My learning doesn’t stop

January 21, 2016


I’m learning with every step, becoming clearer, more curious, asking better questions that help others find more insight and clarity.  Here I’ve tried to trace some of this development:

  • As an undergraduate at Swarthmore College I learned to ask deep questions, to tell the truth, to be skeptical about making any assumptions, and to listen carefully to get past surface chatter.
  • My scientific training (at Swarthmore and at Harvard) taught me about creating and refining models. A model is useful because it leaves almost everything out, but can be problematic for the same reason — because it leaves almost everything out. We create and evaluate imperfect models all the time, and knowing how to deconstruct them is critical.
  • A summer working with the respected social scientists Robert Abelson and Philip Zimbardo on the manuscript for “Canvassing for Peace” gave me very practical experience developing strategy, testing its application on small sample sizes, responding to surprises, and implementing a revised and well grounded plan. It was also an opportunity for me to explore collaboration between academics and activists.
  • Several years working with the American Friends Service Committee – first as a member of their Peace Education Staff and then as director of public relations (at AFSC this was called “Information Services”) taught me how to target and focus messages about controversial topics — keeping some edge, but building on shared values and concerns.
  • Years of experience as a manager in a small rapidly growing software company, that during my tenure became a division of General Electric, taught me how to work effectively within complex organizations, collaborating with competing management segments. This job offered me a “sandbox” to learn about power, loyalty, innovation, and the importance of clearly defined mission and plan.
  • Working as an independent consultant – designing and developing information systems for business and non-profit organizations,or focusing on usability and user interface – I honed my skills of listening, of change management, and of assessment and evaluation.
  • Through all these years, I served on the boards of a variety of non-profit organizations – nurturing the Merriconeag Waldorf School (now called the Maine Coast Waldorf School) from a nursery and kindergarten into a K – 8 school with a million dollar building and significant organizational capacity, running a capital campaign for a Quaker study and conference center in Western Massachusetts, helping a local interfaith organization grow from a dream into a vibrant reality. I also had the opportunity to work with organizations that were seriously fractured, and learned what kinds of weaknesses most easily lead to failure, and how best to address these.
  • Participation in the year long “Leadership Intensive” program offered by the Institute for Civic Leadership (now called “Lift 360”) gave me a chance to reflect on all these experiences, to explore models of collaborative facilitation and leadership, and to develop more connections within the greater Portland business and non-profit community.
  • As a consultant to non-profits, I’ve honed my skills at facilitation, strategic planning, coaching, questioning, collaborating, and leading workshops and retreats.
  • For three years, I was Recording Clerk of the New England Yearly Meeting of Friends – taking minutes of week long gatherings at which as many as 500 Quakers from around New England conducted the society’s business. My task was to listen and record, with each formal minute approved as the meeting progressed. Often it was my job to suggest a minute that reflected the unity we had found, but also the matters that still required more work together. I was considered part of the session leadership, but viewed my role as a servant task.  I found my gift of helping a community find its voice — both the voice of its agreement, but also of the discord or lack of clarity.  It’s a gift to be able to articulate clearly the points of our disagreement.
  • I’m a great listener, a reconciler, and a creative force skilled in consensus-based approaches. I was one of the authors of book chapter on the process of Quaker decision making, and have often been called upon to help divergent groups work together. Working within complex organizations, I know how to formulate great questions, and draft talking points that will help others facilitate constructive change.
  • I’ve another life as a photographer of dance. While this might not appear to be parallel to the other experiences listed above, I do believe that deep engagement in a creative process – where even with best efforts things don’t always proceed as expected or as planned, and where agility can be as important as mastery – offers many lessons that are surprisingly applicable.


One of my major clients some time ago was Motherwear — maker of clothes that make it easier for mothers to nurse discretely. I was practically their IT manager, and did much of their system design and programming.

This story concerns a time when they were beginning to utilize the web, and needed a way for customers to un-subscribe to the email list. I implemented a system where customers or prospects could send email to a particular address (e.g., and that would cause the desired result.

However, it wouldn’t work if the mother was subscribed at her home address, and sent the message from a work email. All sorts of other things could result in no match. So I needed to print a report listing as much data as possible about the email received at the unsubscribe address. This would help a staff member manually match up each unsubscribe request with the proper entry in the database. And although most of the data was in various email headers, I assumed that I’d also print out any text the mother wrote.

