Swimming Like a Duck

February 11, 2015

By Scott Warren

 

I’ve always had a weird admiration for ducks. When I was younger, my grandparents lived steps away from a pond filled with ducks. I used to visit it frequently, illegally feeding them breadcrumbs, searching for ducklings, watching them swim.

 

It’s a little cliché, but one of the most fascinating aspects of ducks is their ability to manically flap their legs under the surface of the water, while appearing to smoothly sail through it on the exterior. Which is exactly how building up an organization feels, almost every day. Especially right now. Under the surface, it sometimes seems like everything is falling apart – managing and growing the Board, building the team, getting enough money, making sure the program works. But on the outside, we need to glide calmly forward, putting our best foot forward, and only talk about the successes.

 

On the surface, there’s not actually anything inherently wrong with this. We do good work at Generation Citizen, and we should want to show that off. And there will always be things internally that we need to work on as we grow, and maybe we should keep that in-shop. So maybe we should swim duck-like?

 

But I worry sometimes that there is such a strong push for young social entrepreneurs to convince the outside world that they’re changing the world that the true costs and sacrifices that come with the work are masked.

 

The last two weeks have actually been really challenging for me at GC – some of the hardest that I’ve faced to date. We’ll get through it, but it’s taking a lot out of me. At the same time, my work days feel like exercises in polarity – I’ll have one conversation trying to figure out next steps to a big challenge, and I’ll spend the next one with a donor, talking about all of our potential, the powerful convening we co-hosted with the Ford Foundation in January, our student that just attended the State of the Union. These things are all true, and they do show the potential of our work. But how do I balance the honesty of talking about the challenges with the necessity of inspiring through the good work that we are doing? (Even the fact that I don’t want to share the specific challenges we’re facing speaks to this problem).

 

So what’s the actual problem here? Why does it matter if we’re floundering beneath the surface but gliding above it? For a few reasons:

 

  1. It creates false expectations. Sometimes social entrepreneurs feel the need to tell people that they are changing the world, that their intervention will singlehandedly solve entrenched social problems. You can call this the TED talk phenomenon. The problem is that sometimes the actions don’t match the rhetoric.
  2. It creates false narratives. GC has a good product – we have a good website, we have a good Board, we put a compelling external face forward. I’ve heard, numerous times, from people who think that we’re flush in cash, that we’re bank-rolled by rich hedge fund managers, that we’re the hottest thing in town. The truth is that we’re not. But I think we’re doing such a good job swimming above the surface that the narrative persists.
  3. It’s exhausting. I go to a number of conferences every year for social entrepreneurs. Every single time, people are grateful for the opportunity to be honest with each other about the challenges that they’re facing. But we only get to do this a few times a year. We’re holding it all in for the rest of the year.

 

So what to do? I’d love a world in which social entrepreneurs could talk about the good work that we’re doing, but one in which we’re more comfortable being honest about the challenges. One in which we’re not masking what’s happening under the water. For this to happen, a few things need to happen:

 

  • Funders need to be okay with imperfection. It often seems like donors want to invest in the newest shiny object, which means organizations are forced to share the changing-the-world narrative (which can lead to the false expectations). Funders need to accept, and insist, on organizations sharing the challenges, with them, and with the outside world.
  • Social entrepreneurs need to commit to professional vulnerability. Too often, I see those TED talks in which entrepreneurs are telling how they single-handedly are saving the world. It’s not true – no one can do it on their own. Let’s be honest about the challenges. We need the help and support.
  • The outside world should work to avoid creating false narratives. Get to know an organization’s values, mission, work, rather than just looking at the external face of it. Don’t judge the duck by its stroke – look beneath the surface.

 

Ducks are pretty. But I’d rather live in a world where we’re talking about how hard it is swimming under the surface. It’s a little less lonely, a little less incongruous, and a little more honest.

 

Generation Citizen is a nonpartisan, 501(c)3 tax exempt organization which does not endorse candidates; our goal is to engage our staff, participants, and stakeholders in political and civic action on issues that matter to them personally and in their communities. The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the writer alone and do not reflect the opinions of Generation Citizen.

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