Can I vent here? I think management protocol says that leaders shouldn’t use venues such as blog sites or other organizational media outlets to vent their personal irritations. I understand that. But in this case, my personal irritation has to do with a Winds of Peace initiative, so maybe it’s OK. I guess I’ve already begun to rant, so bear with my frustration.
As in past years, the Foundation is supporting the Nobel Peace Prize Forum, to be held in Minneapolis on September 13-16. This year will be a little different for us, as WPF is contributing not only financially to the Forum, but is also leading one of the “high-level dialogues” being offered on the first day. The Foundation is bringing six cooperative members to the Forum from their homes in Nicaragua, Honduras, Colombia, Panama and Guatemala. They will join an important discussion about the role of cooperatives in helping to establish and maintain peace in post-conflict societies. We’re excited about the topic!
In addition to the panelists, the Forum is interested in inviting other key players in the cooperative chain of commerce- buyers, fair trade certifiers, organic certifiers, retailers and funders- to join in the discussion. The purpose is to identify where we might collectively contribute to the success of the small, rural producers and the coops to which they belong. In too many instances, initiatives aimed at helping the small family farmers have become coopted by other objectives and a host of “middlemen” out to game the system.
To that end, we have identified key organizations which have significant impacts, and which seek to strengthen these small farmers as a major objective. Indeed, many are important friends of the farmers. To make an invitation for their attendance at the Forum, WPF agreed to send out a “pre-invitation” letter to the key players identified, as a way of introducing the idea of this collaborative effort and offering a “heads-up” for the forthcoming, more formal invitation from the Forum itself. In most cases, we already had identified a name or two from the organization, but in some instances we had to research a bit and make an educated guess as to an appropriate individual. (My hands are starting to quiver; I think this is where I begin to feel frustration.)
All that I seek is a name and an e-mail address. I have nothing to sell, no political agenda to push, nothing subversive to drop in anyone’s lap. I simply have an invitation to offer, for something that is essentially at the heart of what these organizations are professing to do: help the little guys. But the road to contact in some of these well-known and widely-praised organizations is as impassable and impossible as some of the roads in the Nicaragua outback.
First, there is the receptionist. The receptionist wants to know why I wish to speak with Ms. X. I explain the somewhat lengthy story about the Forum and the invitation. This is met with the explanation that Ms. X AND her assistant are out for the day, and that I should try again tomorrow. (I wonder if she might have told me that in the first place.) When I call the next day, I reach a different receptionist, and she, too, wants to know in great detail why I wish to speak with Ms. X. After reciting the details all over again, she passes me through to the administrative assistant.
Unfortunately, the assistant is not at her desk, and I am invited to leave a voice message. As much as I don’t wish to do this, I am reluctant to waste this opportunity to connect, for which I have now worked so long. So I share the story once more to voicemail, and respectfully ask for a return call so that I might elaborate or answer any questions. I leave my phone number twice, just to be sure that I can be reached. But, as you might have guessed, there has been no call. Eleven days later, I have had no response.
I’m frustrated. So I turn my sights to another large, well-known entity within the development world, one that is known globally as a generous and active funder for the impoverished. Recognizing the absolute rightness of their cause, I have cause to hope for success. My first stop is the ubiquitous receptionist, who wishes to know if Mr. Y is expecting my call. I can’t imagine how he could be, since we have never spoken before, so the receptionist determines that I really need to speak first with Y’s administrative assistant. (I prayed that it not be the same one as the previous day. Is it possible that large development organizations share administrative assistants? Or do they just all come from the same schools?) When I reach this guardian of Mr. Y’s time, she, too, wants to know if full detail the nature of my desire to talk with Y. And after my lengthy-but-alluring description of the Forum and my case for eagerly desiring her firm’s possible participation, she informs me that Y is not available. She will be pleased to pass along my name and number. I could hear the deflation from the balloon I had so carefully blown up. In ten days’ time, I have received no return call, from either Y or his assistant.
I am not organizationally naive. I filled a CEO role in a manufacturing company for 16 years, so I know the demands on an executive’s time and energy. I know the competing forces that pull on busy people each and every day. I also know two other truths: first, courtesy is not passe´ and a return call from someone is always appropriate. (Isn’t that one of the roles of the administrative assistant? Or has that become too plebian these days?) Second, important opportunities and initiatives are not always going to be the province of big organizations with large fundraising budgets and lots of administrative staff. Sometimes, opportunity comes calling in unsuspecting ways and when we shut ourselves off from other voices, we shortchange the very populations we seek to serve. Indeed, the behavior contributes to the relative lack of impact we have on global poverty elimination. There is lots of money, plenty of ideas, and too little collaboration.
There. I’m done now and my hands aren’t trembling anymore. My experience is probably no different than ones you might have encountered. It’s just that in the name of peace-building and helping the poorest among us, I expect something more. Despite having been in this field for a dozen years now, I guess I’m still learning something new every day: for some groups, if it wasn’t invented here, it’s not worth knowing….