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A System of Curated Venues

An “organizational concept” is just a shorthand way to talk about the variety of features that a specific kind of organization has.

We regularly talk about “holding companies,” “nonprofits,” “trade associations,” etc., because these terms give us quick and useful insight into how an entity is organized and operates.  Sometimes these distinctions are encoded into law, other times they’re there to help distinguish economic strategies, such as, “merchant banks,” “investment banks” and “mutual funds.”

When talking about a new or uncommon organizational concept, the burden of explanation falls on the user of the term.  This is especially true for concepts of distributed organizations.

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Self-”Organization” – A Primer

The word “organization” carries with it so much baggage,  I find it useful to have a precise working definition.  It’s hard to get “out-of-the-box” if we don’t understand how big the box we’re in actually is.

I normally define organization something like:

A system of agreements, either implicit or explicit, which guides and coordinates actions among people, makes decisions binding on a group, defines common beliefs, and/or determines access to or disposition of resources created by or available to a group.  Agreements usually cover such issues as authority to take or direct action, management of common resources, manner and consequences of making and enforcing agreements, among others.

This definition is intentionally broad — encompassing everything from culture as a whole to the family unit and friendships.  For many purposes, such a definition is too broad and brings in too many unnecessary complications.  However, if having an impact on social change is part of the intention, I haven’t found anything narrower to be sufficient.

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Avoiding Egotheosis

Published on August 20, 2012 by in Philanthropy

An occupational hazard of working in a foundation is the risk of developing egotheosis.

The condition results from the near-continuous deference that your opinions and judgements are given by grantees,  consultants, etc. — anyone wanting access to the foundation’s money.  Prospective grantees seeking funds will work hard to state their case in terms and arguments that are affirming to the your program strategy.  If they hear you say something stupid, they won’t risk offending you by pointing it out.  Current grantees seek out your opinions on issues to make sure that they can match any shifts in focus that might be brewing.  Everything that you say, think or do is greeted with something akin to adoration.

Constant immersion in this environmental can easily lead you to think that you are omniscient, omnipotent and, well, god-like…

Here’s a quick self-test:  In the image above, which hand is the grantmaker’s and which is the grantee’s?

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Mitochondrial vs Viral Strategies

imgur.com/3DF1M

imgur.com/3DF1M

Chilled Out ‘Lazy Cat’ Goes Viral” read a recent Huffington Post headline.

This use of the term “viral” is now commonplace, i.e., something that suddenly becomes very popular and  circulates quickly from person to person, especially across the Internet.  Viral marketing, viral videos, viral political messages,  viral cute cat pictures…  They all share the common metaphor of a virus: first catch the virus, then spread the virus.

It is ironic that businesses and others have embraced this concept so completely, since it brings to mind some the worst stereotypes of business practices:

A virus takes over a host cell’s creative capacity and uses it to make copies of itself and perpetuate itself, usually at the expense of the host. Do big chain stores entering small towns spring to mind?  Or the fact that you can’t go anywhere in the world without seeing a McDonald’s?

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Balancing and Harmonizing Principles

Published on August 14, 2012 by in Principles

Any principle — no matter how good, how true
or how just — if taken to an extreme,
will
lead to disaster.

It’s easy to see this in the political realm.  The democratic principle that each individual should have a high degree of autonomy, if taken to the extreme, can lead to anarchy.  The principle of first voice, that communities should be able to define and protect their own identity, if taken to the extreme, can lead to fascism.  Each principle is important to honor, but not to the exclusion of other, equally important principles.

Similarly, in the current commercial environment, every business needs to be highly innovative and adaptive to changing market conditions.  It’s an important business principle.  But if taken to the extreme, a company can drown in R&D costs and will never establish a clear brand in the marketplace.  Giving people what they want to buy requires a certain degree of continuity over time and in terms of product portfolio, business processes and the like.  Yet taken to the extreme, this principle can lead obsolete products and less productive processes.

Even the best principle needs one or more balancing principles to keep its potential excesses in check.

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First Voice

Published on August 8, 2012 by in Principles

I was first introduced to the principle of “first voice” by Helen Valdez, one of the founders of National Museum of Mexican Art in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago.  She observed that all the curated exhibits of Mexican American art in the city (and most in the country) were curated by non-Mexicans-Americans.

“This is wrong,” I recall her saying.

“The members of a culture — those that experience it on a daily basis — should have the primary right to define, interpret  and present their culture to others.”

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A Critique of Impact Investing

Published on August 6, 2012 by in Philanthropy

I’ve spent much of my career exploring how we might improve the social and environmental impact of business and other economic enterprises.  And much of that time has focused on the challenge of investing charitable assets for both social and economic returns, which for many is the very definition of “impact investing.”

So, this is a fairly loving critique.  In fact, it won’t really be a critique of impact investing at all, but instead a critique of Impact Investing (note the change in capitalization).  That is, this is not intended to be a criticism of the activity or intention of investing for social benefit — which is a central issue of our time — but rather a concern that by treating it as a field we may inadvertently marginalize and minimize its potential.

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Failure of Imagination?

Published on August 6, 2012 by in Philanthropy, Stories

Foundation folks can be full of themselves at times.

Well, ok, most of the time…  And it’s a great risk for a grantee to point it out, especially when their grant is up for review.

But one such brave soul taught me an invaluable lesson.

A major conference was is town, and we took the opportunity to host a dinner for several of the Joyce Foundation’s major environmental policy grantees at my favorite local restaurant.  We were proud how consistently forward-thinking and innovative our grantees were, and wanted to thank them for their often under-appreciated work.

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The First Grantee

Published on August 5, 2012 by in Philanthropy

$18 million…  You can do a lot with a grantmaking budget of that size.  But with all the important things to do in the world, where should that first grant go?  Which grantee deserves that level of confidence and support?

Answering these questions led me to a surprising result, and a staggering responsibility.

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