The new junior staff person at Motherwear who was assigned to this task tried to talk me out of including any message the mother might have sent. “She should know that she’s writing to a robot that doesn’t understand”, this staffer told me. “It’s just an automated process, and she has no business using that medium to write tho us”, she added.

I persisted. And, as a good friend of Motherwear’s owners, I felt comfortable proceeding on my own. I didn’t know what these women would have to say, but felt it was only right to listen to their message. If a woman had bothered to write something, then she didn’t regard the recipient as a robot, and that is what mattered.

So I did print out all those messages, and the vast majority of them told the same story — “I just lost my baby, so please stop sending me information about nursing.”. Of course, Motherwear immediately set up a process by which a personal note was sent to each mother who shared this story. Technology could have made it easy to hide from the social reality. But in this case, technology gave us a way to communicate in a compassionate way to a set of people who were obviously in pain.

I was once hired by a company that develops software for collection agencies. They wanted a partial re-design of the screen that shows on the collector’s computer after an automatic dialer generates a call to somebody with one or more unpaid debts.

It quickly became clear that what they wanted was not really a redesign – They just wanted me to stuff a few more fields onto an already very crowded space. I knew this was not a good idea, but how to proceed?

The screen in question was a very detailed review of unpaid debts, promises made for payments, or for a payment schedule, and actual payments received.

My first request to this client was standard: “Can I spend some time observing some real users working with this system?” Indeed, that was possible – although I believe they expected that I’d spend an hour or two in this phase. To their surprise, I spent a few days, sitting next to several collectors, and always wearing a “training harness” that let me listen to both sides of the call in progress. I offered no advice, and no comments. My purpose was not to educate or engage, but just to observe. A few times, after a call was completed, I’d ask a question about what they were trying to do with the computer screens – but my questions were never pointed.

And then, after many hours of patient observation, I blurted out this comment: “So, have I got it right, you’re in the business of getting your clients [those who owe money] to make promises that they keep?” The collector I was with practically jumped up and down for joy, exclaiming that nobody has put it so clearly. It hardly felt like a creative breakthrough to me, but this formulation did help me see more clearly what was going on.

Then I asked, “So, what are you doing with all this data on the screen? Are you, I wonder, computing a kind of index of promise keeping?” This was exactly what was going on, I was told, and when I asked what computations would go into that promise keeping index, the collector knew exactly.

Finally, I asked if instead of displaying so much detailed data, I showed only the promise keeping indices, and a few key data points. “That would be wonderful”, the collector explained. This would give him a quick picture of who he was dealing with, and would free him up to be more creative in the debt collection dialog.

Right away, we had a whole new paradigm for designing the key screens in this system. Instead of just showing lots of raw data, we could show some trends, that would really guide the collectors. It would still be necessary to have a way to drop down to the detail data, but that data would not be in the way when it was not needed.

The big picture here was quite typical: At one time all this data was probably written manually on paper files. The collector could open those files while talking to that particular “customer”. Later the collection agencies were able to use software that mimicked that paper files – although with easier access, updating, and reporting. And there were probably several upgrades to that software that were faster, had prettier displays, and perhaps added some other bells and whistles.

What’s wrong with this picture? The software had been designed, right from the beginning, to “computerize” the data, rather than to creatively help the debt collector manage the collection dialog. The notion of promise keeping indices was a radical transformation, that offered a paradigm for a new generation of debt collection software.

At best, user interface design or redesign doesn’t just result in more attractive displays of data. It helps users do their job better, faster, with less hesitation, fewer mistakes, and more satisfaction. A really good user interface elicits a positive emotional response. This is where the phrase “user friendly” really comes alive.

I called this short essay “Usability from the inside out” because the starting point is not the data or the screens, but the user goals and user tasks – which usually correlate closely the the overall business goals. By paying attention first to the big problem or goal, we can design software and systems that enhance productivity, improve user morale, provide more accountability, and are often simpler to use and to maintain.

