August 17th, 2020
It has happened in the past; it happened three times in the last 2 weeks: I had registered for a number of on-line networking and educational seminars. When a couple of the other participants, and in one case, a presenter, saw that I was participating, they asked me [in “chat” as we do these things these days]: “Why are you on this? Shouldn’t you be speaking/teaching this?”
A decade or more ago, after I had been an educator and speaker about philanthropy for a few years, I started hearing these questions when I would attend conferences where I wasn’t a speaker, or regional association and affinity group meetings as a member and not as a presenter. It is not up to me to decide if I am or was a thought leader in our field, but it was evident that many others thought of me that way.
This is flattering, to be sure, and I daresay, perhaps immodestly, that they were correct – I could easily have been a presenter in the recent sessions alluded to above, and quite often in comparable settings a decade ago. But just because I could have doesn’t mean that I was wasting my time – or theirs. I learned a long time ago that the minute you think you know everything is the minute you start to become irrelevant.
Different people have different learning styles. Speakers and educators have different presentation styles. Vocabulary [and jargon] change over time. Context matters. Underlying agendas are fluid. Just because one knows something doesn’t mean that one knows all there is to know. Even if I could easily have been a presenter in all of the sessions alluded to above, that doesn’t mean I didn’t learn from each. I could pay attention to what other presenters emphasized, how they said what they did, what questions were posed in the “chat”. They made me consider whether their approach was more on target than mine would have been – or less. They made me consider whether some of my business model choices were on target, or seriously flawed.
Even more crucial than affect or style is the recognition that our field, any field, is constantly evolving. Sometimes those evolutions are simply “old wine in new bottles”, but other times there truly are transformative ideas that can profoundly impact one’s thinking. If one rests on one’s “expertise” laurels, it doesn’t take long for that expertise to become dated.
A good example that transcends the philanthropy world is social media. Many organizations originally thought that they would become au courante if they simply developed a website or had a Facebook page but made no other changes in the way they communicated or operated. The proverbial “old wine….” Others, though, recognized that social media is not simply a new marketing tool but a transformative mode of epistemology and human experience. We know now that some of that transformation has been very welcome and some of it quite destructive, but there is no doubt that our world is as different now as print media was to the masses 3 centuries ago.
Expertise, even when legitimately earned, can still be very limited. This is often true of those in the academic world. [I used to be one, so I am not exempt.] One example: Some of you may remember the short-lived L3C fad of some years ago. For those who don’t – it was a pre-B-Corps experiment, heralded as the solution to solving social challenges through a private sector structure. At the time, as part of the curriculum for a course I was teaching for “Advanced Funders”, I invited someone who was considered to have done the cutting-edge legal work on L3C’s to present. No doubt the presenter knew more about L3C’s than anyone – until the funders began to ask questions. What became clear was that this “expert” had NO contact or discussions with anyone who might implement them or include them in their philanthropic problem-solving strategy. I scratched my head wondering how this person could have written what was considered the definitive document without talking to anyone.
Expertise can also be deceptively insular. Examples of this abound in our world of funders. Those who have done very interesting work or developed suggestive new models are often asked to present at conferences and courses. Often [not always, of course] there is no doubt that the work is worth learning about, but the presenter has done so at only one foundation or organization. When asked to extrapolate how to apply it to other situations, perhaps where the resources were more limited or the intended scope was different, the presenter could only report what had been done in the single place. [You can tell, I hope, that I am being as general as possible to avoid naming names or giving identifiable examples. Suffice it to say that it is not a unique phenomenon.] This does not mean that the presenter did not have genuine expertise but the breadth to know how to apply it to other settings was lacking.
Let me be clear that it was not my inherent wisdom that has convinced me of the need to be a lifetime learner. Rather, I learned this being an educator of literally thousands of fellow funders in many countries for two decades – through our own Institute for Wise Philanthropy since 2002, at the now defunct NYU Academy for Funder Education, and at the prestigious high end UPenn Center for High Impact Philanthropy Funder Education program, has taught me that breadth without depth can be too shallow and depth without breadth can be too limiting. Parochialism is an easy trap and recognized unique expertise can be intoxicating. Both have their place in our ecosystem, and I fully respect those who make those choices. But, I have learned, not my choices.
So, the next time you see me on a Zoom seminar, or someday in the future sitting next to you in real physical space as a fellow attendee at a conference, know this: when you suggest that I could have been the chosen presenter, it will always flatter me, and you may well be correct. But that doesn’t mean that you and I are wasting our time. There is always more for us to learn, and I truly hope that I will never cease being a learner.
After all, the day one stops learning is the day one stops knowing.