In Mary Shelley’s beloved novel, Dr. Frankenstein was a visionary member of the scientific community of his day, who, sensing the terrible nature of his work, isolated himself from the world to conduct his experiments. He was a god-like figure, a “modern Prometheus” breathing new life into inanimate flesh.
Imagine how a well-meaning member of the nonprofit or foundation world might have rewritten Shelley’s tale. Perhaps, from this perspective, Dr. Frankenstein’s approach to creating human life was too top-down. This is what ultimately led his townsmen to take up their torches and pitchforks to hunt down and kill his monster.
Suppose instead that Dr. Frankenstein had invited each villager to dig up his or her favorite body part in the churchyard and bring that to a community visioning process. The creature, when finally stitched together, might have sported five arms and two heads and been unable to breathe for lack of a trachea, but it would have been their monster.
Unfortunately, research indicates that group brainstorming processes that involve simply eliciting and accepting the contributions of multiple participants, without examining these contributions critically, rarely outperform processes that incorporate a robust measure of respectful disagreement and debate.
“Never, ever brainstorm,” cautioned Jonah Lehrer, the keynote speaker at a recent Grantmakers for Effective Organizations conference in Seattle.
And yet brainstorming, “consensus-building” processes are endemic to our field. Every potentially bone-headed thing we’ve ever said is reverently recorded on a piece of flipchart paper now hanging in some facilitator’s office. Being overly cautious not to offend our colleagues, we self-edit our “yes, buts” into “yes, ands,” as if by doing so we can bleach out the stain of our disagreement.
That is how we in the foundation world take what might be an extraordinary tale, a great advance in human knowledge, and turn it through groupthink into lifeless quiltwork. These processes account for the myriad incoherent mission statements we encounter in our work, which are not so much mission statements as overwrought landscape paintings attempting to capture every inconsequential detail of some alien terrain. What might have been simple statements of purpose are often yes-anded into meaningless word salad.
Inclusiveness is an important value in nonprofit work, I get that. Yet I often find that a regard for including all points of view in these processes does more to make us feel good than to improve our work. We celebrate our consensus not fully understanding what the cost is to the communities we serve.
Philanthropy lacks the respectful, yet bracing, debate that is so much a part of the culture of the business world and of academia. It would take a deliberate and sustained effort to shift our culture, but doing so might at least help us avoid compounding the sin of ineffectiveness with the sin of incoherence.