This week we’re talking to Arielle Goodman, Jenny Hegland and Jessica Srikantia.
We talked about:
Otto Schwarmer and the MIT Presencing Institute
Arielle, Jenny and Jessica are a team of colleagues that has been working together for the past six months to discover how they might be of service as a collective. Their work exists in cultivating the spaces between, such as in-between people during times of transition and not knowing, spaces within our own selves, or the connective tissue of complex systems. Together, they explore what is possible in and from wholeness. They are committed to transforming themselves into alignment with life, so that they can support this work in the broader world inclusive of and beyond their individual selves. Their areas of expertise include navigating uncharted terrain in times of uncertainty, helping systems see and sense themselves, and practicing sacred relationships with team and stakeholder groups.
Carol: Welcome. Arielle, Jessica and Jenny to the podcast. I'm very excited for today's conversation. I'm really curious just to get started and to give people some context. What brought each of you to this work? How did you guys come to start working together in the way that you are?
Arielle: I'd be happy to speak a little bit of our origin story, and then I'm going to invite Jenny and Jessica to kind of feed forward with me. I had started taking, U lab course through the presencing Institute MIT. And one of the questions that they ask is who are your partners in the work? A lot of theory, U is based in awareness based systems change, and thinking centering relationships in everything we do. And I had met Jessica synchronistically through an organization that I was employed for. And I had met Jenny, at a social justice event. And for some reason, in sitting with this question of what is my work aligned to life, who are my partners in this work, I kept on thinking of these two humans and it was kind of like the universe was asking me to pay attention. So I invited them to come together and start kind of sensing into what is our relationship and what is our shared work.
Jessica: And as Arielle mentioned, she was the connector for me to meet Jenny and vice versa. And, just one other piece I'll add is the synchronicity of, Arielle and I actually emailed each other at exactly the same moment about working together that Arielle initially thought her email had bounced back to her.
Jenny: That's awesome. I don't remember if I've heard that part of the story. That's great. And the one thing I would add is that I feel like when we first came together, I think one of the things I'm learning to do is to trust the intelligence in my body and everything in my body said, okay. These are people that I can learn from. These are people that I can deal with. These are people that are already bringing out like my most authentic self and like noticing that experience in myself and thinking like, absolutely, yes, this is what I want more of.
Carol: Awesome. Thank you. So you guys say that a part of your expertise includes navigating uncharted terrain in times of uncertainty. And the truth is of course we never know what the future will hold and we're always in the midst of uncertainty. Yet I think we often are kind of lulled into the idea that we kind of live in this illusion that we have control and we can plan and predict. And as a country and even the world, we certainly are in the midst of a time when uncertainty is just impossible to ignore. How are you seeing this particular moment and what do you see may be emerging in it?
Jessica: I can start with a few words on this moment. I think what you said about uncertainty being hard to ignore is very, very true, and it's even felt to me that we're almost living in a moment with no future in the sense that everything feels like it can change immediately. And so from this place, if it actually is forcing all of us to be living in this here and now, and one of the things that Otto Scharmer talks about is that, and this comes from the yogis, enlightened people talk about this, that the present moment is, actually a point that then it has both the past and the future in it and you can respond in two ways. You can respond by opening into the past and bringing the past into the present and the future. Or you can respond by, by integrating oneself and integrating into this present moment and opening into this future that is actually also here now and wanting to emerge.
Carol: And what do you see may be emerging?
Jenny: So the first thing I want to say is that the willingness to navigate this uncharted terrain is more of a commitment to practice than it is an area of expertise. None of us have been here before. And so I don't know that any of us can claim a traditional definition of expertise, meaning we sort of know what we need to do or how to do it. However, what I think that may be emerging in this moment and that we are embracing is an invitation to be in relationship with each other and ask ourselves different kinds of questions. So we've all heard that, you know, we move in the direction of our questions, energy follows attention and all that good stuff. And I think we really believe that. And so the moment, or what's emerging in this moment, this invitation to ask ourselves different kinds of questions for us, really centers a lot in drawing our attention to the source, the place from which we are doing our work and the place from which we are seeing the landscape around us. Right. So we can no longer rely on the map, but we can rely on what I think is our collective ability to see and sense. What is the landscape that we are in, in a given moment, then from that place of awareness together, to sense into how we can move, how we can collectively move and live within that landscape and within the reality of what it is.
Arielle: I'll just add. I think that there's a level of intimacy around the experience of navigating the unknown right now that is intelligent. That the habituated responses and patterns that are fundamental to us being humans in what we do with uncertainty, bringing awareness and seeing what comes up in us and then from a place of consciousness and choice, choosing to move in a different direction. And what's wild is that intimate experience of something that's just so innate or so normal actually allows us as human beings to sense and see the systems that we exist in today. And ask questions. How do those systems serve us? How are they harming us? Are they aligned to all of life and how we are deeply interconnected? And I think that there is so much exceptional learning. That brings our personal intimate experience to, to something that can can't always be felt and experienced or sometimes invisible. So it feels like a very, very important time in this moment in history and the present really.
Carol: Can you give me an example to, to ground that and just a little more specificity and concreteness?
Arielle: So whether that's income employment, looking at the rates of unemployment right now, whether that's people having access to, okay. I want to challenge myself to bring in my personal experience, rather than talking about an experience that's outside of myself. So tomorrow morning, I'm about to drive 12 hours to pick up my mom and grandma who have lived in Chicago their whole lives. And they're about to relocate to Texas. To be closer to my sister. Who's about to have her first baby. My grandma's in her eighties. Look at what's happening with the pandemic right now. We are seeing a surge of COVID cases in Houston, where she's about to relocate. What do I notice in myself? What do I notice in my family? In navigating something that I don't have control over, wanting to know answers, wanting to know that I'm making the right decision, wanting to be able to control this journey that is about to happen. And then inviting myself to sit with the discomfort of not knowing and that I don't have control over these things. And what that experience is like. And the pain or fear or sadness, and also love and passion and like fight or resilience, all of those things, holding all of that complexity and sitting with that and not knowing and feeling that in my body.
