Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Promised Land

The title Jay Parini chose for his study of the “thirteen books that changed America“ could not have been more apt.  He called it “The Promised Land,” after a title of one of the books selected and because it was a powerful theme that ran through the other twelve.  The story of America – past, present, future – is the search for promised lands of all manner and imagination.  The most successful philanthropy-seeking organizations make themselves integral to that narrative.

I liken the role of CEOs of philanthropy-seeking organizations to the masters of wagon trains, those that led waves upon waves of settlers in “prairie schooners”, across the country, usually from Independence, Missouri, to various parts west.   The wagon master could not marshal the resources necessary if he could not define the destination and how long it would take to get there.  It could not be a dream or a hope or a catchy slogan or an enumeration of ideals; it had to be an actual place that could be reached within a reasonable time.  And it had to be a place worth the sacrifice required.  If wagon masters promised too little, the settlers would not be motivated to endure the hardships ahead.  If they promised too much, they would ultimately disappoint if not embitter those entrusted to their care.

As wagon trains jostled west, wagon masters learned the ways to keep settlers’ morale high was to maintain steady progress toward the promised land.  If wagon masters became indecisive or captive of the councils of camp elders, or content to settle down too soon, wagons would break away from their trains and join others.  If we substitute purpose and progress for process, or set our sights too low, we lose our supporters.

The path to the promised land was not a high speed highway but a sinuous, often tenuous and sometimes treacherous trail whose markings could be washed away by prodigious floods or obliterated by blinding blizzards.  The way could be threatened or slowed by no end of natural disasters or by hostile or disaffected tribes. Wagon masters, for all their organizational and political skills, learned to rely on scouts, usually mountain men, who knew the terrain “like the backs of their hands.”  Scouts rode well ahead of the wagon train, making sure the trail was intact and in a condition to accommodate the weight of all that would follow.  They also sought out fresh water, hunted game, identified edible roots and berries, and negotiated passage with various tribes.  

I liken the role of advancement leader to that of scouts.  They must ride ahead of the enterprise and help it see how the landscape is changing.  They must let their wagon masters know when the train needs to change course to avoid insurmountable rockslides or obstinate mud, or when there is an opportunity to secure more plentiful supplies of food and water.  That often entails diverting institutional imperatives away from the short run so that progress can be sustained for over a long journey. They cannot do their job by staying encamped or being content to ride alongside the settlers. They cannot assume that the resources that were available to previous wagon trains will be theirs for the mere asking or taking.  They must spend much more time powwowing with those that will make the passage ahead possible than hobnobbing around the campfires of the encircled wagons.

The best of scouts never went it alone; they knew their knowledge, no matter how deep, must be supplemented by the even deeper and more specialized knowledge of indigenous tribes along the trail.  They recruited Native Americans to help them at crucial stages of the journey to perform critical functions.  The advancement scout must think of the volunteer in the same way.

If we in the advancement field are to help our organizations move steadily toward a promised land, we need to be less concerned with building out our organizations and more with augmenting them with select specialized volunteer talent.  We cannot recruit the best volunteer talent if we don’t realize how crucial they are at certain points in our journey and if we are not willing to allow them to perform critical tasks on our behalf.  We must scout first for talent, then just money.  We can no longer afford to look only for the conspicuously monied and try to humor them by insisting that we’re really interested in their talent. We must look harder and longer for inconspicuous skill and substance, irrespective of money.  We must believe, and treat them as if they are essential to our enterprise.

The more time we spend scouting out skills and incorporating substance into our enterprise, the more we can ensure it will make steady progress toward the promised land.  And there is no better case for that enterprise than having defined an audacious but attainable promised land, having a clear but adaptive plan for getting there, demonstrating initial progress toward it, and showing where additional investment will quicken its pace and ensure the probability of its success.

The move west, contrary to myth, was not a function of rugged individualism but of enlightened collaboration.  Success was born of a practical realization of the need for interdependence and reciprocity, an often uneven and unruly phenomenon in its day-to-day manifestation but absolutely essential to reaching the promised land.