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Physician, Heal Thyself: Tear Down That Silo! [A crowdsource inquiry]

August 19th, 2015

Richard Marker

With apologies for the mixed metaphor of the title, this post is about deconstructing self constructed silos.

There is a “rule of three” in the assessment and strategy world: one or two responses not in keeping with a consensus should probably be dismissed as idiosyncratic, but when three or more similar concerns arise, even if they are not precisely identical, it is worth looking further.

On a recent cross-country flight, I found myself sitting next to the president of a national cable network. As we discussed each other’s work and careers, he suggested that my approach to philanthropy strategy could easily apply in the corporate world, and wondered if I had ever thought about sharing my approach with other constituencies. It was about the 10th suggestion of a similar nature I had received in the last few months. If the rule of 3 is sufficient to look further, presumably 10 is enough to hit one over the head with a 2 x 4.

Over the last 17 years or so, I have been committed to cultivating an “expertise” approach to my work. My feeling has been that if someone is hiring me to speak, or advise, or teach, I should be as much of an expert in my field as anyone. No one has the right to claim to be “the best” in anything, but a foundation or funder should be able to look at me and feel that I am as expert as anyone else they might want to hear or work with. And, perhaps immodestly, I am confident that it is, on the whole, a fair assessment.

The field of my expertise has been philanthropy, not just philanthropy in general, but more specifically the funder side. It means that I have carefully and purposely deflected non-philanthropy work or even philanthropy work, such as fundraising, which is way beyond my competence. I don’t consult on topics about which I don’t feel that I am an expert [even if in the past I might have]. Nor have I been actively seeking to speak to non-funder audiences.

All of these practices have been emphatically challenged in recent months by a variety of people. Their arguments:

1. “What you have to say about philanthropy is applicable to everyone. In the USA in particular, philanthropy is an everyday issue, and increasingly a topic in the press. Shouldn’t your expertise be made more widely available? Why restrict your speaking about philanthropy to philanthropy audiences?” [These folks then go on to list a variety of potential audiences who would benefit if they only knew…] 2. “There are related professional groups that should benefit from your expertise. Philanthropy and charitable giving mean very different things depending on whether one is a wealth advisor, a trust and estate attorney, a CPA, a planned giving officer, or [like me] a philanthropy advisor. These silos really should be destroyed since each group maintains its own narrow understanding of how its expertise applies, not always to the benefit of clients who are funders. You should be more assertive in challenging this professional insularity.”
3. “You have insights and experiences which apply derivatively in all sorts of other contexts – e.g., Work-place practices, strategy approaches, organizational development, leadership, aligning strategy and culture, mentoring, pedagogy [to list only the subjects explicitly proposed by others.], and are an accomplished public speaker. Why are you so reluctant to speak to or take contracts in some of those other settings?”
4. “You have a shortsighted business model – focus/expertise is one thing but that shouldn’t eliminate legitimate and credible ‘brand extension.’ Even if your primary audience is the funder community, the broader your reach, the more likely that they will hear of you.”

Hmmm… All of these critiques are more or less on target.

It is true that I have often posited, and written, that philanthropy is not just for the very deep pocketed, and that 21st century technology empowers much more decentralized and democratized philanthropy practices.

It is true that I have often railed against the counter-productive nature of the silos in which we operate, especially within the philanthropy sector itself.

It is true that my own expertise is built upon a robust professional history of multiple careers which bridge sectors. Yet, I have developed a professional practice which is singular in its target market.

It is true that I have focused all of my energy in our sector, limited though it may seem to others – because I so value the importance of thoughtful, ethical, and wise philanthropy. Even so, the underlying approaches need not be so limited. There really is no reason that others cannot benefit from those approaches and methodologies.


So, I decided to take these thoughts seriously and convened a couple of informal groups of trusted professional advisors on all of this. These are their suggestions:

A. More public offerings on philanthropy and giving: Offer seminars and presentations on how anyone and everyone can be a philanthropist. Experiment small-scale to see which ones are most well received before going prime time.
B. Consider additional audiences to share insights on organizational design, career pathing, and professional development.
a. My untypical professional narrative and inter-sector experience can be played out for the benefit of other sectors, especially as it pre-dates and predicts the real-life experience of millenials in having multiple self directed careers.
b. Some of the leadership models I developed in the years when I was a ceo or senior executive in the nfp field are still perceived by many to be cutting edge. Yet, in recent years I have restricted my conversations about them to advising funders on how to make good choices about recipient organizations. Perhaps groups such as YNPN or the Support Center or Talent Philanthropy would be interested so their members can learn from those experiences, and build on them.
C. Consider translating and adapting the now proven distinctive strategy model into a tool useable by others outside the grantmaking field; be open to accepting some contracts outside the funder sector. The strategy model I use was developed while doing private sector consulting about 25 years ago; I have since fine-tuned it exclusively for foundation and funder planning. But as my above mentioned travel companion reminded me, the underlying concepts are not exclusive to funders; they apply equally well in any business or organization concerned about developing an implementable strategy plan. Unlike many strategy plans, it is not likely to sit gathering dust on a shelf.
D. Consolidate the numerous articles and posts I have written on management and organizational leadership [see #3 above] into a booklet or manual for wider circulation.

Crowd-sourced query: The abiding wake-up message for me in all of their suggestions is to get out of my own self-constructed silo. Do you agree? Would you add to their list? Or do you recommend that I stick to my carefully honed expertise and maintain that laser focus on philanthropy for funders? Interesting crossroads.

Lest you think this post is only about me: I wonder if our philanthropy field as a whole might also benefit from the same advice – to deconstruct our self-limiting silos.

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