Why Conversation Circles?

An actual silo next to a bunch of actual barns and cows because, again, I grew up on a farm.

An actual silo next to a bunch of actual barns and cows because, again, I grew up on a farm.

A couple months ago, I got accidentally included on this group of new leaders in food sustainability. I am not in food sustainability, never have been. But once a month a group of women get together to talk about what’s happening in their organizations and think through problems with their peers and I realized - this is all I ever want to do. My proverbial “happy place” (a phrase that makes me literally wince typing but I guess I’ll keep) is talking to other nonprofit leaders about how to make this sector better and to commiserate about Boards and HR and funding all the things worth complaining about. Part of the reason I love this is related to personality - I enjoy helping people think through problems, asking probing questions, understanding nuance. Part of it is that part about being around other women (as mentioned before I am here because of the women who have mentored, hired, fired, bouyed and stood by me). But a lot of it is because we are all in this broken system together and that’s also how we’ll fix it.

Starting maybe 7 years ago (don’t quote me on that - that’s a feeling, not a statistic) funders began encouraging organizations to work together by putting a special emphasis on funding collaborative projects. As with everything this had complicated ramifications in practice, but it did begin a conversation around breaking down organizational silos. Information is often seen as proprietary, even when it is emphatically not. There is no reason that we should all reinvent the wheel around personnel manuals and governance and data storage. We have finite time and even more finite resources allowed to be spent on administrative structures - why NOT pool our energies and share what we’ve learned in the process? And to expand that outward - why NOT share the things we have learned in trying to run our programs? Instead of having multiple people make the same mistakes we did (and waste the same money we did), why not share our knowledge? If you are working on sharing health information to Chinese communities and have seen efforts fail spectacularly, don’t you want the next person to not do that? There is so much work that needs to be done that we should all be striving to de-dupe our efforts the same ways we de-dupe our mailing lists.

Part of de-duping efforts means talking about what, actually, it is that everyone is doing. Of course no one wants a new organization that does exactly what an existing organization does - funders don’t want that, the current organization doesn’t want that, assumingly the new one doesn’t either (why would you go through the hassle of trying to start something that already exists?). But in order to make sure that actions aren’t being duplicated, we also have to become very transparent about what everyone is doing and where they want to be growing. Maybe a void that exists today is already planning to be filled tomorrow. People cannot know what you do not tell them.

And so I decided that I wanted to create the group I found in this food sustainability effort into other sectors as a way to foster those conversations and share those resources and launched Conversation Circles. When I say “share those resources” I mean - send me your bylaws so I can see how you worded them, show me your template for data tracking, tell me about your strategic plan. I love having these conversations with leaders but I’m also tired of it. Let’s tear down the silos that have us all secretly googling “how to write a budget” and just talk about it. Then, finally, we can go on to what’s important: how annoying that one member of your Advisory Committee is.