Carol: You, you talked about the habituated patterns and so six months ago you would've packed up for that trip. It probably would have been about logistics, you know, do I have, did I remember my charger to make sure that I can access the GPS to get me to Chicago and you know, did I bring enough clothes? Where are we going to stay along the way? And then a simple, it seems like something relatively simple then in this time it amplifies in terms of all of the things that, you know, our concerns. And I was thinking just a simple thing, like watching a movie where a ton of people are walking down the street together suddenly is an uncommon thing. And, you know, all of those things that we took for granted, four months ago, and then, with the protest going on, I guess my hope is that there's a waking up and more people, more white people are stepping into educating themselves. And looking at how systems have been, benefiting them and hurting them also. And ways that how can, how can we live into something different? How can we start dismantling those systems?
Jenny: It is all there. And I just want to acknowledge that in this circle right now, the four of us are women who walk in the skin of white bodies. And so just to acknowledge that that is the voice from which I am speaking in this moment. But something you said is really the hope that we will continue to educate ourselves and acknowledge the ways in which we have benefited from the systems of oppression and I want to bring in here that one of my commitments and one of my invitations to all of us is that we would also be together in both individually and collectively actually, commit to healing ourselves and the work of healing because, systems of oppression have had the traumatizing impacts on all of us in very different ways. However, the ways in which we've all been born into a collectively traumatized culture, are being illuminated, in a deep way. And so I want to invite all of us for a moment, maybe to think what this might mean for us. because I'm, I'm really seeing also that what is emerging in this moment is an opportunity for us to start to integrate and work at the intersection of feeling individual collective healing and social justice and social change. Right. Because I am not sure that these things can actually be pulled apart. And that's a very different way of understanding the ecosystem than it was for me in the past. So I'm curious also to you, Carol, like what do you, what comes up for you when you hear this? Like, what is our, what are we learning about this? I think we're really just starting. To understand, especially this piece on collective trauma.
Arielle: Jenny mentioned earlier in the conversation that a lot of our work is talking about the source from which we operate from one of the phrases that comes that is used a lot by Otto Sharma and the presencing Institute team in theory you is the quality of an intervention is dependent on the interior condition of the intervener. So the notion that the blind spots are the shadows that I hold within myself. We then I will see in the work that I do externally out into the world in my relationships in organizations and the systems, so the question I'm holding you know, as if we are individually in collecting collectively birthing something new, where do we want that place to come from, what are those nutrients, what are those seeds but really I'm thinking about wholeness is aligned to light, and if there isn't an integration of these different pieces that we've lacked back in the past or harm that we've stuck in a corner we're going to see that reproducing itself in the future. So thinking about where do we want to operate from, what do we want to hold in ourselves to then birth and midwife, this new system that is in service to life.
Jessica: And this connection of our own interconnectedness that we are actually, we're not separate, is I think also becoming ever more apparent in this moment. And on the one hand, than the need to do our own healing to get to the place where we can engage in ways that are, that are actually contributing positively, and at the same time, they need to. From that place, to hear all the different voices, especially the voices that have been marginalized because this racism and white supremacy are fueled by attentional blindness. And so this is a moment where the system is actually through video and all kinds of other means that we are all, we are, we are the realities of marginalized peoples in this society are being brought in to the reality of everyone's everyday life, and that is an incredible opportunity and those, and the people who are experiencing the structural violence of the system are the experts on it and they're the ones who really carry wisdom of alternatives in my family and genealogy, through so much, the totality of the colonization in identifying with the system that I have, I have lost in need and have been in a process of rebuilding, so the alternatives, and the possibilities, we need to really hear, and transform the relationships of power from power over to power with and transform the attentional blind spots into truly inclusive honoring and listening and the dignity and sacredness of all, all life and using those opportunities to rebuild the relationships in how we exist so our food systems the sanitation systems all these systems that materially support our existence on the planet that those need to be re woven, on the basis of sacred relationship, not exploitative relationship.
Carol: I want to give you an amen. Something that you said Jenny struck me that the notion of bringing together, working towards justice and healing. One of the things that I've appreciated from the inception of the Black Lives Matter movement and the movement for black lives, and even before the hashtag that folks, organizing within that movement, we're prioritizing healing, we're prioritizing self care, in a way that I don't think was at the forefront in past activists movements probably a part of that's kept me away from the notion of activism, is that in some ways it has felt dehumanizing, because it has an incorporated any space for person to be a person, and to end the hill, and so much that that folks are learning about all the things you're talking about the structural violence generational trauma, and and yes, as you said, Jessica, for white people, those things are some are coming into awareness that have been there for forever. Well for a long time, and get hidden.
Jenny: And just to speak into that as well. That, one of the things, one of the dimensions of this connecting back to organizations is that our normal quote unquote, normal organizational culture is actually set up on this colonial domination logic and so everything from, the power over, to the emphasis on, people like using people as, Yeah.
Carol: all the things, the ways that we name these things.
Jessica: And so this, this, what we born into a culture and a society that is actually on a domination logic, already in trauma as Thomas who will talks about. And, and so, so, so much of the work is also in waking up to these things that we have just assumed and imbibed and embodied and finding the ways to heal and transform collectively,
Jenny: I think that related to our the illusion of there being a separate self. There is a dominant cultural narrative around what individual healing is and looks like and we tend to think of it as we tend to think of trauma in an individual context and related to situational things. So for example, attachment trauma shock trauma, but what is starting to reinforce the intuitive I think feminine wisdom perhaps that has maybe known this for a bit longer but that we cannot parcel apart, the trauma from the society and the culture and the relational structures, which created. And in fact, to inflict that narrative upon an individual isn't in itself a form of violence. And so we have been perpetuating in those medical model. In some ways, in the ways that we conduct therapy etc so I, I just want to name that the thing that differentiates healing individual trauma versus healing collective trauma is that we understand it, relationally, and contextually and there is never a separation so it's the relationship between us as, as people is the relationship of us who are our ancestors and everything that we carry with us, from, from that actually in our physical bodies, the relationship, the logic and the ways of being and seeing that we're taught are right and wrong in the binary and the choices we're forced to make like, so if we understand that relationally, which means that in order to work in that healing space, we have to go into something much different than an individual, just going off to do self care. And so what, what is communal care, and how does that get done in relationship because it's the relationships in the first place that created the harm and the relationships that fell out of alignment with life.
