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Surfing the Boundary Between Order and Chaos

Surfing the Boundary Between Order and Chaos

October 27, 2015

Ted Lord, Senior Partner, The Giving Practice

Are you comfortable surfing the boundary between order and chaos? As you engage peers, investees and communities, are you inviting people to sense, interpret and create alongside you? Or do you initiate collaborative efforts hoping to win affirmation and agreement to a plan you have honed in advance?

How does our understanding of philanthropy inform our choice between messy, generative prototyping and stainless, measurable execution?

The burgeoning field of “funder collaboration” is a laboratory for living into and learning from the effects of these choices and implicit postures. In my experience, philanthropy too often stays in its safe spot, privileging white-paper expertise over lived experience, inviting compliance rather than building a plan together with the deep understanding that participants bring multiple forms of capital — influence, lived experience, community connectedness, time and energy — in addition to potential grant dollars.

Falling Into Effective Collaboration

Is philanthropy’s job to underwrite what has an established track record? Or is it to provide the risk capital for demonstration projects or the resources for best-in-class organizations to pursue their highest-return ideas? In their seminal 2004 Stanford Social Innovation Review  essay, “Leading Boldly,” John Kania, Mark Kramer and Ronald Heifetz make the crucial distinction between technical and adaptive work, and suggest that they each require different approaches to ROI, timeline, and evaluation. The subsequent nova of “collective impact” efforts grew from our collective recognition that problems were scaling faster than our often-siloed philanthropic efforts and that as a field we had exhausted every alternative to working beyond our comfort zones. This has also provocatively been referred to as “failing into collaboration” — a recognition of how uncomfortable it can be for funders to realize that intervening in complex systems requires us to co-sense and discover ways forward in partnership with grantees and communities.

Effective collaboration, however, requires a new set of muscles and an explorer’s patience. Too often I have seen collaboration become irritating fast when participants attempt to pursue it with the same mindset and practices that they have used to contract nonprofits in service to solutions that have been determined long before the first RFP is invited. Truly successful funder collaborations recognize that we need to challenge orthodoxies with curiosity in order to redesign systems rather than consign ourselves to making small tweaks whose scale and ambit is conveniently measurable. In addition to the trust-building and conversation we rarely budget time for, we must have a shared tolerance for wandering in the wilderness so that we may see the same situations with new eyes.

Switching ingrained and rewarded behaviors requires something even more discomfiting that collaboration: metacognition. I find that mental models that can be easily visualized help me take the extra breath that reminds me to step back before I follow my natural instincts to shift immediately to my implement-execute-manifest gear before consulting a map or discussing potential destinations. (My children refer to this as “bad Dad” behavior and even “imperialism” or “colonialism” when they’re feeling really snarky.)

This diagram helps remind me that the most leverage and innovation lies right at the boundary between chaos and order, and that the safe harbor of best practice often isn’t delivering the outcomes we long for and need.

Ted Lord is a senior partner with The Giving Practice, Philanthropy Northwest's consulting team. He can be reached at