This is an excerpt from Kay Sprinkel Grace’s book-in-progress, Dare to Dream.
Lately, it has been hard for organizations to dream. Instead, we have worried. Through the recession and into the post-recession, we have felt dreaming was a luxury. And yet, our organizations were founded on dreams: improved education, compelling drama, accessible music, alleviated suffering among vulnerable populations or the cure of the chronic and life-threatening diseases.
We begin with a dream but what happens after that first dream has been turned into a thriving organization? What happens after those first founders move on? What happens when we go into maintenance (or recessionary decline) and we begin the perceptible shift from dreaming about what might be possible to believing that a successful year is one in which we “get back to zero” or balance our budgets?
I believe we begin to lose our edge of excellence. We begin looking in the mirror instead of through our windows. We always do what we’ve always done because we are successful.
But what if we dare to be different? What if we dare to dream? What if we could strengthen our core while also pushing the boundaries of our thinking to say, What is coming in our community? What is the next big dream we need to have?
It does not cost anything to dream. You can hold on to a dream while still maintaining your commitment to sound fiscal practices and execution of your strategic plan. This is not an either/or–it is a both/and.
The impact of the recession was both financial and psychological. It continues to influence the philanthropic investment decisions of many donors. To compound that problem, an alarming number of organizations still struggle with messages that border on begging for funding to keep their doors open and their services sound. These messages come not from a sense of the impact the organizations are having and can have, but from a sense of fear that they will not make their budget and will have to make cuts. These messages fan the potential donor’s fears about the economy and the result is a pervasive syndrome called “psychic poverty.”
I believe that even in the worst of times, people harbor dreams. And, I believe that organizations, even those whose budgets are strapped, need to set aside time to dream.
Our sector is about risk. We see a need in the community, and we risk our initial seed money (and engage others to risk theirs) to meet that need. In times of uncertainty we are less willing to take risks. The boundaries of risk are fear and dreams, and when we are fearful about our future we simply cannot dream. And we do not risk. Like many of our donors, we have felt deep psychic poverty as we juggle the uncertainty of the future against our present needs.
So, how can we project an image that says we are aware of the boundaries of risk but we will not succumb to fear, which inhibits both risk and renewal? Do we remember that embedded in every organization is a dream that is powerful and compelling? While we have rightfully become more strategic, let us not forget that dreams are what capture the imagination of both donors and our communities. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did not say, “I have a plan,” when he spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. He said, “I have a dream.”
We must inspire dreams. Two recent comments from leading philanthropists offer us little comfort and great challenge. Jean Case, commenting after the 2012 White House Conference on Philanthropy, said that high impact investors are sitting on the sidelines. More than $12 billion are under management for donors in charitable funds operated by large investment firms and community-based foundations. When will more of that money reach the organizations in your community? I believe it will be when we come up with big ideas, big dreams and engage others in big solutions to the growing problems in our society. Carlos Slim Helu, the richest man in the world, commented at the Forbes 400 conference in September, 2012, “We have seen thousands of people working in nonprofits, and the problems and poverty are bigger. They have not solved anything.” I absolutely do not agree with that, but I have to attribute his belief to the fact that we continue to talk about the needs we have, rather than the needs we meet. We fail to focus on impact. We focus on what we want for our organizations instead of what we want for our communities when we convey our vision.
Do you inspire your donors to think big with you, or is “getting back to zero” considered an achievement? Are there times during the year where the board and staff dream together? Where they take a hard look through the windows and ask where the next big opportunity is coming from and whether they are ready?
Dreams are a renewable resource. I think more of us should hang a Native American dream catcher in our windows. It would remind us that philanthropy itself began with a dream and that each of our organizations is the embodiment of someone’s dream to make this world a better place.
Room to Read is one of the great success stories of high impact social investment philanthropy. John Wood, the founder, recently offered this comment in a blog in the Chronicle of Philanthropy:
I’ve always believed bold goals attract bold people, and that’s why I said we wanted to reach 10 million children by 2020. We’re doing so well that we’ve moved the deadline forward by five years. To date, we’ve reached 7.8 million children….I’m very much against the adage of small is beautiful. I think small is ineffective. –John Wood, Founder, Room to Read
I believe there are people out there waiting for us to put forth a dream that will connect with what they have long believed as possible for their communities or for the world.