In 2012, I had the opportunity to attend an event featuring Marion Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund. She provided many pearls of wisdom in her remarks, as most inspiring people do, but one lesson remained with me more than any other. I wrote it on a note card and have it placed prominently next to my computer. When I need inspiration, or when I am occasionally feeling we like we aren’t making an impact, I reflect on the five nuggets Ms. Edelman shared.
They relate to the story of Noah and his arc.
1. Don’t miss the boat.
I’ve never been one to sit back and let life pass me by, or to dilly-dally and miss the boat. However, in the world of instant information sharing and data reporting, sometimes I feel like I fall behind. Occasionally that can be to my benefit—I can find the facts after they’ve all been vetted, rather than jumping on a bandwagon (er, band-boat).
But sometimes we are bogged down with so much data and evaluation that we are unable to jump on the boat while it’s still at the dock. Sometimes you need to take a leap of faith and board the boat because if you miss it, you may be missing out on progress. There is no one to say you can’t drop the dingy and row back to shore if you get on the wrong boat.
In philanthropy we are advised to look at benchmarks and evaluation criteria; to fund evidenced-based models; to rely on quantitative data. But we also have the ability to take risks—to fund new ideas and programs—where government cannot. So how do you know when to risk and when to wait? Similarly, nonprofits are advised of what funders are advised, so they are trying to evaluate and run evidenced-base programs. But how do they tackle an issue with creativity? Help each other find a balance. Take risks. Try new ideas. Think outside the box.
I think in order to not miss the boat we need to question the status quo. Questioning something is different from attacking. It is necessary to ask if a program is really working, or if a neighborhood is ever going to improve, or if kids will always do poorly with certain obstacles. Maybe that program you question is already amazing. That’s fantastic—you know it’s amazing because you truly assessed it. Or maybe it’s a good program, and with a little creativity it can go from good to great. Maybe that neighborhood doesn’t always have to be the “bad” neighborhood. Maybe the people who live there are eager for change but need the right support. Just because a child has experienced certain hardships, socio-economic barriers or disabilities, it may not mean their fate has been decided for them. Our responsibility is to take that amazing program and make it better, and bigger, and inspire more people to board the boat.
If we are constantly asking “how can we do better?” we will be able to take great ideas and amplify them to make a bigger and deeper impact. If we wait and get comfortable we’ll doze off, and the next thing we’ll wake up to the boat sailing off in the distance.
Curious about Lesson 2? It will pull into port next week…