Smart Ideas and BIG Mistakes

This is going to be one of those fast and furious notes from the journey, as I prepare to roll out to Austin for one of the first Mayors races of 09, and a kick-ass nonprofit forum thrown in part by my great friend and colleague, David Davenport, who runs the Capital Area Food Bank.

First of all—I’ve had a staggering week of witnessing the future of social innovation. Last week, Julia, my “at-home-for-spring-break-babygrrrl” and I rolled up to NYC for a day together and a speech for my friends at Starlingbloc, one of the country’s baddest nest of new thinkers. In fact, between the DC chapter of SB alumni and the national office, run by Jo Opot, I have had the pleasure of working with tons of really bright young thinkers who are rolling up their sleeves and re-interpreting or merging charity and business.

The year’s gig, held at NYU, was a virtual Lollapalooza of speakers. I was sandwiched in-between Cheryl Dorsey from Echoing Green, and Ami Dar of Idealist, so you know the hits where flying and kids eyes were all but rolling back in their heads for all the juicy info we were pouring in their ears….but THAT’S the point of any gathering in 2009—arming the audience with ideas they can use, right here, right now.

Anyway…to close this loop–today I was judging a cool Social E competition at Georgetown University, and you MUST check out one of two big winners. All five of the finalists were righteous, but this one young dude named Shyam Sundaram has one of those ideas that make me thrilled to be part of this movement. It’s called Solarcycle, and I so suggest you check it OUT to see what this young man and his team has got going on with recycled chip bags. They are using them to fashion an affordable stove, as well as a water purification system. Given the death rate due to drinking impure water, and the ecological disaster that is caused by deforestation (using wood for fire/heat/light), the panel of judges thought this was a real game changing idea.

And now to the BIG MISTAKE. I’m a serious believer in owning up when you make a mistake. A few weeks back, colleague at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy issued “Criteria for Philanthropy at its Best”, a report that was met with some pretty intense, coast-to-coast criticism. Some of it was mine.

Here is the deal. They made some provocative suggestions about how foundations should consider allocating their resources, including some bold guidelines for minority inclusion in both the roster of grant recipients as well as in the board room of the foundations that give them out. They also seemed to be suggesting that grants to human services or minority communities outweighted grants to say…a univeristy.

However…the word “mandate” jumped up (or was tossed out) and a lot of folks ran with it. I joined the pack.

Simply put…when you know (and respect) the group that issues a report, and you disagree, the VERY least you can do is to call and meet to talk it through. 99% of the time, you learn that your worst fears are often unfounded. If I had done that—if I had afforded professional courtesy to a colleague—I would have had my worst fears mitigated.

In fact (and this is Part II of my confession)….if I had called I might have come to see that they were trying to get a dialogued going by being purposefully provocative (which they do well). As a fellow provacateur, I so should have recognized that tune.

Look….when times are tough, and most are sitting on their hands, you sometimes have to challenge them to walk a mile just to get them to consider the inch they need to move to get some real breakthrough thinking stimulated. That was, in large part, their tactic, and its exactly what they accomplished. Our sector is finally on fire with rich conversations. Like a good gumbo, there’s a ton of odds and ends in the mix right now, and I for one am thrilled to savor the simmer.

So….young leaders….learn an important trick from this old dog. Keep an open mind, never hesitate to reach out when dialogue is an option, and learn that seeing smoke does not mean you have to join a chorus yelling “fire!!!”