What relevance do such corporate terms as “customer acquisition cost”, “customer retention metrics”, or “prospect target profile” have for the non-profit world? Too often the answer that my nonprofit clients or prospects give me is “none”, as they want to believe that morality and social vision reside on their side, while corporate values are uniformly lacking To them, the vocabulary of corporate marketing is either irrelevant or inappropriate. They make a sad mistake.

Wikopedia offers us this definition of “marketing”:

Marketing is the process of communicating the value of a product or service to customers, for the purpose of selling that product or service. . . . a set of processes for creating, delivering and communicating value to customers. . .

Marketing is the science of choosing target markets through market analysis and market segmentation, as well as understanding consumer behavior and providing superior customer value.

From a societal point of view, marketing is the link between a society’s material requirements and its economic patterns of response. Marketing satisfies these needs and wants through exchange processes and building long term relationships.”

Of course the social service agency, theatre company, or environmental organization are not offering us gift wrapped products. They may provide food and social support to the needy, artistic performance that nourish our soul, protection of our land and water – services that do add value to our lives as individuals and as a society. Their products are services such as this; their “customers” are those of us who might support the endeavor beyond the level of our immediate individual need.

Communicating the value” for a non-profit takes place as they explain how their service benefits a segment of society – which may or may not be the segment that is being asked to contribute funds that support it.

Creating, delivering, and communicating value to customers” is the direct work that they do.

And the “market analysis and segmentation” that non-profits may or may not do is the analysis of who might support the program, how it needs to be packaged and described so that its value is most clearly broadcast, and which sub-communities might best be approached to take on each piece of work.

Marketing has always been a mixture of art and science, but the analytic tools to identify interested communities, and to explore how they respond to different approaches have been steadily growing in power and precision. It’s high time for a new community of non-profit leaders to begin using these technologies, and the related social understanding, to develop a stronger network of support.

But the gap between for-profit and non-profit sectors is about more than different notions of whether both really do “marketing”. There’s too often a cultural divide, based on an implied criticism of corporate organizations as being immoral and out of touch with human values. That’s certainly true of some, but there’s a significant community of for-profit groups that are wholesome in every way. There are also plenty of people within the corporate world who are not comfortable with all aspects of their employer’s behavior, but are challenged how best to confront it with a modicum of safety.

We need more programs like United Way’s “shared corporate executive” program that brings skilled executives into their non-profit to share specific organizational and technical skills. These executives can then return to their employer with a new confidence about how any corporate organization can adopt strong values, and can become an affirming community in which differences are an opportunity.

Once the stereotypes have begun to fade, we may all be better able to look at the tools of marketing as tools of helpful social intervention, via which useful products and services get defined, designed, and funded . . . and the world becomes a better place.

When asked what should be included in an Executive Director’s report to the board, I responded with this model of “OARS” to help the board be aware of the steering environment:

O = Opportunities . . . that the organization can (and perhaps should) pursue
A = Accomplishments . . . both little and big successes
R = Risk factors . . . things that look like they might go wrong, including action taken to 
mitigate these.
S = Surprises . . . that the ED encountered. Yes — even in a well run organization, with 
very professional staff, there are surprises

This model was inspired by the “Significant events” report I had file each week when I was a mid-level manager at General Electric. Each of my staff had to write such a report to me, and I distilled and condensed these, along with my own list, in my report to senior management.  Our “significant events” were named differently, but functioned in the same way to alert our managers about situations that would likely develop — either into more mature problems, or into inspiring successes.

The underlying value here is truth telling.  I knew it was easy for my staff to report great successes, or opportunities that seemed to be developing.  It was much harder to report those out of control situations that could get worse, those stakeholders whose dismay was escalating, those situations that seemed only to work against us.  But my job was to know of such situations, and to organize appropriate responses.  Were I kept in the dark, I couldn’t really do my job.

I’m often asked the difference between three kinds of external helpers that a business or individual might need — coach, consultant, and contractor. Just as often, I’m not asked how to make good use of these important helpers — even though I often hear from my colleagues how many clients don’t know how to work well with and get real value from these often highly paid individuals or firms.  Since I can and do function in all of these three roles, I need to maintain constant clarity about the kind of assignment I’m working under.

Here how I distinguish these three “C’s”:

  • As a coach, I help my clients find their own clarity, their own strength, their own resourcefulness.  Rarely will I offer advice, or take on a task that they could and should be doing.  I think of myself holding a flexible mirror in front of them, helping them see themselves in a new way.

