Soon after I began my job here at Fletcher Foundation, I found myself reviewing an email invitation our Executive Director, Damon Circosta, was planning to send out to several dozen partners and friends for something called “Thursdays at Fletcher.” I placed my “grammar police” cap and “let’s impress the boss” jacket on and started reading…

“Friends,

I hope you are all enjoying your summer.

I’m trying something here. One of the things I think the non-profit community doesn’t do that well is find ways to talk to one another in a relaxed, social atmosphere. Let’s change that.

No agenda, no trust falls, no speakers.

What comes out of this? Who knows. Maybe you meet a new colleague, or connect with an old friend. Maybe you learn something, or just score a cold beverage.

Just some getting together, a casual, happy hour style get-together.”

I was floored. He lost me at “no agenda” if I’m being honest.

We would go on to host several of these gatherings throughout the last few years and after each one, we received positive feedback. But I was still skeptical. I live in data land where all activities must follow a strategy and be measured and evaluated. And here I was working with someone who says “What comes of this? Who knows.”

Now… I get it. Our happy hour gatherings were about creating personal connections amongst people that often times work together but don’t really know each other. Despite best attempts, you can’t form relationships during the five minute (or 20?) round-the-table introductions where you state your name, organization, and something you did the previous weekend. It’s not enough.

So why does personal connection matter? It builds trust. And trust is critical if we’re going to work together.

At Fletcher Foundation, we believe that collaboration is important, and even necessary if we are to be innovative in the social sector. But I often sense that people don’t know each other beyond their credentials and, in turn, close each other off to hearing and being open to each other’s ideas.

I’d like to suggest a few things we can all start implementing to build trust, enabling us to more effectively work together in the nonprofit sector. And no… trust falls will not be on this list.

For every organization we work with, for every MOU we create, write down shared values and goals between the organizations. Before outlining ground rules and boundaries and mapping out relationship management, wouldn’t it be great to step back and recognize that we’re all working towards the same thing? And remind ourselves along the way that we have so much more in common than we have differences or are competing against one another.

Take blame. Give credit. We all want our organizations to shine and are afraid of the f-word (*cough* failure *cough*). But can we all acknowledge we’re not perfect and sometimes make mistakes? I took part in this year’s FailFest and couldn’t have been more impressed by all of the organizations that took the risk to get up there and air their professional dirty laundry. Perhaps we can also have a “High Five Fest” (I’m open to other names here…) where we are banned from bragging on our own organizations and must publicly share how our partners/other organizations have hit it out of the park.

Be humble. Yes, it’s important to show competence. Our boards are relying on us to do great work. We need to keep our paychecks coming. But we’re not experts in everything. I believe others will trust us more if we’re willing to share what our weaknesses are and allow for others to help us fill in those gaps, either by building our capacity or partnering with others to fill in. People are much more willing to work with you if you show them how comfortable and open you are with learning. No one likes the know-it-all. Plus… no one is the know-it-all. They just want you to think so.

No one speaks twice until everyone speaks once. One of my first jobs after college was working at City Year’s headquarters in Boston. The organization’s founders developed a technique for the organization that enables diverse groups to function well at the same table. No one speaks twice until everyone speaks once. NOSTUESO. As an assistant, I was regularly invited to join meetings with senior leadership– not as someone who sat on the back wall and observed, but as someone at the table offering insight and suggestions. After growing accustomed to this culture, I had a rough time being a part of occasional conversations where one person or organization hogged conversation time and drowned out or talked over other voices. We can build trust by inviting awareness and inclusivity to everyone at the table.

Share information. How many times have we analyzed organizations, judging them for “keeping their cards close to their chest?” Sure, there’s a lot of information about our programs and practices that we can’t make public. And there’s certainly not a lot we can just publish on our websites. But even relatively simple things that others have shared with me — media lists, job descriptions, lists of recommended vendors — have helped me tremendously. We can open ourselves up to greater trust and deeper relationships when we demonstrate transparency and openness.

My favorite word is “ubuntu.” Of South African origin, it’s roughly translated as seeing one’s humanity expressed through their relationship with others, through recognizing their humanity. Or as Desmond Tutu describes:

“A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole.”

A greater whole. How often I lose sight of this. My day-to-day work becomes the focus — my tasks, memos, presentations. My my my. But in the nonprofit sector, we’re often working on monumental tasks that none of our organizations can solve in isolation. We must work together to solve big social problems, therefore, we must work to trust one another.

If you have thoughts or suggestions to share, please include them in the comments below or tweet them to @AJFfoundation. Specifically, we want to know how we can be more effective stewards of collaboration and break down some of the trust-busting practices we are likely guilty of.

-Shannon Ritchie

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