Jessica: One thing that the narrative that individualizes racism to racist individuals is actually a narrative that faces the structural realities of how power is articulated into institutions and laws and societies and economic systems etc etc, and we need to change systems and power relationships, and the structural dimensions of all of that as major part of the work and so I was just, that's what I was resonating to as I was listening to you.
Carol: And I think it's easy to see that in for profit systems, it's easy to see how those are set up for dominance for a particular end and it's I think a little perhaps for some a little more hidden in the nonprofit sector, but it seems to me that it's all of those logics are kind of are definitely embedded in how sector has been built, and you know the assumptions that even go into, you know, what's taught, that is good governance, or you know how a board should work. And I'm just curious what you might see within that. It looks like Arielle was trying to jump in.
Arielle: I kind of want to bring this back to the initial question that you were asking around navigating uncertainty and kind of the personal example that I gave you know, around this move, like, what comes up in me. In embarking in something that potentially elicits a fear response that I can't control that I want to control how does that impact the way I relate to my mother, or to my grandmother, what am I able to hear or not hear. What am I, how am I able to feel my whole body and connect from my heart place to their heart place what happens to empathy or creativity or higher level of brain functioning. So, these things that are really intimate and real and just part of everyday life as being a human being in a really complex world, like, these are some of the elements that build up these systems that aren't serving us, and a part of that is our story around collective trauma and a way of eating that's not serving. And it's also learning like, how can we step into and figure out new ways, from a place of choice, to relate to these things. And there's a conditioning, and a curiosity that comes in that experience a lot of our work is mentioned in the bio and also what Tony was talking about communal healing is the practice of being in relationship, and it's hard. It is hard. It's hard. It's not easy, we are not conditioned or socialized, it's not a need, so it's a seeing a learning to sitting with and discovering Okay, what does it mean for me to pause sense into my body, bringing awareness and notice to whoa I'm feeling really escalated right now start to settle. Sit with, and start to feel like, what is my mother sensing into right now she's about to go on this journey, And that takes time. That takes patience, that takes training and it's not just me doing it in my own mind it's bringing it out into reality. So what does it look like for organizations to organize themselves in a practice such as this.
Jessica: And I also want to pick up the thread of this dynamic on with the nonprofit sector. One of the things that we, we see is that the, the, the resources, again the set, you know, the same replication of who controls the resources is disproportionately white and, and yet the populations being served, are often times minority and, and so there's also so there's a couple dimensions, there's the there's power there's resources and then there's also sort of a channeling into the same kind of bureaucratic organizational structures that are the same as the way you know that those were originally created as colonial structures, the bureaucracy, and so when that intersects with real communities and real needs and real, you know, human creativity and human potential, there's, there can, There can be a gap a disconnect, even, even a taking of space from other possibilities. Other, other ways of creating as just as human beings in community, and sometimes service can mask actually looking at the root cause of what created the need in the first place, what's the structural violence that created the need, if that gets removed, then people are actually their energy and their creativity and all of that their resources are freed up to create beauty themselves and so I think that's, that's part of the dynamic I see.
Arielle: I mean a question that I'm holding is in the social sector specifically the nonprofit terrain, what are the blind spots, what are the attachments, what is being held on to so tightly and in service to what, What are people afraid of and where did where were these systems born from, again, how the interior condition and the intervention. So, so those are some of the questions that I'm holding.
Jenny: and related to those, some of the questions I'm holding is, what is it for us to create the kinds of holding spaces and containers so that we can even start to go there, from a place of openness, how do we actually help each other, how bring that out of each other because if we need each other to do that work, Because we're so conditioned and this is this going back to this habitual ways of protection, you know, putting up the armor, going back to fear to the kinds of narratives that justify, like for example I need to look out for my own interest in this because I need to take care of my family, yada yada yada. And so, what is the invitation. What is the access point, what are the what are the doorways to invite people into these kinds of spaces, even once we call them, you know, because even calling them feeling spaces, or even calling them even, you know, even inviting people in this circle practice feels like, somehow, it's not supposed to be in organizations in these traditional kinds of spaces right and like why, because we have hold apart, the professional and the human, the natural human ways you know these ways of organizing ourselves and being together and circle that has existed for so many generations before us. So, what are the access points, what are the relationships that make those access points possible,
Jessica: And what are the conversations? Are you saying? What are the conversations?
Yeah, Carol. I'm, I'm curious. you've been, cause you've been working in this space so long and you've seen so much and I'm wondering, what are, what is it that you see that you'd like to share in.
Carol: Well, I think, one, one thing that you said where you know it's like service can come sometimes hide the root cause I think that's true. And I think people get caught up in an argument about which is more important. And I think the people who are being served to have needs at that very moment, need that, and people need to be working on the system to, you know, to change it. And I think what's even more exciting in this time, I think there's been a lot of work on tinkering with the system, what I feel like there's, there could be, there's like an opening to is imagining something new and different, I don't know what that's going to be, but it feels like that's more possible now than it was even six months ago.
Jessica: Beautiful. Absolutely. The freeing of our imaginations as a really important invitation and act in this time. Yeah. Thank you, Carol.
Carol: And at the same time to say you know to talk about what Aereo was talking about of how when you're gripped by fear, and so much, you know people most people's first reaction to uncertainty is fear, you know, lots of talk about anxiety and how all of that's raised and how we know you know in our brain that just kind of shuts down our creative processes so it's, you know, both are there. So in, in working within organizations and within the sector, as much as we know that it needs to shift and change, you know, one of the things that that has been kind of a driver for me is looking at, if we give, if we give organizations the benefit of the doubt we say okay, they were they were built to, to, you know, move some mission forward that's going to have a positive impact in the world, and yet, why is it so hard for those organizations to have that mission have that great aspirational thing that they want to see out there. And yet, aren't really living that internally and certainly this is really coming home. And, you know, Getting stuck and kind of doing the same thing over and over again and you know I think that's very much being brought home right now with the, with the Black Lives Matter protests where, you know, many organizations have made statements about support of the movement, report after report has come out about the leadership of the nonprofit sector being so decidedly white, and those organizations also making statements and yet being dominated by by white people and certainly, you know, the larger the budget, the larger the salaries, more, more likely to be white men at the top, so I'm curious, any thoughts about kind of that stuckness that seems to be, not just at the organizational level but at the at the sector level and then of course at the societal level.
