Monday, May 04, 2009

Breaking new boxes

Photo by Cheryl Senter for The New York Times

I'm trained as an historian so I like to put things into time boxes - the sixties, the 1300s, etc. Anthropologists put things into cultural boxes, sociologists into institutional or network boxes, statisticians into percentages, engineers into problem statements, medical doctors into diseases, and so on. How we learn and how we live shape, and are shaped by, how we think and how we make sense of the world. So statements such as this one "The lines between the sectors have blurred, I’m reminded, and it’s the IRS that forces incorporated entities into nonprofit and for-profit boxes. " from Al Ruesga on the new blog Re: Philanthropy should not be taken lightly.

Not just because I completely agree with Al, and have said so for, well, forever, but because these are not simple things. Breaking down the boxes that we use to make sense of the world is a big, scary thing. The "fact" that people of different ages or different backgrounds see things in different boxes can both explain some significant changes (e.g. a major zeitgeist shift between the 1960s and the 2000s regarding the idea that markets can be used for positive social purposes). These differences can also heighten tension between groups, and make it harder to find common ground, not easier. It is not just the boxes we use to explain things, or the boxes that develop as part of our tax code. Our boxes of time, place, and access are also shifting.

For example, As I write this I am listening to the MP3 from a conference call that ASHOKA led for bloggers with two recent winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize. I attended the Goldman award ceremony, but I still tried to participate in this conference call. However, I was in a session at the Global Philanthropy Forum when the call occurred. So here I am, a week later, listening to a recording of the call. So my "time box" for the call is different - I have my insights from the original awards ceremonies, the framework from the GPF, and the insights from the callers on the recording all running through my head.

Of course, there are even more immediate questions about "boxes" raised by this call. The Goldman Prize winners come from NGOs - one who worked successfully with government and one who struggled against government to be successful. Other questions come to mind - such as how can the ASHOKA network benefit (and benefit from) the Goldman Prize winners? Or how might the Global Philanthropy Forum benefit from these various fellows programs or prize winners? Can we connect these various individuals and entities in ways that multiplies their impact or will connecting the known groups simply exacerbate the exclusion of others?

Some of our mental and literal boxes aren't just being broken - they are being blown apart. When TheExtraordinaries reconfigures volunteering so you can make a difference while standing on line for the bus it is not just creating a cool phone app, it is building something new to match our "blown apart" senses of place, time and commitment. When NeighborWorks America creates shared impact measures and an online hosted system to collect the data, it is not just developing a revenue stream for its operations but it is fundamentally altering the role of information as a tool to improve communities. The World Digital Library is one of those ever- more-common virtual creations whose very title requires me re-define each word in it - what is a library? where is it located? When I was asked to join a panel about "philanthropy in the cloud" I realized I'd run up smack into my own limits. Thankfully, the participants at #09ntc knew all about the possibilities of remotely-hosted information and applications. The futures we collectively imagined were, indeed, box-breaking.

Our boxes - definitions, expectations, time - just don't work the way they once did. Some of this might cause us to want to sit down because our heads are spinning. A good dog walk helps at times like this. So can reading snippets from, or all of, the new book by Mark Constantine, called Wit and Wisdom which presents thoughtful reflections from philanthropic leaders across the country and across time. The book reminded me (as I noted in my blurb for it) that "... change comes when hard work, patience, and pain meet vision, a commitment to justice, and the humor and humility of episodic progress.” Much of the talk about Justice Souter's retirement from the Supreme Court has made him sound a bit odd for needing to escape from Washington in order to think. Personally, I think he's on to something. My challenge is figuring out how to sit and think while still employed, since retirement is far off at best - it may well be another example of a mental box that has broken.

The big changes can be too big for sense-making on a regular basis. My work is driven by my interest in the question, "What is public and what is private, who decides, and how is that changing?" But I can't consider that question in its entirety every day. Instead I try to make sense of "phone-enabled volunteering," "B Corporations," or the "White House Office of Social Innovation." I consider the different expectations that my 80 year old mother had about the role of the government and those that my 8 year old son might be developing. And I try to question my own assumptions about what is fixed, what can be changed, and which boxes might be breaking before my very eyes.

1 comment:

Evonne @ Amoration said...

Thank you Lucy, I enjoyed your talk at #ntc09 very much and posted a few shots of the slides at Flickr. Your panel was one of very few I've heard this year that tackles the tougher question of who holds information in the philanthropic process: in the past grantees and applicants have always felt at a strong disadvantage and have had a hard time forging productive relationships with foundations, partially due to systems that are outdated & slowly move forward toward open APIs and cloudsharing. While I think we have a marvelous opportunity here to close the gaps and increase conversation and transparency I am still concerned that we are giving away all information into structures that may shut down on us for business/moral reasons (think Amazon) or may be misused (as Chinese hackers once did to our organizational website/domains/emails). How do organizations and their officers better prepare to share as much as possible without giving away valuable data that makes them vulnerable to attack or disruptions in service?