I had one client who was great at maintaining accountability, budget controls, a good work environment, and other such aspects of the present situation.  But he told me that he had trouble planning, visioning, and otherwise getting beyond his organization’s present situation.  I gave him no advice, but simply asked him to imagine that his organization was going to hire a director of planning and visioning, and to bring me a job description for that role.  I also asked for an initial work plan.  What he brought back to his next coaching session was stellar.  Clearly, and despite his negative self-appraisal, he had quite a command of how to envision and plan possible futures for his group. The real challenge, it turned out, was figuring out which of his tasks he could and should give away, and which tasks might not be needed at all.

  • As a consultant, I do offer advice — extending the client’s knowledge and vision.  I might be called upon to review a client’s action plan, facilitate a meeting, interview stakeholders, map out possible strategies.  I will make recommendations to the client, that make include some surprises.

One consulting client hired me to review some technology work that was very poorly done, in the expectation that I could serve as an expert witness in a lawsuit against the technology provider.  Indeed, the work was seriously deficient, and I could easily have provided a legally correct statement of that assessment.  But my advice to the client was to step aside from the potentially consuming legal process, and to use all their resources to get enough of the technology working that they could get back to their core business.  This was not the advice they expected or wanted, but they took it and it served them well.

  • As a contractor, I take on tasks that my client might have handled themselves, but for whatever reason choose to out-source to another.  My role is not to offer advice, and not to catalyze their growth, but simply to perform the tasks they have assigned.

One software company used to regularly contract with me to teach their training classes.  I followed their course outline, used their other training materials. and represented myself to the students as somebody working on my client’s behalf.

After teaching a number of these classes, I expected that I might then be hired as a consultant to design improvements to the classes, drawing on my in depth experience delivering the material to a wide range of students.  However, that never happened.

When hiring a coach, an individual or organizations needs clarity about what change outcomes are desired.  A speech coach might help somebody speak clearly and forcefully before large groups, where that person might already have had a great mastery of the material but only felt comfortable sharing in small informal settings. But that same coach would probably not be helpful when the challenge is to develop an inspirational message that requires a new definition of the organization’s mission.  Bringing in a coach will generally increase the workload for the individual or group, as the coach will prescribe exercises and activities that engage  the whole team but require real effort.  Prior to hiring the coach, there needs to be a commitment to the learning process.

I’d offer similar comments about hiring a consultant — the need to have a well defined problem (or, perhaps, an agenda that starts with defining the problem), the commitment to staffing the consultant with access to the right information, insight, data, and experience, and the need to work with the consultant throughout the process.

A contractor needs an even more detailed job description, but, in return, should require less staff time for support, supervision, evaluation, and collaboration.

I’d strongly suggest that before hiring any of these helpers, the organization develop the evaluation tools to assess the success of the engagement.  Knowing how evaluation will take place means really knowing what’s expected and what’s important.

Coach, consultant, and contractor — They are all important helpers.  But know what kind of help you need, what you expect to receive, and what commitment you have towards reaching that end.

I’d offer these thoughts:

1. Few nonprofits engage in a real conversation with the donor. Ask me to support your group, when my funds feel slim, and I might resist. But ask me which of your programs excites me most, I’d be inclined to think some, perhaps review your web site or reports to see what your group is doing, and give something.

2. Donors need permission to give less. This may seem counter-intuitive, when your group needs more rather than less. But the message is that giving less still makes a difference. Many donors will postpone any donation, rather than give less than they gave last year. Getting them to give something brings in some funds, and keeps donors active.

3. You can present your appeal as a request for funds . . . or as an opportunity to make a difference (by supporting your group). That positive slant may be more effective.

4. Tell it like it is. I’ve NEVER gotten an appeal that said, “We spend $34.25 to get you included in our donor community . . . hope that money will not be spent in vain”. (I’m not sure what the cost per donor is, and the figure you use may reflect cost of getting donors in a particular giving bracket.)

5. You may just not be telling your story in ways that are vivid, compelling, and encouraging. I’ve been running workshops helping nonprofits find and tell their story. If you’re not sharing great stories with your donors, they may not feel motivated to give (even though they may have been loyal supporters for years).

