By Trista Harris
Today I am proposing nothing short of a revolution in the philanthropic field. What if foundations were connected to the communities that they were serving; innovation and creativity were encouraged; knowledge was shared within organizations and with the larger philanthropic and nonprofit sectors; and foundations were measured on the results of their investments, not just amount of money spent or number of staff? I know you are probably asking yourselves right now, “what kind of crazy alternative universe are you living in Trista Harris?”
I should probably back up. Any time you are proposing a revolution, it’s important to give proper background or else you scare people off. The philanthropic landscape is changing. Baby Boomers are beginning to retire or re-imagine their positions. Donors are more actively engaged and want measurable results, and the government is spending a lot of time and energy trying to reign in the philanthropic sector. Professional philanthropic staff are trying to figure out how to do more with less time. How do we re-invigorate our troops of professional do-gooders to make sure that are connected to the communities that they serve and have the capacity to move the philanthropic sector from potential to results?
As a life long staff member of nonprofits, I always cringe when someone, usually a board member, says “if you just applied business principals to your work, all your problems would be solved.” But, I think I have found an idea from the for-profit sector that could solve a variety of our sector’s ills. Flexible work schedules and telecommuting have become commonplace in many for-profit organizations, but a Minnesota company has taken flexibility to the next level with the results-only work environment. Best Buy, an electronics retailer, has given its employees full control of how, when, and where they work. A guiding premise is that “work is something you do, not somewhere you go.” This means that employees take conference calls while fishing and start project planning after their kids go to bed. This new model has decreased turnover but, more important to our conversation, has improved productivity by 35%.
What if Program Officers suddenly became office-less? What if we spent our time in the communities that we serve, rather than in a stuffy conference room talking about the community? Would this change force us to create knowledge management systems to connect this out-based workforce? Would that system then institutionalize the wisdom that is currently only available inside of an “about to retire” program officer’s head? How much more effective could our work be? Flexibility breeds innovation and it encourages collaboration outside of the “usual suspects.” The people that probably have the best insight about the need for a new community center are the moms and dads that are at a nearby playground during the day. That’s not who most Program Officers are rubbing shoulders with at 11am.
When people are measured by what they accomplish, not how much time they are at their desks, the rules change. Suddenly the star employee isn’t the one who arrives at 6am and leaves at 6pm, it is the one who is most knowledgeable about community solutions and has the most positive effect on their program area. How different would the sector be if we were all working at full capacity and still had time to be a good parent and an engaged community member?
I am proposing a revolution. So let me know, are you in or are you out?