by Ted Lord, Senior Partner, The Giving Practice
Voluntary association fuels our nonprofit and philanthropic sector, and celebration is how we tune up and recharge. We neglect this at our peril.
Ours is a time of measurement, measurement and more measurement. Underlying this is the belief that the more perfectly we execute our perfect plans, the better our results will be. In such a world, what is the “business case” for celebration? How can we justify committing time, resources, and attention to festivities that might distract us from “implementing the plan” when so much work remains undone?
Celebration is a way of affirming values that are often hard-won. Organizations with deep commitment to their mission are often also handicapped with earnestness and impatience to do bigger/better/faster/more. This can lead us to give short shrift to celebration as an important part of the cycle of renewal and sustainability. Celebrating specific milestones or outputs is also often a way of surfacing and reinforcing our core organizational beliefs, identity and culture. Celebrating small victories as steps on the road to bigger wins can be just as important as taking time to recognize the bigger summits of accomplishment. Incremental celebration provides fuel for the journey and reinforces a group’s aspirations and alignment.
Celebration can also correct our sector’s tendency to overreach and burnout. Rather than pushing ourselves relentlessly onward, celebration establishes a beachhead where we can rest, reflect on the journey and reconnoiter what’s next. Celebration can then also protect us from rogue waves that might otherwise swamp us. It institutionalizes space for reflection and reminds us of the seasonality inherent in the cycles of change and progress. If barn-raisings and service clubs are expressions of the American charter and character, so is the shadow of wanting it to be endless summer — growing and harvesting without mud seasons and fallow winters for renewal. Long summers working in the field must be balanced by quiet winters by the fire; progress and accomplishment without celebration and renewal risk depleting the soil of our shared commons.
Here are some tips for incorporating celebration into the rhythm of your work, drawn from practices I’ve found helpful — and wisdom I’ve observed among our clients and partners:
- Philanthropy Northwest has a goofy toy train that staff members award to each other, with the previous recipient choosing who and for what someone new deserves a shout out.
- One foundation celebrates resilience through rough patches with spontaneous movie matinee outings.
- Consider feeding people at meetings — how might breaking bread (or chocolate) be a game changer of welcome and hospitality?
- Start your annual retreat with a round of appreciative inquiry — “What gave you the most energy in our work together over the past year?”
- Schedule a strategic planning all-day retreat the morning after you celebrate the opening of your new building.
- Forget to periodically ask yourself, “What season is our organization in?” and then adjust the pace and reach of your activities accordingly.
- Try and solve a board apathy problem as the chair by instructing everyone to try 25 percent harder.
I would love to see some of your Dos and Don’ts in the comments section!
Philanthropy has a structural lack of accountability that makes the active reflection inherent in celebration so important. Celebrations can gather the entire field or system of a project in one place and provide opportunities for listening and loose connections that are often more trenchant and generative than corner office strategy reviews with none of the funded or impacted players present. Transactional impatience is an Achilles heel in addressing systemic issues, where the time horizons of annual grants constrain and work against the radical patience we know is an essential solvent.
Finally, celebration is a way of capturing sparks. While it may seem grandiose to talk about how sparks properly fanned and banked can create an eternal flame, we need to pay more attention to tending our shared civic heart and our need to engage meaningfully if we care about truly sustainable solutions and not just solving problems better. To quote northwest activist Rick Ingrasci: “If you want to change the world, throw a better party.”