We need professional partners, and not just fee for service providers.  And we need to be invested in the relationships, and active in providing information, helping to define problems, evaluating proposed solutions, etc.

This post began in response to a question about choosing an attorney for a new business or non-profit organization.  Several other people had offered advice about paying attention to the attorney’s specialities, about the size and responsiveness of their organization, etc.  I agreed with all of this, but suggested looking not just at the provider, but about the kind of relationship required.

Here’s what I wrote in that post:

I believe there’s more. Your relationship with your attorneys (there may be more than one!) must be a partnership. It’s not just a fee for service. Setting up the corporation, protecting trademarks, etc. is not that complex. But finding the right guidance moving forward, managing risk, defining business relationships . . . these can be complex and interesting.

I’d ask each potential attorney (or firm), “What will you want from me? What’s going to be my role in making this relationship work?” Listen carefully, to see if their response sounds like the foundation of a helpful and productive partnership.

I might note that the same questions are very relevant in interviewing potential consultants, advertising agencies, web developers . . . all your business partners.

Are you willing to nourish and value that relationship?  Can you hear the guidance and advice that will be offered, and still remain an active partner in deciding how to proceed.  Can you stake responsibility for steering your ship, even as you gather information and ideas from all of your “crew”?


Tell me a story, about …

September 11, 2013

The best way to shares our lives. or visions, our dreams, our fears . . . is by telling stories.  And one of the best ways to do the same things about our organizations (profit or non-profit) is to tell stories.  Opening ourselves to a story telling mindset is very adaptive.

Recently I was mentoring somebody who was very conflicted about whether to proceed on a certain path.  He wasn’t clear that he wanted to reach that destination, and was equally unclear whether the words associated with the celebration of that path were words he could say with integrity.

I was in no position to offer advice.  I couldn’t know which direction was preferable, and, besides, i was his “mentor” but not his guide.  it would have been appropriate for me to even try to chart his course.

But I could offer the following process:

  • Tell me  a story about following that path and where it takes you.
  • Then, tell me another story about standing back, and not following that path.  Where does that leave you?

Note that neither of these were requests to analyze, measure, or weigh.  He’d done that a lot already, and that process only added to the inner conflict.  Instead, I was asking him to let stories flow — and, indeed, they did.

It quickly became clear that the words associated with the certification were a crucial concern.  The destination might have been right, but the words were an obstacle.

Again, story telling was the way forward.  I asked him to create a story of a certification process that had resonance, with words he could easily say and stand behind.  Then, I suggested, he might explore how much freedom he would have to use his words and his process.

I never heard that story, and don’t know exactly what pathway opened up.  But he was able to follow a solid path to that destination, and I do know that he found the clarity he sought.

Did it matter that I never heard the inward part of this story?  Not at all!  Some stories are meant to guide us, and not to inform the rest of the world.

The same kinds of stories can guide non-profit organization and even for-profit corporations as they plan program, product lines, service offerings, etc.  I recall vividly one occasion where I was asked to help re-design some software — following guidelines that intuitively seemed quite wrong to me.  I spent several days watching their staff using the current software as they talked on the phone with their customers or clients, and listening to both sides of each phone call.  Finally I was able to blurt out a very simple version of what seemed like the iconic story behind each interaction.  The staff was thrilled to hear it stated so simply, and found that the story we had exposed led directly to a greatly improved and simplified version of the software.

As I look forward to each dialog with a client or prospect, with a non-profit board member or concerned stakeholder, with a troubled director or an engaged staff member, the five words that are almost always at the tip of my tongue are, “Tell me a story, about . . .”

Recently I was asked to comment about how best to engage donors to a nonprofit.

My answer — Ask the right questions.  Decide what conversation you’d like to have, and figure out what QUESTIONS will start that off.  Donors like to be listened to, like to be heard, and like to be treated as important.  Asking the right questions, and then listening carefully will make a huge difference.

Is there a story that you’d like to tell. Don’t just blurt it out. Wait for the question, to which your story is a wonderful answer.

An example: “Why have you been so generous with us . . . with three very significant contributions in just the past year?”  That’s not a question many fundraisers would ask. But prompting the key donor to review his or her satisfaction in supporting your work may be more effective than any words you might provide about why your work matters.