Arielle: Noticing that I keep in bringing it back to the personal today which I think is really fascinating. I think it is easy and safe to be able to point the finger to the world outside of myself. It is easier. It is safer. I get to preserve a degree of separation, reinforcing the same systems we are swimming in, I get to make something an object, and not feel connected to it to separate myself from it. And then there's this sense of righteousness or like reinforcing, like, what is right, what is wrong, again all the ingredients that we've been talking about in these systems that are not serving us and so like, look one inside oneself, to reflect, to see wholly and fully takes courage. It takes an openness and awareness and a vulnerability, and there's real reasons why I've seen in myself or organizations, resist doing that and it to me it always starts with home, right, it starts with my home, my body my home and then the relationships, what does it take to do that. And then, and then aligning ideology or what I'm saying into practice and behavior. What does it take.
Carol: Yeah. And I appreciate what you say, what you're saying about how easy it is to get into that kind of systemic analysis and have it be an other out there that has nothing to do with me,
Jenny: and what's coming up for me also is. This is why tending to growing different kinds of skill sets in ourselves together is so important, because we can't just say these things and expect ourselves and others to step into this work together. Practice takes a lot of practice and we don't have the practice grounds. You know I'm a golfer and you don't just go out on the course and play you go to the driving range and you go to the putting green and you hit, hundreds and 1000s of shots, you know, and then you get on the course and every single shot is different because you have a different line you have a different angle of attack and you have different you know a different plane, you're trying to hit the ball from and a different piece of grass and I believe we need to and this is part of the work that we're doing together is create the practice fields that are safe enough not comfortable if this work is not comfortable but safe enough, like the reality of safety is there for us to challenge each other in these ways and really like start to use embodied practices that we can access the wisdom in ourselves and the wisdom of the collective social anxiety because it is there but it is frozen, and that's what that's what trauma does is it keeps it keeps intelligence, frozen in our system. And so, you know, that's part of why the healing is so important, but I think that's also part of why the practice, the focus on practice and what we practice. So some of the things we practice you know a lot of it has to do with practices that allow us to be in structures of sharing power, even just in one room for one hour, even to practice that is hard, right, because we're so used to somebody facilitating the meeting, and somebody just deciding the agenda and somebody's telling us what's important to talk about and these are all conditioned ways of thinking that systems of oppression rely on in order to feed themselves in order to sustain themselves. So, what are the practice Spaces, we're building together where we practice being encouraged where we practice, accessing the courage on community building power accessing it and building it. Where are the communities and the spaces or the Sacred Spaces, we're creating, even within our own organizations, even if they're even if it's more a momentary right where we can practice doing that and what we practice we become, eventually, but it takes a long time but we have to start with the practice, and it feels like that's something that, because of our because we were so conditioned to focus on the outcome. It's hard to prioritize being in the practice for practice sake,
Jessica: so I also very much resonate with what both Arielle and Jenny shared and that, and the integration through practice of individual and collective work and I have noticed also how, in many groups that I have been in, I teach some in the classroom, especially I've noticed this, that we have collectively lost the ability to shift from hierarchical to these these participatory, collaborative relationships that Jenny was talking about and so the practicing those in those little component parts is, is where the big, you do that, the little pieces and the big change happens, and also noticing the ways in which, like Arielle was saying about the individual, we are part of these systems and so these systems are in us and we are in the systems and so we can then that, that provides an access point also for doing the work, because as we do the work inside it's also doing the work on these, on these ways of being and seeing and doing and creating, and especially as we open that up to doing that collectively.
Carol: I would love to ask 16 follow up questions but I'm going to shift gears for a minute, and there's one thing I like to do at the end of each episode and just ask a couple fun questions. I've got one for each of you, Jessica. What is a mistake that people often make about you.
Jessica: I think, sometimes people think I'm sweet and I'm not so sweet. There's a lot in there.
Carol: And Jenny, what are you most looking forward to in the next 10 years,
Jenny: So noticing my resistance to the question let me just give myself a second and see what might come up here. I think what I'm looking forward to is seeing and being in what unfolds in my life and in my relationships and in the life all around me, the more I choose to let go of trying to control it. Like I'm very looking for, I'm looking forward to that process as uncomfortable as it is to being what life has in store.
Carol: and Arielle, what chance encounter changed your life forever?
Arielle: You're looking at it right here. That was an easy one. Truly meeting these special humans and sensing into what we are co creating together.
Carol: So what is next for you guys? What are you stepping into, what's emerging?
Jessica: I think that that opens up this fascinating question of this interplay of emergence shading into planning and like so far we have been way more on the emergent end, and things have shown up in our field, as the work we're meant to do and we've responded to that, we are also starting to craft intentions around how we invite collaboration and connection, and the serendipity of the emergence is really how life shows up knocking on our door as you know, telling us where we're meant to step in.
Carol: So if someone did want to invite you into something, how would they get in touch with you? How could they find you?
Jenny: You can find all of us on LinkedIn, and in addition to that, we're in the process of building a website that we are envisioning as an invitation to discover our shared work with other others wherever they may be and so we are putting our hearts into sort of the process of how can that website, you know, not just be really a reflection of the very things that we're trying not to reproduce, but instead a real invitation, a real invitation to be in relationship to blur the lines between partners and clients and to words and how we, how we are in relationship with one another in traditional business context, we're in a lot of inquiry around this together and so we're, we're using our website as a way to challenge ourselves to find language is not perfect but at least a starting point for how we can offer that invitation sort of a channel through which we can engage with others in more broad ways.
Carol: All right. Well, thank you so much. I really appreciate all your wisdom that you bring and the work that you guys are doing. And, we'll be excited to see how this practice continues to emerge and, good luck with everything as you move forward.
Arielle: Thank you, Carol. It's been a pleasure. Thank you so much.
This week we’re talking to Rebecca Murphy.
