“Fast” vs. “Right”

In my nonprofit work, I’m currently experiencing the tension between “doing things right” versus “getting the job done.” During the day, I’m advocating for slowing down and getting a few things  done right. On evenings and weekends, I’m trying to get my volunteer board to speed up, and say “this is good enough.” It makes me feel a little bipolar, but context.

For my day job, I represent a small but mighty national organization, that is within spitting distance of being stable, but can’t quite close the gap. For the last two years, we’ve been rapidly experimenting with new programs and strategies to learn as much as we can about what works and what doesn’t. If something blows up, it feels like my organization could cease to exist. We are a team of three and I depend on my paycheck. At the same time, I have a boss who sets the direction.

In my spare time, I volunteer for a small scrappy organization that completely relies on volunteers to execute everything from strategy to programs to marketing to fundraising. I’m surrounded by amazing people with high standards, committed to doing things right  and producing high quality products.  There are approximately 40 of us that make things happen.  Lots of worker bees, but also many Queens. Those in leadership are constantly questioned, and are constantly questioning themselves.

In both of these teams, we’d benefit from a discussion around QUALITY. In a small group setting, I should ask the following questions:

  • What do quality outcomes look like to each of us?
  • What is the feeling we want to convey when our stakeholders interact with us?
  • How do we want to feel about our outputs?
  • Where do we need to get out of the work that we do?

Brainstorm individually, and then have each person share their thoughts. Other participants shouldn’t interrupt. If you’re not sharing, just listen.

After you’re done sharing, ask each other:

  • What are the common elements of our definitions of Quality?
  • What is aspirational for our team?

Together, sketch out a standard that you are trying to achieve. Then put it to use! When questions about perfection or speed come up, test the question. Does X activity help us to meet our definition of Quality?

Have you done something similar in your work or organization? Let us know in the comments!


Theaster Gates: Building Something From Nothing

Place-based community revitalization – a fancy phrase to say that committed, passionate people can transform the run-down places they live into a vibrant destination for civic activity. Theaster Gates, an artist who worked predominantly in clay, did just this to his neighborhood on the South Side.

In his recent Ted Talk, Theaster Gates says:

“The neighborhood that I live in is Grand Crossing. It’s a neighborhood that has seen better days. It is not a gated community by far. There is lots of abandonment in my neighborhood, and while I was kind of busy making pots and busy making art and having a good art career, there was all of this stuff that was happening just outside my studio. All of us know about failing housing markets and the challenges of blight, and I feel like we talk about it with some of our cities more than others, but I think a lot of our U.S. cities and beyond have the challenge of blight, abandoned buildings that people no longer know what to do anything with. And so I thought, is there a way that I could start to think about these buildings as an extension or an expansion of my artistic practice? And that if I was thinking along with other creatives —architects, engineers, real estate finance people — that us together might be able to kind of think in more complicated ways about the reshaping of cities.”

He wanted to do something, so he bought a building.

The building was really affordable. We tricked it out. We made it as beautiful as we could to try to just get some activity happening on my block. Once I bought the building for about 18,000 dollars, I didn’t have any money left. So I started sweeping the building as a kind of performance.This is performance art, and people would come over, and I would start sweeping. Because the broom was free and sweeping was free. It worked out.” 

With his “Performance Art” at a building soon known as “The Archive House,”  Gates did something that is becoming best practice across North America – animating the space. It’s not enough to build something beautiful, you have to give people a reason to come to a place, to care about that place. Memories of great experiences build emotional ties to a place. Building it alone won’t get people to come.

“Very significant people in the city and beyond would find themselves in the middle of the hood. And that’s when I felt like maybe there was a relationship between my history with clay and this new thing that was starting to develop, that we were slowly starting to reshape how people imagined the South Side of the city.”

Not only was Gates creating a community space, an asset for people to use, he was building buzz around it. He was building a movement and a craving for community revitalization.

One house turned into a few houses, and we always tried to suggest that not only is creating a beautiful vessel important, but the contents of what happens in those buildings is also very important. So we were not only thinking about development, but we were thinking about the program, thinking about the kind of connections that could happen between one house and another, between one neighbor and another.”

Theaster Gates’ buildings had a mission and a vision: to make Grand Crossing a better place for the people who lived there by using arts and culture. He wasn’t driven by a profit motive, like a traditional developer. Gates married space with a mission – social purpose real estate at its core.

At the end of this TEDtalk, Theaster Gates’ has somadvice for people  undertaking these projects in their communities:

“One of the things I’ve found that’s really important is giving thought to not just the kind of individual project, like an old house, but what’s the relationship between an old house, a local school, a small bodega, and is there some kind of synergy between those things? Can you get those folk talking?I’ve found that in cases where neighborhoods have failed, they still often have a pulse. How do you identify the pulse in that place, the passionate people, and then how do you get folk who have been fighting, slogging for 20 years, reenergized about the place that they live? And so someone has to do that work. If I were a traditional developer, I would be talking about buildings alone, and then putting a “For Lease” sign in the window. I think that you actually have to curate more than that, that there’s a way in which you have to be mindful about, what are the businesses that I want to grow here? And then, are there people who live in this place who want to grow those businesses with me? Because I think it’s not just a cultural space or housing; there has to be the recreation of an economic core. So thinking about those things together feels right.”

Watch the video or read the transcript online at TED.com. Learn more about Theaster Gates and his work at his website.

A new kind of corporate social responsibility

Last summer, I attended a talk by Robert Egger (of DC Central Kitchen fame), hosted by the Denver Office of Strategic Partnerships. Although he talked about a wide variety of things, what stood out was his take on the future of corporate social responsibility (CSR).

Right now, CSR is interchangeable with corporate philanthropy, the practice of giving a portion of profits to some charitable cause. Sometimes it’s great, like Newman’s Own, which donates 100% of its profits to charity.  Sometimes, not so much. Remember the Susan G. Komen/KFC debacle known as “Buckets for the Cure?” In most cases, CSR is just corporate greenwashing – a cover up for pollution or treating workers poorly or ___ (you fill in the blank).

Egger believes that Millennials will drive corporations to make products and services that are ethically created, have minimal environmental impacts, and are generally good for the world. How? Through exercising our purchasing power. Buying better products. Making the sustainable choice at the store.

Millennials are already proving to be a driving force for the green economy. Of our generation, 56% of us are willing to spend more money for the product that guarantees us that it was  ethically or responsibly produced. The same Harris poll showed that a quarter of Millennials are increasing their spending on green and sustainable products.

Robert Egger’s comments have changed the way I look at spending my money. Where I used to search for the cheapest thing that would meet my needs, I’m now on a quest to replace one product at a time with a choice that is better for the planet and for the people that live on it.

Guided by The Good Guide, I started with dish soap, since I’d run out of it at the time.  The Good Guide has expanded it’s rating system to not only tell you if a product contains harmful toxins and how it impacts the environment, but also it now reports on the social impact of that product – how the  company treats its employees, it’s transparency with governance, and the relationships it forms with its community. The social aspect is even more important to me, because I’m very supportive of a higher minimum wage and better treatment for workers.

After doing my research, I’m spending only $0.50 to $1.00 more every two months for dish soap. Not a bad price to pay for a better world.