One caveat, however:  You must care about the answer you will receive.  Asking questions just for effect won’t work at all.  The donor or prospect may surprise you, may confirm your understanding or expectations, may challenge you.  But, whatever its effect, the answer will be important.

The importance of the answer – That’s a major part of what makes a great question.

One caveat

I wrote this in response to a query about a board that was not fulfilling its mission — at least according to the groups Executive Director.  After reading a detailed analysis of ways in which the board appeared to be failing, I added these thoughts . . .

I believe the solution must involve both left and right brain thinking — both an analysis of what’s being missed, and some candid sharing about the context of board work in support of the organization’s mission.

I can imagine leading a workshop in which board members list

  • Expectations about their roles
  • Personal evaluation about their performance in each role
  • What energizes each board member to do this work
  • What de-energizes each board member, or puts limits on the energy they can expend
  • What makes board meetings fun, exciting, vital, and worth attending
  • What makes board meetings dull, frustrating, obligations that one might rather skip.

Then have the Executive Director (and perhaps other members of the executive team) list his or her expectations of the board, which of these are met and to what extent, and which are left unfulfilled in a way that really hurts the organization, or at least the work of the Executive Director.

I expect that mixing structural and personal will help everybody find more trust and develop a more collaborative spirit, and that this sharing process will expose some of the real issues.

One final note — Don’t assume that the problem lies totally with the board. It may be that unclear expectations or communications, confused agenda, vague decision making processes, or other such external problems are part of what holds the board back. For this reason, it’s extremely helpful to have the session facilitated by somebody from outside — somebody who is not identifed with any part of the organization or its governance.

I didn’t have to look far to find these “scripts”.  I’ve played each of them many times before in conversations with friends and colleagues, and expect that I’m in good company.  Most of these are not scripts that nourish relationships, cultivate friendships, build self-image, or free up our positive creative energy.  And yet how often do these scripts guide our behavior?

My suggestion — Try playing each of these scripts for a day.  Rehearse your lines, and be prepared to deliver them with passion and energy.  But stop short of speaking.  Think twice, and experience how the “real” you can best come forward.

Have I left out one of your favorite — or least favorite — scripts.  I’d love to hear from you.  Post on this blog, or e-mail me.

  • Woe is me — Let me tell you all that has befallen me this week, the people who have been so mean or thoughtless, those who I thought were my friends, but finally showed their true (selfish) colors.
  • Gratitude — I’m so thankful for you as my good friend, and you’re part of a community surrounding me.  Stuff keeps happening, but I’m glad that I’m not alone.
  • Entertainment — I’m an entertaining speaker, and I’ve lots of new stories and jokes, so — hold on to your seat — let me sound off.
  • Compassionate curiosity — It’s been quite a while since we’ve really talked, and I’d love to hear what’s happening with you.  What’s happening with you now?  What’s important?  I’d like to know.
  • Interview — I want to hear about you, but let me take control of the conversation.  Are you ready for my first question (of twenty!)?
  • Flirting time — I’d like to offer you much gratuitous praise — not that I really mean it, but can’t we enjoy flattering each other?
  • Far from the personal — Let’s talk about politicians abroad, or movie stars, or scandals . . . anything that keeps us from revealing much about ourselves today.
  • Not so hidden disinterest — I asked you how you are, and about your family, but please don’t say anything too challenging.  Running into you has been a diversion from how I really wanted to spend my time.
  • Saving the world — I know you’re compassionate about world hunger, torture, and other such tragic issues, but are you feeling enough guilt?  Let me offer some concrete things that you can do, and a big dose of guilt for you to absorb if you’re not willing to take these on.
  • Please set the pace — Glad to run into you.  I’ll be relatively quiet, just wanting to hear from you.
  • Our fortune is overwhelming — Let me tell you about my promotion, the fantastic job our daughter just got, the contest we won.  I’ve so much good news to share with you that I really don’t have time to listen to your story today.  Oh, yes, and I was sorry to hear your bad news.
  • False pretense — Let me pretend I didn’t see you.  I won’t say a word, but trust you won’t be offended.