We talked about:
Rebecca has been a consultant for over 20 years. She considers herself an “interpreter,” as she has worked in multiple sectors including government, nonprofit, business, and philanthropy. She is adept at explaining/translating one to another. She is a generalist with a broad knowledge base – including workforce development, affordable housing, parks and place making. She has expertise in capacity building, organizational and program development, strategic planning, with particular expertise in public-private partnerships, community engagement, and strategic collaborations. Hers is a mission-focused practice. She is passionate about mission fidelity, and avoiding mission creep.
Carol Hamilton: Today I want to welcome Rebecca Murphy to the podcast. Rebecca Murphy has been a consultant for over 20 years. She considers herself an interpreter as she has worked in multiple sectors including government, nonprofit business and philanthropy. She is adept at explaining and translating one sector to another. She's a generalist with a broad knowledge base, including workforce development, affordable housing, parks and placemaking. She has expertise in capacity building, organizational and program development, strategic planning, with a particular emphasis in public private partnerships, community engagement. and strategic collaboration. Hers is a mission focused practice. She is passionate about mission fidelity and avoiding mission creep. She is an optimistic activist with a passionate lived commitment to diversity. Join me in welcoming Rebecca Murphy!
Well welcome, Rebecca. I'm glad to have you on the mission impact podcast. I want to start out by just having you share with listeners your path? How did you get drawn to this work? How did you end up where you are now?
Rebecca Murphy: Well, Carol, thank you so much for having me, I really appreciate it. How I got drawn to this work is really very simple. It's something that I always seen myself doing from my early 20s I think I always saw myself as having some business that allowed me to help groups and organizations whose missions I believed in, do the work they did better, do the work they did differently and achieve the objectives that they were setting out to achieve.
Carol: Coming into this a little bit later than you, I'm impressed that you had that vision for yourself so early on. What was the background to that?
Rebecca: Well, I think it's a couple of things. I think the first is I have always been somebody who appreciated and was engaged in community development work. I came at it through a political lens primarily because that's what my parents did. My mother did community development work and they were both very involved socially and civically. so there were always groups and organizations in our kitchen, and we were very engaged. so I knew a lot about the universe of nonprofits and the universe of mission-driven work from a really young age. Both of my parents are entrepreneurs, so I never really saw a full time job for a company as my path. so that's really that's really how I came at it. I also feel like I was a little bit ahead of my time. I really wanted to be able to work from home so that I could raise my kids. Even when I was young, I knew that that was what I wanted.
Carol: Yeah that's awesome, just the image of growing up around that. My dad worked for the government for the Foreign Service. so he went to work, it was a very traditional job and it was very mysterious to me as a child. All I really understood about it was that there was a big desk involved, and a big building, and some legal pads and government pens, but beyond that, I really didn't understand it. so it's really cool that you were able to absorb that from an early age.
Well, one of the things that you focus on is partnerships, including public-private partnerships, and I certainly believe that partnerships are so key to many nonprofits and how they do their work and at least my belief is that more should consider them with so many small organizations all going at the same issue. What would you say are the key things that nonprofits really need to think about when they're getting started with partnerships?
Rebecca: I think that's a great question, and it's one that I get asked a lot in my practice. I think that the most important thing that a nonprofit needs to do when they're thinking about a partnership is: what is their why? Why are you engaging in a partnership? Second to that, but equally as important: what do you bring to the partnership? It can't be about only what it is that you think you'll get out of it? It has to be about what you bring to that, what are your assets? What are your strengths? I think partnering from a place where you don't know that is a recipe for disaster.
Carol: Can you give an example of some disaster stories?
Rebecca: Yeah, I think I’ve had a couple of clients who thought that partnering was a good idea because it was going to get them out of a bad situation, and I think that's so common. I think that too often organizations are scrambling when they're really struggling, and then they think, “Oh well, we'll partner or we'll merge," and it seems like there's rarely a good time to try to step into those kinds of relationships. Partnering for weakness or desperation is a terrible time because you don't have clarity, and when you partner with an organization, you have to have clarity. You have to have clarity of mission, you have to have clarity of your goals, and you have to have clarity about the risk. I think that's the other thing a lot of nonprofits don't think about is what could go bad. They think about, “oh, this is gonna be great. it'll help us build our capacity. It'll help us raise money, it'll help us," whatever it is that they think it's going to do. They don't ever think about what's going to happen if it goes sideways, and whether there are different types of going sideways. There's recoverable going sideways, and then there's sort of the epic, this is the kick back sideways. I think that that's an equally important thing to be thinking about when you're thinking about a partnership is, what are we going to do if it goes south? How do we extricate ourselves? What are we going to do [if it goes sideways]?
Carol: So I usually like to focus on the more of a strengths-based approach and when things go well, so describe a partnership that you've seen when they really did things right, they did the due diligence and it really benefited both organizations in a way that you were even surprised by maybe.
Rebecca: Okay.… The stories I can tell best really relate to collaboration, which are - I think - partnerships with more than two players. and I think that they've worked, the ones that I have seen or been a part of that have worked really well. Were those where there was a common goal, whether it was a common problem that needed solving or a common issue that needed to be addressed. and everybody who was there brought different strengths to the table. They were partnering not from weakness, but in a manner that compensated for each other's sort of skill gaps, because I don't think that anybody in that particular industry killer scenario was weak. I think they just have different skill gaps. and I think that's almost the best way to think about a partner. Is this partner somebody who's going to fill my skills gaps? and can I do the same for that?
Carol: so what are those complementary pieces where you, you don't all have to bring the same strengths to the table.
Rebecca: I mean, it could be something from something as simple as “these people understand organizational development. I don't understand organizational development, but I want to work with somebody who does.” Two organizations that are focusing on one issue, one organization has real strength in advocacy and organizing it, while one organization has real strength in writing and policy work, those are two sets of skills that it's really rare to find in one organization. some organizations are good at service providing and other organizations are better at management. I think that a lot of times organizations can partner to build capacity or to test something you could market through a partnership. I particularly found this true in the community development space. There are lots of nonprofits that want to get into community development, whether that is they want to build themselves a facility, whether they're in the housing business, there could be a church or some other big nonprofit that doesn't provide a service that they want to provide in the community development realm. Partnering with somebody who has that skill can be very successful because for everybody Think because the organization that needs the partner that wants to develop the housing or the community center or whatever, they have clarity of mission, they have built in constituency, they can fill the rooms, they can, run the programs, and they partner with somebody who understands how to actually get a building built, or how to get houses built, or, how do you raise money for that? How do you think about that? How do you budget? How do you plan? Those kinds of things.
