This week I have been traveling for work, and I happened to be in an area where one of my good friends and colleagues from my previous job in the nonprofit world lives. We met up for dinner, which turned into a good three hours of telling stories, reminiscing, laughing and analysis. It was a wonderful evening, but at the end of it I was cognizant of the importance of bridge builders.
In the interest of full disclosure, before venturing into the software/technology sector I was the Executive Director of a nonprofit history/archeology museum, my dream field since I saw Don’t Eat the Pictures as a child. I worked in the field for nearly five years, when student loans, a desire for an actual health insurance/retirement savings plan and disillusion at the possibility of advancement in the museum sector drove me out. I still miss museums, and I have pangs of guilt whenever I venture into them (which is fairly often); but I was tired of risking my health and any financial future in a field that is stuck in a quagmire of problems it cannot or will not address.
Before meeting up for dinner, I read a new post by Vu Le, ED of Rainier Valley Corps and blogger at Nonprofit With Balls. His blog showcases the frustrations of all nonprofit managers with wry humor and great insight. This post in particular bemoaned the superiority complex of many in the tech sector, who see themselves as saviors of the world and warned of the dangers of assuming that technology will save us all. It raises a lot of valid concerns, especially about the dangers of disruption making it harder to find support for proven programs that are seen as stale after a few years despite proven results. However, I did take issue with the tribal nature of it; even as it called for unity to solve complex societal problems, it established firm lines between the tech world and nonprofits.
During dinner, the normal topics of museum nerds and nonprofit professionals were a constant source of conversation. The challenges of collections management, board members with strong personalities and stronger opinions on how things should be run, funding streams and sector advocacy were all addressed. We reminisced about our attempts to create a state-wide online education platform which could be used by all-volunteer organizations as a source of information about museum operation and best practices. But we also talked about current issues facing the field, which in Kansas are numerous and growing more ominous with each state budget deficit. My friend was clearly frustrated with the lack of action at the state level and within advocacy organizations, and I felt her pain acutely.
This is where bridges need to be built; at the pain points between nonprofits, for-profits and governments. As a creature of the tech sector, there is vast potential for us to help solve some of the issues that nonprofits face. Yes, we can create an app that would allow teachers to identify students who will go hungry in the summer so they can be helped, as Le talked about in his blog post. Does this solve the problem of hunger? Absolutely not, and it should not be seen as the solution. But just because it does not address the whole problem does not mean it should not be considered or tried. Those of us who want to see progress made on the most complex problems in society need to be more pragmatic and not lose sight of the good while chasing the perfect. Incremental steps may be incremental, but it is preferable to no steps.
Bridge builders, like myself, have a responsibility here as well. Our role in any situation or organization is vital, but is often forgotten. We need to better advocate for the importance of our skills, and work harder to bridge the walls that the tribes erect between them. Whether it is the walls between diverse organizations, or walls between departments within our own company, the bridge builders need to advocate proudly for the necessary advantages of bringing disparate groups together towards a common goal. So long as walls exist, our thorny problems will remain unsolved. A quote widely mis-attributed to Sir Issac Newton goes like this: We build too many walls and not enough bridges. I think that is just about right.