The bricklayer parable and nonprofits

June 17, 2021

Filed under: About My Work,Human Resources,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 1:29 pm

An Executive Director working for a former client recently invited me out to have lunch at a park and then go kayak on the river with her.  We spent most of the lunch talking about the organization’s challenges and the potential role an upcoming strategic planning process could play in meeting those challenges.  

Then we went for our paddle.  Just a short one, about 40 minutes.

The Tualatin is a gentle river in a suburban area, but we saw (and heard) some lovely birds and this turtle sunning itself on a log.  

Despite the short amount of time involved, the experience was enough to get my brain recharged and think about the incredible role that rivers can play in improving our communities, which was well-timed given one of my current clients is entirely focused on watershed protection.   Thanks Jan! 

In thinking about the experience, I was reminded of the parable of the three bricklayers and the importance of nonprofit leaders taking steps to ensure they don’t lose touch with their deeper purpose.

This is a variation on a famous parable that supposedly was first told by Christopher Wren, in 1671, while he was serving as chief architect for the rebuilding of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.

A woman was walking down a street and came across someone laying bricks.  The first bricklayer was dejected and doing a sloppy job as they laid bricks on top of each other.  The woman asked the bricklayer: “what are you doing?”

The first bricklayer’s answer: “I’m putting bricks in a row and then putting another layer of bricks on top of them.”

Further down the street, the woman came across a second bricklayer.  This bricklayer was workmanlike – doing their job in an apparently competent manner. 

The woman asked the second bricklayer: “what are you doing?”

The second bricklayer’s answer: “I’m building a wall that will form the side of a building.”

As the woman walked even further down the street, she came across a third bricklayer.  This bricklayer was whistling as they worked, obviously happy, as they methodically and competently put bricks together in rows, mortared them, and slowly built upwards.

The woman asked the bricklayer: “what are you doing?”

The third bricklayer’s answer: “I’m building the wall of a hospital that will save people’s lives.”

Is it any wonder that the second bricklayer was more productive than the first, and the third was most productive of all? 

The first was given a task, but had no purpose. 

The second had a purpose, but it was shallow. 

The third had a task, a purpose, and the purpose was framed in a deeper way that could arouse passion.

So how does this apply to nonprofits?

Almost always, small, new nonprofits are like bricklayer three.  They are founded around a purpose and that purpose tends to remain front and center as the team is built and tasks are divided up.  Executive Directors who are founders are particularly like bricklayer 3. 

Yet, over time – whether the organization grows or not – nonprofits often wind up treating their staff, board, and other volunteers like bricklayer 2, or even worse bricklayer 1.

I saw this repeatedly when I was an Executive Director interacting with other organizations, and I see it sometimes as well as a consultant. 

As organizations grow, there is a tendency to focus on specific duties or tasks that need to get done at the expense of the mission.  This is particularly true on the organizational capacity side of the equation. 

It’s easy to stay focused on the purpose when you’re doing the programmatic work of your nonprofit that directly advances the mission.  It’s harder to say focused on the purpose when you’re working on board governance, or fundraising, or information management systems.  

These are the “bricks” that form the foundation of the organization, so it’s easy to get caught in the trap of focusing on the process of laying bricks or the fact that it’s a “foundation.”

Yet, in failing to keep your deeper purpose front and center, groups are likely to go off course as they lose some of the passion essential to fuel volunteer and staff activity. 

Here are a few examples. 

Your board is asked to raise money.  You pay a great deal of attention in training them to the mechanics of raising the money and the need to hit certain financial goals.  Yet, if the staff doesn’t repeatedly tie those financial goals back to the purpose as it talks to the board, the board is less likely to go the extra mile to ask their friends for money. 

I’ve seen the same situation happen with staff playing a non-program role.  Whether they’re doing your human resources, your database management, your accounting, or any of the myriad of other tasks that go into a medium or larger sized nonprofit, it’s easy to fall into the trap of training them in isolation on just their own jobs.  Many nonprofits can find competent administrative staff to “lay bricks.” 

Yet in my experience, administrative staff who’re repeatedly shown how their work is critical to your deeper purpose, are stronger performers.  It may take a little extra time up-front to consistently keep the purpose front and center, but the payoff is almost always worth it.  They will work harder and are less likely to leave for another job. And they will be more creative in finding ways for their work to better support the programmatic work. 

How about volunteers?  

A great deal of my experience managing volunteers is in the election context, so my example will lie in that realm.  Election volunteers are asked to step out of their comfort zone to talk to strangers at the door or on the phone on behalf of candidates or issues.  

In the election context, I repeatedly found that enthusiastic, repeat volunteers emerged most often when they were informed not just about the task at hand (the phone bank – bricklayer 1), and not just about the campaign (the phone bank as key to winning the election – bricklayer 2), but also the underlying purpose (the phone bank as key to winning the election so the candidate can lead on policies that save lives from dangerous levels of pollution — bricklayer 3).