I think that those are very successful partnerships generally, I think partnerships and community development work, especially where there's potential for a cut to reach economies of scale, for example, especially this gets really to what you talked about from the very beginning, if there's a space where there are lots of actors - in Baltimore, this was true in the out-of-school space, there was a period in I think the 90s, late 90s, early 2000s, where everybody it seemed, was an out-of-school time after-school program business, and some people were operating out of their homes or they were operating out of a church basement. some people had more robust programs or they had bigger space, so they had outdoor space, but the marketplace was so crowded at that point, and the small guys were really in danger of not being able to survive, not because they weren't doing really good work, but because they didn't have the capacity or the need for a nonprofit organization, but they didn't know about Fiscal Sponsorship. They didn't have all this sort of back-office stuff, but they were providing an extraordinarily high-quality service, so I facilitated a collaboration amongst six small providers in a neighborhood in Baltimore City that all had different types of service. There was an arts group, there was a tutoring group, there was a sports group, I think there might have been two of each one. I said to them, “okay, you don't all need a lawyer. You don't all need an accountant, but you've got to have a structure.," so they pulled together a collaboration and they identified a single fiscal sponsor, and somebody who was able to manage all the admin for all six of them. In the course of a year, they were each able to raise enough money to operate both independently, but also, for the first time, to do collaborative programming.
Carol: That's awesome. Yeah, it seems to me that it's too easy for many organizations to really get caught up in their own work and not really take the time to think about who else might be in their ecosystem., and as you're saying, even in their neighborhood, their community of who they might be working with for greater impact in that back office stuff. I mean, I'm not sure what the statistic is, and I should probably look it up, but it's like 70 to 80% of nonprofits with less than $750,000 budgets. If every single one of them is replicating that back office, It's a huge amount of resources that could be put to program could be put to program if they were to partner up with some other organizations and share those resources.
We're recording this in the midst of the quarantining for the Coronavirus, so I'm guessing that that this is going to have some impacts on people where they start looking at those things and start doing what solo entrepreneurs have been doing for years, hiring virtual assistants and virtual back office, virtual accounting, all of those things; and I think there's a difference between a partnership, just a one to one and then that that multi-party partnership and then even to the next level, and you’ve talked about how why you're getting together is so important, and I've seen in larger collaborations where it may seem obvious why everyone's together, and yet without having a deliberate conversation about how are we defining what our goal is really specific Basically, everyone can have their own definition of what that goal is.
Rebecca: I think that's right. I think too, that you can end up in the space of too many cooks in the kitchen, not enough sous chefs; whatever the metaphor is. It's really about leadership, and about who's going to be in charge - for lack of a better term. It's like if you had a room full of first children, do you know I mean?
Carol: I'm a middle child. I don't want to be in that room.
Rebecca: Yeah, I think it's that phenomenon. It's everybody thinking that they are in charge and not knowing - not only who's going to do what, but who's accountable for what, who's responsible for what, because those are the tough conversations that you need to have, and that's the stuff that if you don't do it, it can really kill you, not just the partnership, but it has implications for your individual organizations. If nobody talks about who's going to sign on the dotted line, who's going to be the fiduciary, whose insurance are you going to carry? Do you need to get insurance as a group? All of those things are hugely important, and I think when you're engaged in a partnership around an issue, it's easier to put those things aside or if you are engaged in a partnership that is time limited around a legislative issue or a crisis or some one-off challenge. It's very easy to let that stuff go, and then when you finish, and you’ve got to clean it all up, and you have a big old stew of stuff you can't figure out, it's a giant problem. I think the other thing about that, and about partnerships in general is you're talking about relationships. You're talking about people that - presumably - you like and respect and trust. If you don't, you're not doing enough, you're doing a disservice to the relationships if you don't take the time to think about that stuff and really figure it out.
Carol: I mean, in some instances, you can't have that assumption that everyone likes and respects each other and it may be that a funder is saying all of you guys are in this space, and I want you all to work together. When you've seen those kinds of situations,
Rebecca: The arranged marriage.
Carol: there's a whole bunch of steps that you have to take to start building that trust and you probably have to step way back before you can get to action to just ask “why are we all here? What do we think we can get out of this? How are we going to work together?”
Rebecca: You may be competitors, I mean, that's the other thing. I had a client last year who had been repeatedly asked by a prospective funder to partner with what they viewed as a complimentary organization. My clients saw that group as having a very different strategy, a very different objective; they were competitors so they did not want to partner with that group. The mistake they made, however, was not explaining that to the funder. They didn't explain to the funder that, while they respected the work, that group did their mission, and they had a very similar, I guess, 20,000 foot mission and how they got there in my clients view was incompatible. Their strategies were incompatible, and as a result, they really affected their relationship with the funder because they didn't communicate; and then when we were finally able to get that relationship back on track, the funder was like, “well, you should have just said something. I was looking at it from a very narrow perspective, you're doing this, they're doing this, you should all do it together. If you had said to me, ‘meh’ or ‘we could only partner in this one little area.’ rather than just not doing it.”
Carol: That's a really good point about the 20,000 foot mission versus the theory of change. How are you seeing the strategies you use, and how that's getting you to an end goal; and you say that you're really passionate about mission fidelity and avoiding mission creep, and I think this is just a huge challenge in the nonprofit sector for lots of lots of reasons. What do you see that really drives mission creep, in your experience?
Carol: Can you say more about that?
