Yesterday I had the good fortune to be part of a very interesting conversation at United Way headquarters. This venerable organization is trying to help its 1,300 local chapters, each with a high degree of autonomy, make the shift from an old model of working (fundraising oriented with direct relationships with company heads) to a new model of working (impact-oriented with direct relationships with individual donors).

To its great credit, the United Way reached out to a group of people who work in various areas of social change, civic engagement, and organizational effectiveness. I was very grateful to be invited to be part of this group, which included a number of friends and colleagues, and a few people I worship from afar. I was part of a group that included Allison Fine, Chris Gates, Thomas Kriese, Lisbeth Schorr, Michael Smith, Tom Watson, and others.

IMG_2141-1 by Flickr user Troubadour

"IMG_2141-1" by Flickr user Troubadour

Aside from the substance of the meeting, something came up that was very interesting to me.

As some of my readers know, I have been working with John Creighton on the idea of a new, citizen-centric institution. There are fundamental differences in how institutions need to act in the new public landscape. John and I have recorded two videos (“Public Leadership Beyond Institutions” and “New Challenges When Public Leaders Engage The Public“) on this and have more in the works, as well as a study and report we hope to complete in the near future.

Old Guard, New Guard

Yesterday’s meeting seemed to throw the struggle between “old” and “new” public leadership into sharp focus. There was a very definite tension throughout the conversation. Some people, who had labored for many, many years for social change, felt very strongly that they know what ought to be done and what it takes to create effectiveness. On the other hand, there was also a handful of participants who just as strongly felt that too many of the “things we know” are no longer valid and that new ways of operating — with different assumptions about how hierarchies work — are necessary. At times these disagreements were rather heated. We didn’t come to blows, but still.

Here’s a table I drew for myself during the meeting that illustrates some of the differences:

Old Guard talked about New Guard talked about
“social change” “community impact”
“movements” “actions”
“issues” “conditions”
“alignment” “local ideas”
“what’s proven” “what’s possible”

What became very evident to me is how allergic the one worldview is to the other. In the meeting I found myself marveling at how the “old guard” bristled at the new ideas. But on reflection, I am equally interested in how cranky the new guard was too.

We are at a shifting point and there really are two ways of looking at institutional hierarchies. An equilibrium, at least for the time being, has to be established, and it will be very hard to do.

But it is something institutions will need to grapple with, because such organizations include both kinds of people among their decision-making structures.

I want to give two shouts out to a couple of colleagues in particular: I am grateful to Mike Wood at the United Way for inviting me, and I am astounded at the skill Dave Moore (of Collaborative Communications) showed in facilitating a challenging conversation.