So what are some management techniques leaders can use as a manger to avoid going off course by losing touch with your deeper purpose?

Three techniques come immediately to mind:

First, get really good at talking about your organization’s fundamental purpose, whether you call that your mission or otherwise.  Make sure this is about underlying values and not first-order impacts. Keep talking about it.  Just because you think everyone’s heard you talk about it before, don’t be shy about bringing it up again to reinforce the message.

Second, make sure the agenda for any significant meeting and the talking points for any presentation have some time set aside that connects the topic at hand to your deeper purpose.  Even if you think everyone attending already understands your purpose, consistently reminding people of that purpose when they’re together as a group is a powerful way to build community and teamwork.

Third, as you grow, don’t completely silo those people who perform largely administrative or capacity building functions from your program work.  They should be part of staff meetings or retreats that are focused on program.  As you hire, train, and supervise these staff, make sure you find ways to continually connect them to the purpose.

In the end, of course, some people are going to naturally think like bricklayer 1, just as others are naturally going to think like bricklayer 3.   But nonprofit leaders are absolutely in a position to make sure their organization doesn’t go off course by letting the purpose be lost amidst the details.

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Science fiction and my call to service

March 25, 2015

Filed under: About My Work,Advocacy — jonathanpoisner @ 12:21 pm

I was recently asked why I felt called to service. As it was asked, the question related specifically to my career’s focus on helping nonprofit organizations, either by working for them directly or as a contractor.

After reflecting a bit, I gave an answer that surprised even me.

I think my call to service was informed by reading a lot of science fiction growing up.

The science fiction I read growing up alternatively presented really positive, uplifting, exciting views of the future, or really dark, negative, challenging views of the future.

Most importantly, the books often focused on pivot points where things either went from “good” to “bad” or “bad” to “good.” And the characters in the books often played a key role in these pivot points.

I think this taught me two lessons in particular.

First, the future won’t necessarily look like the present. Change is possible, if not inevitable.

Second, individuals can have a real impact on what change happens.

Both are key to the mindset of someone who “fights the good fight” for social change.

If you don’t believe the future can be a lot different from today, you’ll be resigned to just let things be.

And if you don’t believe individuals can have an impact, why get involved?

So if you’re a parent who wants their child to become involved in social change work over the long run, pick out some good science fiction books and give them to your child.

Next step for me: work on a blog post outlining which science fiction books most impacted me.

Was there a science fiction book that had a big impact on you?

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Smashwords.Com interview

September 10, 2013

Filed under: About My Work — jonathanpoisner @ 4:20 pm

I recently completed a Smashwords.com interview about my E-Book, Why Organizations Thrive.

Admittedly, it was an automated interview, so no human being actually asked the questions.

But it was a fun process and hopefully there’s some food for thought in there of value to those who read it.

Here’s the link to the interview.

 

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Why I do what I do

August 4, 2011

Filed under: About My Work — jonathanpoisner @ 4:26 pm

I’m about 20 months into my work as a consultant.

As my day-to-day has become busier (thanks to my wonderful, fabulous clients!) I’ve started to think harder about what I’m trying to accomplish.

My mission: To help progressive social impact organizations thrive.

My vision: To work with 15-20 clients per year, with about one-third of those being repeat clients.  To help those groups leave the consulting process in a higher orbit, with a permanent increase in their capacity, not just a temporary boost.

Why do I do this: Because I see too many people reinventing the wheel.  Because even the most talented advocates have gaps in their expertise and, in many instances, I can help fill in those gaps.  Because I love inspiring people.  Because I want to create big ripples in this pond we live in.

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Keys to hiring a consultant

March 14, 2011

Filed under: About My Work,Consulting — jonathanpoisner @ 1:06 pm

Okay, one key.

Here’s something I kind of knew when I was hiring consultants, but really appreciate now that I’m wearing the consultant hat.

It’s best to be explicit why you’re hiring a consultant, even if it may seem obvious to you.

I generally find people are looking for consultants for one of three primary reasons.

  1. They simply lack the time to do something on staff, so they contract out.
  2. They lack the expertise within the organization, so they are looking for expertise from the consultant.
  3. The nature of the project requires an outsider to be a neutral facilitator of some process.

In general, I find I can be a more effective consultant if I know from the very beginning what role (or combination of roles) they are seeking from the consultant.

A strategic planning process that explicitly calls for me to offer up some of my expertise will look different than one that’s solely about having a neutral, outside facilitator.

If the project involves something staff could do, but lacks the time to do, that too provides useful guidance on how my work should be structured.

So be explicit folks!

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The Purpose of this Blog

January 24, 2011

Filed under: About My Work — admin @ 4:08 pm

Just a quick note as I launch my new website, that I’ve included a blog function.

I did this because I’m constantly having ideas, thoughts, and things I want to share that are too timely to wait until my next e-newsletter, and where Facebook or Twitter can’t do them justice.

Feel free to grab the rss feed if you want to read them as they’re posted.

And if you have ideas for something I should blog about, please email me.

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