Rebecca: The number one thing in my experience that causes mission creep, is fundraising success. I think very often organizations use the availability of funds as a “we'll try this," you know what I mean? It's not very well thought through if you have - actually, let me be more specific: it's less about economics broadly, than it is about covering your operating expense, which I think is one of the single biggest challenges and one of the things I think that the philanthropic community should be doing more of is covering the appropriate percentage, covering operating expenses at the appropriate level, because often what I have seen happen is an organization - let’s say they're a S.T.E.M. organization, they provide S.T.E.M. services, they teach kids S.T.E.M. in the after school space. They raise X number of their $50,000 budget, or $100,000 budget, of which $20,000 is general operating or 30,000 was general operating. They are applying for program grants. There is not an organization that I have seen - and I worked for a philanthropy and our general operating number, I think was 11%, and we were very high at the time. General operating isn't sexy. It's not new, it's not the bright shiny thing, so it can be very hard to raise money for. So this particular organization saw a grant opportunity to provide counseling or to provide family counseling or something, something that was utterly unrelated to but could have been tangentially and their way in was we will counsel the families of the kids we serve, because they were like “we need the money." It was a disaster because it was so far outside of their mission.
Carol: and probably [out of] their core competence
Rebecca: Exactly. I think often - and that's a very extreme example - often it's, “we'll do the same thing in a different issue” or “we’ll do the same thing with a slightly different program area," but the result is the same. I see a lot of medium-sized nonprofits, or nonprofits that want to go from small to midsize. If there is a trend in philanthropy, if there's a new bright, shiny thing that funders are funding, then the temptation is very great to try the new, bright, shiny thing as a means to keep your doors open rather than doing what you do really, really well and working harder to find the funders that support that. That's a hard thing to do, I think that avoiding mission creep is a function of capacity.
Carol: If you've seen - and I am not a fundraising consultant, so this is just from observations - so especially with newer organizations, you're talking about moving from small to midsize, maybe there's a lack of understanding of what really [is] the impact that grants can have on an organization from the board's perspective. It just seems like “oh, wow, it's free money.” I mean, it's not free money because you got to do work for it - but the sense of
never thinking about what that grant might actually cost the organization.
Carol: Is the piece that people miss.
Rebecca: I think that's right. I think there's a lot of well-intentioned grant making that isn't necessarily well thought through, and I also think that there's a temptation I think that works counter to that in a mission creep space is empire building.
Carol: Can you say a little bit more about that?
Rebecca: There are often three or four big dogs [in a city] that started out doing whatever they did, [and] because their organization is really good at whatever it is that they started out doing, they're the ones that get offered the new bright, shiny thing, and because they have the capacity to do it, and even if [they don’t,] they have the capacity to hurry up and figure out how to do it, and somebody asked them to do it. Somebody with money said, “why don't you try this?” I mean, there's an organization in Baltimore, [and] they do great work, but they are the object lesson for empire building. They did one thing exceptionally well, [and] because they did that one thing exceptionally well and ED was out and about, a lot of people knew him. He's a smart guy, he was easy to like, the program was a very feel-good program. Then somebody asked him to go into the housing renovation business or some absurd ancillary thing, and because somebody asked him to do it, he did exactly what you said: he hurried up and figured it out, because he had the bandwidth within his staff and he had the resources to train. He figured out how to do that,
Carol: Or hire some experts doing that.
Rebecca: Exactly. So even though he went and did it and did a serviceable job at it. He put out of business the two organizations across town that were doing that work successfully, but that were really, really tiny so nobody knew they were there. So the unintended consequences of the intended consequences of not really understanding capacity building and choosing expansion for the known over [just] training somebody who is smaller and maybe less well known. so this organization just to wrap it up in a bow ended up being the go-to organization, they ended up with fiscal sponsorships and blah, blah, blah in 15 different issue areas, and they had a very high opinion of themselves, and they had one of those heavy duty blockbuster boards with all the bold faces and everybody. They were *the* group, and it got to a point where the people who ran it took themselves way too seriously.
Carol: It’s flattering to be asked to do all those things.
Rebecca: It is, and if you're able to figure out how to do them even marginally well, you also have the ability to cover your own failures, you can paper over the fact that you're not as good at it as you were at your core service, but you're passively good at it, and people love you. So they're going to give you the benefit of the doubt, but I was putting together a program - I was working inside government and I was putting together a program and we needed to get a big application, and we were looking for nonprofits to work with who would be the lead for this particular grant. These guys were not the right ones, but they really thought they were, and they couldn't figure out why they hadn't been asked to dance. We went with somebody else because it was an opportunity to elevate that group, they were very, very good and ready to do the next step and it was really interesting having to explain to this very successful organization that they were not the ones [and] I think that happens too. I think that, in every single city there are three or four big dogs, then there's two or three medium dogs, and then there are 35 small dogs who can't get out of the dog run because they can't raise any money.
Carol: Yeah. Well I want to shift gears a little bit and play a game.
Carol: I’ve been a facilitator of many, many meetings and designing lots of retreats and planning sessions etc. I have many things like boxes of icebreakers because other people are better - that's one of those skill gaps -- other people are better at thinking of fun questions than I am, so I'm just going to use theirs…. So the question is: if you could live in a sitcom, which one would it be and why?
Rebecca: [I have] a couple of answers to that. I don't know which way to go. Is this “if my life were a sitcom” or can I pick a sitcom? Am I picking a sitcom to inhabit?
Carol: You're living in it. You're being dropped in, you are now a character in the sitcom.
Rebecca: Okay, all right.
Carol: It doesn't have to be for the rest of your life.
Rebecca: Ok… off the top of my head, [my] answer is Friends because it's impossible to believe that they could all be in New York and not have a black friend.
Carol: Well, there you go.
Rebecca: That was [something] I never understood.
Carol: Well it's funny, when I pulled this card out of the box this morning, I actually thought of Friends also, but then I started thinking “um... well, let's see, I'd be the nerdy friend that certainly wouldn't be hanging out with those folks if I were in college.”
Rebecca: I'd be the black snarky friend, but guess what, that's my thing.
Carol: All right, excellent [I think] mostly because I was a single mom in my 20s and so I didn't get to have that time of hanging out with your friends and that being your family, so I would take a vacation there with those folks as well.
So what are you excited about what's coming up for you that's emerging in terms of your practice and the work you're doing?
