A conversation with Team Generosity founders, Jeff Walker and Jennifer McCrea.
Jennifer: It would be great if every relationship between nonprofit leaders and partners was an open, collaborative partnership. But we all know that’s not always easy to achieve. Very often it feels as if there’s still a power dynamic at play, although it can be subtle at times. I think it’s most explicit when money is at the center of the relationship, but there are other forms of control and power that we use over each other.
Karl: Can you offer an example?
Jennifer: Sometimes when I’m trying to work with a board member of an organization, I let the fact that we need the support of that person take over our interaction. For instance, there’s a woman I know—let’s call her “S.”—who is an important board member for one of my favorite nonprofits. When we’re talking, I feel there’s this thing that’s going on where I am bending over backward to avoid making her mad—and that means I can’t really be honest with her, because I’m worried that if I annoy her, I may lose her support for the work we’re doing. As a result, I feel our relationship is inauthentic. And yet I have a hard time getting over this dynamic because of that fear of loss.
Jeff: There’s a guy we’re trying to work with on development projects in the developing world where I have a similar problem. Half the people in the country don’t like Mr. R., but, gee, he’s got a lot of money, he’s got power, he’s got influence. He runs a big company, he has lots of friends in the international community, and he has a reputation for being ruthless when he needs to be. So we walk around on eggshells and have all these stupid conversations about how to avoid antagonizing him: “Maybe we shouldn’t talk to this other person, because I heard Mr. R. doesn’t like him. Maybe we should hold off on that initiative, because Mr. R. hinted he doesn’t think it’s a good idea.” The result is that energy isn’t flowing in the natural way it needs to. It’s gotten to the point where one of our major partners is close to quitting because he’s so frustrated. We can see it’s a problem, but we can’t seem to get past it.
Karl: So what things are you trying to get around this block?
Jeff: We’re trying all kinds of things. We’re talking to everybody we know in the region, asking questions like, “Are you sure Mr. R. is really so important?” We’re looking at setting up some sub-groups that don’t include Mr. R. so we can get some efforts going without reference to him. And we’re trying to figure out how we can give Mr. R. a role to play where he feels important and can contribute, but without blocking what the rest of us want to accomplish.
It’s a shame, because there are so many potential partners who really get what we’re trying to do and are ready to step up in a very creative and open way. The challenge is to make sure that the team comes together and that we avoid letting one person prevent it from happening. It’s about the power dynamic, which also involves the power of hierarchy, social power, and the power of will. It’s hard to define precisely, but sometimes a single dynamic personality can play an outsized role in shaping the way a group behaves.
Karl: And thinking about conflicts I’ve experienced in my own life and work, I know that when someone else is behaving in a very ego-driven way, one thing I really have to guard against is the tendency to respond in the same way—to get my dander up and say, “Well, if you’re going to throw your weight around, then I’m going to throw my weight around!” and turn it into a battle of wills. In reality, of course, you have to try to model a controlled-ego response so that people involved can say, “Oh, maybe there’s a different path than just letting this become a blood feud.” But it’s easier said than done.
Jeff: It starts when people really buy into the higher goal. That’s I think why our malaria initiative is working pretty well. All of us who are involved in that project keep reminding ourselves, “We’re here to save lives, so let’s not fight over the small things.” Remembering the bigger goal puts you in your place. It helps decrease the ego involvement.
Jennifer: In a way, I disagree with you, Jeff. I think being goal-oriented can have a down side. I don’t think we’re here to save lives. I think we’re here to love each other. The saving of lives is a byproduct of loving each other.
Sometimes we depersonalize the work we’re doing and make it about systems and numbers. If I see one more report that’s just stats on a page, I may scream! Yes, the stats may be meaningful when they reflect lives saved. But they can also become just empty numbers that are devoid of real meaning.
Jeff: Yes, that does happen, Jennifer. But isn’t there a difference between saving ten lives and saving millions of lives? I find it energizing to look at a project that has saved a few specific people in a village and ask, Can we bring this to scale and start saving lives across an entire continent? What could be the big love?
So we use numbers and other measures—lives saved or bed nets distributed or wells dug or whatever—just as tools to make sure we’re on track, aligned, and moving in the same direction together. But the greater love is the reason we’re together. We experience that love through working together. And whether it’s playing music with a band or working with Jennifer and others to build something amazing in the nonprofit space, it’s as joyful as anything I’ve ever experienced.
Jennifer: I think what these stories suggest is that, despite our best efforts, we’re not totally wall-less. We don’t operate totally from an ego-free place. When John Megrue, one of the most wonderful philanthropists we know, spoke to our Exponential Fundraising class, he said, totally candidly, “A third of everything I do is still completely ego-driven, and I know it. Part of my journey now is to discover where ego is still driving me and to grow beyond that.” Of course, from my perspective, I think John is really one of the most ego-less people I know. But I was so impressed by John’s willingness to admit what is true about practically everybody, but what few of us are prepared to discuss publicly.
Karl: Jennifer, are you implying that the goal should be to get to where we’re one hundred percent ego-free?
Jennifer: I don’t think we have to be one hundred percent ego-free. For most of us that’s probably not even possible. But I think the goal of the journey should be to move from a place where you literally can’t give (because you’re so obsessed with safety, security, and protecting the self) to a place where giving is about belonging to a tribe where you feel you fit in and can define a place for yourself, and then ultimately to a place where you start to see that giving can be driven by something even deeper and less self-centered. That’s Gunther Weil’s framework, and I think it holds a lot of truth.
This gets back to why I say that fundraising is not about selling, and that the art of fundraising is not the same as the art of salesmanship. Sales is grounded in trying to tell customers what they want and need instead of allowing them to discover it for themselves. The beauty of the philanthropic journey is that it’s a journey of self-discovery. As partners, we’re may be guiding people on that journey, but we’re not telling them what they need to do. It’s a very different dynamic.
But no, I don’t think you ever get to a place where you’re totally ego-less. Maybe the Buddha and one or two other people in the history of humankind have achieved that—maybe. But it’s a journey, and the journey itself is fascinating and rewarding, even if we never reach the ultimate destination.
Jeff: I agree. This is why I like to use the term “managed ego.” You’ll never get to zero ego, but understanding the role of ego in your actions allows you to own it, observe it, and direct it rather than being passively controlled by it.
But it is a journey of discovery. As our friend Roger Brown says, “It’s getting better all the time. It’s not like you take a course and the work is done. I work it, I play with it, I understand it. And in the process, I’m owning it more and more and more.” That’s the way it is for all of us.