LeaderSpring’s two-year fellowship program for nonprofit executive directors now has over 120 alumni from our thirteen year history. This critical mass of accomplished and extremely committed community leaders provides LeaderSpring with an unprecedented opportunity to examine our relationship with our network by taking a closer look, as a community, at today’s nonprofit sector. As such, we launched an alumni dialogue series that has helped us learn key ways to develop a relationship with our alumni that we believe is transformational.
In January, we began a dialogue series which offered an opportunity for a different relationship between LeaderSpring and our participating alumni. Rather than coming together to discover common interests between alumni and LeaderSpring, our dialogues focus on creating common interests for our nonprofit sector. The dialogues change our positions in the relationship from offering and receiving to an equal playing field where ideas are the product of the group of individuals; all with varying perspectives and experiences.
I’ve been wondering what conditions have led us to what I believe is transformational work. I think key elements of our processes are reflective of community conversations described in Peter Block’s Community: The structure of belonging. We began with an invitation to our alumni to gather in a way that allows them to own the relationships, tasks and processes in our dialogue which has led to new possibilities. We knew we needed a powerful invitation, one that challenged our alumni to fully engage. We stated that we wanted their participation, and if they joined, we also emphasized what would be required from them (e.g., participation in opening retreat and attendance at 80% of the dialogues).
Two other key conversations are emerging to support our transformational relationship. First, we create space to talk about the possibilities of the nonprofit sector. While acknowledging the historical implications of the “501(c) (3)”, we’re allowing ourselves to break from the past and open space for a bold future. As the facilitator, my task has been to resist the urge to problem solve and help us stay focused on the possibilities and passions for a shared vision for the nonprofit sector.
The other key conversation has been the idea of ownership that leads to accountability. Again, although we acknowledge that there are global, federal, state and local policies and issues that influence our communities, our efforts have been focused on contributing to our local communities. We’re creating conditions among us where we don’t just talk about the communities around us; we examine the extent to which our alumni act as “owners” of our own gatherings – as Block shared, “people best own that which they create, so that co-creation is the bedrock of accountability.”
I think for our relationship to be truly transformational, we’ll need to ensure that our dialogues continue to have room for dissent - respect for a wide range of beliefs. We must maintain a space where we can say “no” authentically rather than “yes” with little meaning. Block offers that doubt and “no” are symbolic expressions of people finding their space and role in a strategy. In our dialogues, we are talking about complex systems where smart and committed people will have reservations about the sense we make of it all. As we continue through our dialogues, I’m confident that we’ll continue our conversations through many differences. I’m also certain we will make authentic commitments for the sake of a larger purpose, and ultimately foster bringing all of our gifts to a transformational network.