I recently met with the organizer of a fledgling non-profit, that will help “new Americans” find best place in our society, offering mutual support, and drawing wisely upon existing resources.

Then, after some reflection, I wrote the following summary of our discussion (slightly edited here for publication).  I share it here not for the specifics regarding this new organization, but as a possible model of the kind of thinking needed to give birth to a vital and well purposed group.

Vision — A world in which the phrase “new Americans” is not even necessary, as all are treated with such dignity and respect, and receive assistance fulfilling their potential, in an open society that values differences as well as strength, that supports varied cultural forms, and that is open to growth and change.  [I’ve just listed my thoughts here, probably not in the most refined, and final, wording]

Mission — New Americans helping each other take their full place in the economic and cultural life of this society, sharing their strengths, receiving help and support, and maintaining their dignity and sense of self worth.  In particular, supporting new Americans who have experienced torture and other trauma, as well as abuses from the systems in place that should have offered support and welcome.

Support committee — An informal group offering you (the presumed director) counsel and support, but that has no decision-making power or formal organizational role.  This group could be a group that can be a sounding bound for you, a source of advise, a place to test out ideas without making them visible to the whole community.

Executive Board — The formal group holding the “vessel” that is your organization.  This is a point of organizational grounding, financial accountability, legal integrity.  But it’s not the place where program originates.  Largely consisting of new Americans, it may also draw upon others who can offer expertise in law, finance, non-profit grants, publicity, development, and other such areas.  With good fiscal sponsorship, this group may not be needed right away to handle the organizations’ grant income, etc.  Still, the structure of self-government is important, and experiencing this mechanism of self-determination right away can be an important experience and inspiration.

Community Board — A representative group, that ideally has members from all the ethnic groups being served.  This is the group that identifies and then evaluates program, insuring that it really meets the needs of the communities it is supposed to serve.  You will need to find clarity about how this group should function, how decisions are to be made, etc.

We spent time discussing the names of these last three groups.  I still support my original comments, but believe you could call them anything — as long as you define clear and appropriate roles for each group.

These words are clearly not definitive.  And that’s precisely why I’m sharing them here.  If I’m incorrectly reporting what was shared and generally agreed upon, or if in retrospect some of these ideas are questionable, this is a great time to correct and move forward.

I’d read about Three Buoys — the new fish restaurant that recently opened up a few blocks from my office.  It sounded like a wonderful place for simple fish sandwiches, and for more sophisticated seafood preparations as well.  So, I thought this morning, why not try it for lunch today.

I was warmly welcomed, but then presented with a dense page of typewritten text, that must have contained at least 100 different menu items.  All were priced well above what I wanted to spend for lunch, and most were not seafood.

Yes — I could have scanned the menu, checking out the seafood items.  There probably were some that would have interested me, and at a price not too much above what I expected to spend on lunch.  But the very fact that there were so many items on the menu was proof positive to me that this place couldn’t be doing anything very well.

My “proof positive” may have been completely wrong.  I might have missed a taste thrill for lunch today.  But that’s not the point.  What’s interesting is that I entered the restaurant wanting to buy something, and I left feeling upset that this mission was so hard.  They might have lost not just my one purchase today, but a loyal customers for years to come.

What might have helped turn me into a real customer?

  • A menu sorted by kind of item — Perhaps fried seafood, broiled seafood, soups, salads, meat, poultry, etc.
  • A menu that was just shorter.
  • A server who has offered to help me pick out something on the long menu for this new place.
  • A page of lunch specials — perhaps only slightly cheaper than the full menu, but much more approachable.

Also, as I left, somebody might have asked, “We’re sorry you’re leaving . . . What were you looking for that you didn’t see on the menu?”

I want this little place to succeed, and may go back to offer my feedback — for what it’s worth.  But if they are not querying their customers (or would-be customers), there’s not a lot of hope that they will get it right.

I’ll be offering this week long workshop at the week long “Friends General Conference” gathering this summer.  But I’d love to work with anybody about how Quaker-ish process might work in any secular setting.

“We’ll explore ways in which something akin to a Quakerlike process can be used for secular decision making, and how it brings clarity and community to the life of non-profit organizations and even to for-profit companies. What’s left of Quaker process without it’s emphasis on spiritual discernment? Come and find out!”