Posts filed under ‘Dissent’

Embrace Dissent

I believe the nonprofit sector is stagnant and unable to evolve, and although evolution is the natural order of things it is a difficult process in an environment that discourages disagreement and dissent. Since inception nonprofit society has operated within a rigid hierarchical structure that relies on the cooperation of its citizens in order to maintain its equilibrium.  While this structure might be acceptable in some nonprofit cohorts, I am surprised that nonprofit arts groups and the artists who lead them have yet to challenge this reality. 

Cooperation is a fundamental part of our nonprofit arts spirit – a spirit that believes in working together as a means of moving forward. The scarcity of nonprofit resources furthers this notion that “we’re all in this together” and cooperation is the only way to advance. We are a field in need, we believe, and this belief unites us in deep spiritual and emotional cooperation.  But this spirit of cooperation has made us a society of Pollyannas; we naively believe that our inherent goodness should and will be rewarded.  We are spiritually and emotionally immobilized by our commitment to cooperation and it is this commitment to cooperation that has created a particularly unfriendly environment for evolution because cooperation is hostile to dissent.  Our willingness to embrace one another as spiritual and emotional partners has closed the door on our ability to openly question and disagree with one another.  It’s this lack of questioning and disagreement – which are the seeds of dissent – that prevents evolution from occurring. 

 For example let’s say that I don’t believe in advocacy.  Oh, it’s fine for social or educational groups that use art as a methodology for the advancement of social or educational missions. Those groups might find themselves serviced by becoming members of organizations that are designed to advocate on their behalf and by attending regular meetings to discuss how things are going. 

But arts groups that are intent only on creating the highest quality of relevant work and to having that work seen by as many people as possible; for these groups advocacy is inherent.  Imagine what our arts society would be like if the market was flooded with only highly artistic, captivating, exciting, and provocative work?  I’m guessing that our audiences would organically grow and donors would naturally increase because they are experiencing the value of our work and understanding its power to transcend and transform.

Acknowledging that doing good work is advocacy would also save us all a lot of time,  we wouldn’t have to go to those meetings or read those articles in which advocates tell us how much progress they’ve made telling other people what a good job we’re doing.   We could stay in our studios, theaters, and rehearsal halls where we can keep pushing ourselves to make better art.   

 Let’s say that’s the way I feel. Certainly I have every right to speak my mind but because I make my living as a development consultant and sometimes grantwriter – it’s probably in the best interests of my clients and my career that I don’t mention my opinion.  I might also decide not to mention this to my colleagues who probably don’t share my views. And this I do willingly because my survival and advancement depends on it.

I am not alone in my silence.  I suspect that thousands of other nonprofit professionals have plenty of opinions that they keep to themselves.  After all, speaking up in disagreement, much less in public dissent, seems antithetical to the spirit of cooperation that binds us all together.

 The Value of Dissent

We don’t have to look far to see the importance of dissent.  Look at the critical role dissenters have played throughout our history.  Heck, America was founded on dissent with England and the monarchy. It’s difficult and frightening to imagine what the world would be like today without organized, committed dissent.  Even more important than dissent itself is the singular kind of energy and engagement that results from it. Dissent spurs debate, debate deepens commitment and clarifies opinions, it allows us to see more clearly our differences and similarities, it creates energy and that energy leads to intuitive, organic evolution.

 Complaining is NOT dissent.

 There is a distinct difference between a complaint and dissent.  A complaint starts in a personal place and stays there.   It’s hard to spend a full day among arts groups without hearing complaints.  Most often these statements are full of personal resentment, bitterness and often a sense of entitlement.  They are uttered as a means of satisfying internal resentments and relieving frustrations.  They are plentiful, personally necessary, and completely useless except to further unify arts groups and deepen the already existing commitment to cooperation.

Here is my definition of dissent:  Dissent is thoughtful and clearly enunciated. Dissent is at its strongest when it rises above personal agenda.  It is a well-constructed statement or activity that can be equally understood by all members of our non-profit arts society.  It resonates.  Although the seed of dissent is often planted in personal frustration, it grows beyond that.  Dissent is generous. Dissent is brave.   

But dissent could also alienate funders. There is even a chance that it might alienate colleagues.  Historically it’s been good behavior and cooperation that have met with fundraising and professional success. I teach this to fundraising students: read the guidelines, follow the rules, don’t argue with funders and be gracious, be supportive, build relationships and don’t burn bridges.  And I know that that’s good advice for young people entering the field.  I know that this is the best way to build credibility as well as contributed revenue.  But these fundraising strategies have been over-embraced and have in many ways defined the entire non-profit sector.  And let’s face it, cultural strategies based on public relations’ tenets are not likely to produce a healthy arts society that fosters honest communication and open pubic debate.  It’s not surprising that this inability and/or unwillingness to engage in dissent has created a static nonprofit arts society.

 Where do we begin?

The two most prominent participants in nonprofit arts society are 1) funders, comprised of government, foundation and corporate giving professionals and 2) arts groups. 

Funders hold the power in our nonprofit society; they impact programming choices in arts groups and, at times, even curatorial content.  Funders set policy around board tables and in consultation with leaders of arts institutions who have the most to lose from non-cooperation and honest communication.  And nonprofits follow along because if they don’t they lose funding and that feels punitive.  Because it is punitive.

So to funders, I recommend that you stop believing you have or can have all the answers.  This is impossible because you don’t have all the information.  You should ask more questions, do less talking and consider ways in which you can encourage and support honest dialogue.  Consider using service organizations as neutral filters.

To arts groups, the most direct and powerful communication tool you have is the grant application.  Grant applications are letters. You can be moderately sure that these letters will be read by funders.   Each one is an opportunity for honest communication.  Every time you modify a project or promise to behave in a particular way or engage in an activity that you do not believe in, in hopes of securing a grant, you are missing an opportunity to tell the truth and help donors understand what is and isn’t relevant to your work.  Every dishonest grant application is another barrier to change.

 If you fear losing grant funding by engaging in honest communication, you can practice by writing honestly to foundations that you suspect won’t fund you anyway. 

Let’s also start by telling the truth to our colleagues.   If we have opinions that question the status quo, let’s speak up. The reaction might be startling at first but in time dissent will become more common and it will open the door to lively debate, deeper engagement, and ultimately change.

 George Satayana put it this way:   “To be interested in the changing of the seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.”

January 15, 2011


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