Rebecca: I'm really excited about partnerships and collaborations right now, and I was excited about it before all of this craziness, but I am weirdly more excited about it now because I think that what is happening in our country, and in our world is both exposing some real fissures that need to be fundamentally addressed, and - secondarily - I think every crisis is an opportunity, right? I think that the nonprofit sector has a real opportunity to examine their work, to be very creative in terms of service-providing because we are in a period where lots of people need lots of things. I think that both big and small, established and less established organizations of different competencies have real opportunities to come together and increase capacity and develop broader programming and change and think about the ways in which they serve their constituents, and I think that there is a lot of opportunity for people like me who understand and can help you figure that out, so that.
The other way I'm thinking about it is, you know, one of the ways I describe myself in my practice is that I'm an interpreter because I have experience, not just across sectors but across subject matters. I am able to be the fulcrum, be the center of the wheel, and help the spokes communicate to each other for a moment. What that has given me is a certain agility and nimbleness to be able to explain and interpret and facilitate collaborations because I understand how each sector works with the other from their particular vantage point. I always joke that I can translate, I can speak philanthropy to government, I can speak nonprofit to philanthropy. I can be in all of those spaces and create meaningful collaboration and I think that's going to be a very useful skill going forward.
Carol: Yeah, I think people are having to - there are some who jumped on the bandwagon in terms of working from a distance and obviously, not everything can be done from a distance. A lot of places are having to rethink how they do their work and maybe suddenly, things that people doubted, I know [that] in the work that my daughter does, they do virtual advising of college students for financial aid, and suddenly virtual advising is the one thing that they can do right now. So you talked about things emerging for you, so how can people get in touch with you?
Rebecca: People can get in touch with me via my website, which is rcmstrategicconsulting.com . I can be reached via email at RCMstrategicconsulting@gmail.com. I have a Facebook page and a Twitter account. My Twitter account is RCMStratConsult.
Carol: All right, you can get in touch with Rebecca there and thank you so much for coming on. This was a really interesting conversation.
Rebecca: Thank you very much for having me Carol. It was a lot of fun.
Through my work I interview a lot of people. Most projects include some interviews or focus groups as part of the discovery process. I used to end my interviews with the question, “Is there anything else I need to know for this project/process?”
Most of the time the answer would be, “no, nothing else.”
Then one time I said, “What else do I need to know for this project/process?” And a whole lot more spilled out from the person I was talking with.
“Is there anything else…?” “What else…?” doesn’t seem on surface to be very different.
Yet it shifts the focus from a finite yes/no answer to the more open ended, “what else…?” And embedded in the question is the assumption that there is something else. Something else that I could not have anticipated in the questions I have already asked.
Small tweaks can make a difference
It seems like a little bit of a throw away. Yet often the most interesting and revealing answers are to that question.
So small tweaks can have a big impact. What small tweaks have you made recently in your work that had an impact?
A Buddhist monk, a leftist guerrilla warrior and a technology executive walk into a bar called Changes. “Ah the nature of change,” the monk says, “the world is always in flux, permanence is an illusion and attachment to permanence is the cause of suffering.” The leftist guerrilla replies, “But Mao said there must be a great leap forward.” The tech executive says, “Fast Company says change is happening faster than ever and we must always be the next big thing.” The bartender shrugs her shoulders and asks how each of them is planning to pay for their beers. “Everyone with ATM money again?” she says, “Go somewhere else to make your change.”
Can you manage change?
Sorry for the poor attempt at humor. People talk about change management and say that that is what they do. But can you really manage change? I believe you can be intentional about moving toward change. Yet saying you are managing change gives an illusion of control that I do not think is real in dynamic human systems. Organizations are human systems and are describes as “intelligent, creative, adaptive, self-organizing, [and] meaning-seeking” as Meg Wheatley described. While you can force change on people, I do not believe you can force people to change.
There typically is a spark that initiates the change. This could come from outside the organization – a crisis, a major shift in the market, a new mandate or regulation. Or it could come from inside the organization in the form of a vision championed by either formal leaders or through a bottom up effort of informal leaders.
Focusing the effort
When done well, the organization will take advantage of the spark by being intentional in focusing the change effort. Is the organization ready to change and makes the best of the challenge or opportunity? How will leaders choose to invest the time, energy and resources into envisioning and implementing change? What new structures need to be created to support the desired change going forward?
Creating organizational change intentionally means taking time to thoughtfully design and engage in meaningful dialogue. Does the past need to be mourned before a new beginning can be imagined? Is the environment safe enough for people to bring their whole selves to the endeavor? If not, what will increase those conditions of safety?
Systems of support
Once the change is implemented –whether it is new goals and aspirations envisioned in a strategic plan or implementing a new technology system or building a new program – ensuring you have systems in place to support the new change and allow it to take hold is key. Identifying, harnessing and sharing stories of success can be a powerful way to help the change stick.
What change are you trying to make in 2020? Let's talk about them
When I get caught up in an anxiety spiral, my thoughts quickly go worse case scenario. Something has happened, I get triggered and I run straight up the ladder of inference, jumping to all sorts of conclusions. Too often I am not even conscious that I have leapt from an incident – something someone did or did not do, something someone said, even a facial expression – to all sorts of beliefs about that, and most critically -- accepting those beliefs as fact.
The ladder of inference created by Chris Argyris breaks down what our brains do so naturally and so quickly. We jump from the observable data to the data we pay attention. We then assign meaning to it, make assumptions, jump to conclusions based on our beliefs and then often take action based on this chain of thought. All this can happen in a split second.
I have found that the ABC framework is a useful tool for slowing myself down and examining the validity of my thoughts and conclusions. Originating in cognitive psychology and the work of Aaron Beck, the acronym stands for Adversity, Belief and Consequences
The tool is useful because it gives you a framework to break down what just happened. Here is an example of how you would use the tool:
This first step captures what just happened. The next step is to examine those thoughts and beliefs.
Then one step further takes each of the worse case scenario beliefs, examines their likelihood and helps you play out alternative scenarios as well as make sounder decisions about next steps.
Adversity: A colleague yawns during my presentation.
The next time you find yourself caught in an unhelpful thought loop try this out for yourself. Learn more in the book The Resilience Factor by Karen Reivich, PhD and Andrew Shatte, PhD.
My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.
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