What’s your organization for?

6 Feb

On my way to a meeting last week, I pedaled by a sign that so disconcerted me, I went out of my way on the chilly ride home to snap this picture. I can sum up my reaction in the words of an old Peggy Lee song my mother used to sing around the house; “Is that all there is?” Avoiding deficiencies?

Just a few days before, I had been talking with the executive director of an organization with which I’ve worked. We discussed the challenge of organizational transitions, and in particular of focusing on relevant outcomes rather than sustaining particular programs. His assessment of the organization’s impact to date was, essentially, “Is that all there is”?  He felt that what the organization was now doing, however well the components were evaluated, didn’t represent the uniquely valuable contribution it could make to its community.  Given that observation, the organization would need to stop doing some of what it had  been doing to make room for what most needed doing. Of course, this is much easier said than done.

While the change process is difficult no matter what, it’s more difficult if it lacks the context of “why”. I’m not referring to the operational contexts of such goals of gaining efficiency, reducing costs, or accessing new funding, for example. While those are  legitimate focus areas for incremental change, the bigger, tougher question is “what is the organization for?”  Not its competitive advantage, the positions it advocates, or the activities it undertakes; the fundamental question is about what an organization can uniquely do, and do well for and with the community it serves. To be fair to the “deficiency free” organization in the photograph (which I believe is a private business), it may track other, deeper measures of successful impact.  Since what we measure shapes what we do and what we value, I certainly hope so!

As an Executive Director and Board member, I too have struggled with keeping my focus on the fundamental question of why my organization does what it does, and what it can let go of. But I do try to keep the question front and center. On the shelf of my favorite books is one by rural advocate and poet Wendell Berry called “What are People for?” I love the direct, fundamental and not wholly answerable question, and we ought to be regularly asking the same of our organizations. “What are we for?”  And then, align ourselves with our answers.