above, it looks to be a far stretch for KM4Dev to pull that off. That said, KM4Dev might be an amazing incubator for a more focused group working on the advocacy.

So the next level of resource implications are about the degree of importance KM4Dev activities and artifacts have to be polished to the level of acceptance by development organizations and practitioners outside of the community. In other words, legitimacy beyond the community. This seems to require more infrastructure and thus more refined business models (funding) and processes.

So the question is, what does the community want and what can it pull off. And I’d personally add, how does it differentiate itself from yet another organization?

Help me improve my thinking.

P.S. If you look back up to the first image, you will see some scribbling on the lower right of the notebook sketch. I’ll post about that in the next blog post.  Stay tuned for Part 2 of Nancy’s Ramblings….

From Faster than 20: Civic Engagement Funders Aligning for Impact

I’m running like a maniac today, but this post from Eugene Eric Kim is to spot on to pass by. My highlights are the attention to online meeting design, shared visuals and slowing down to really notice what is going on. I hope that makes you want to click in and read. Image from the blog post by Amy Wu. Click to see the whole thing!

Civic Engagement Funders Aligning for Impact

Civic Engagement Funders Aligning for Impact.