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Being a Zero

2014-October 16
Don Matteson, Chief Program Officer

I've always been interested in science, space, and space travel. Growing up, I spent a lot of my time reading science fiction, watching various sci-fi movies and TV shows, and following the US space program. My earliest recollections of the space program surrounded the development of the space shuttle. In fact, I was very nearly present for one of the first launches, as it coincided with an engineering conference in Florida that my dad attended. The launch was delayed, so I didn't get to see it in person, but I got a day or two at Disney World which was not a bad trade-off in my view at the time.

More recently, I've been following goings-on related to the International Space Station. In particular, I became very interested in the (relative) media frenzy surrounding Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield. He's probably best known for his cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity," his informative and entertaining Q&A sessions with school children, and his TED talk. It's no surprise, then, that I ended up buying one of his recent books, "An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth." (I'm getting close to making a point. Honest.)

One of the lessons Hadfield learned during the course of his rigorous and extensive astronaut training is that coming into a new situation, it's good to "be a zero." Going into any environment, you can be a "plus one," a "minus one," or a "zero." The "plus one" folks are active, positive, constructive contributors -- they make the situation better. "Minus ones," as you can imagine, are people who make the situation worse. They often don't mean to make things worse, but they end up doing so as a function of arrogance (a not-uncommon trait among the types of elite folks constituting the ranks of astronauts and astronaut candidates), incompetence, or inexperience. "Zeroes" are the folks who don't make things better, but they also don't make things any worse. They're usually the people hanging out in the background, working hard to understand the situation, contributing where they can, and going out of their way to learn the ropes without making more work for anyone else. These classifications are fluid -- a "plus one" in one circumstance can be a "zero" or a "minus one" in another.

This is a great lesson for grantmakers. So often, we get excited by the latest compelling idea and develop intricate theories of change to help move the world toward being a better place (in our view). We learn from national (or international) experts on the issue we want to address. We rely on consultants and experts to give us The Answerâ„¢. The problem is that we frequently don't spend the time getting to know a community, its assets, and its needs -- from its residents' perspective -- before swooping in to "save the day." This is the "minus one's" bread-and-butter.

Grantmakers for Effective Organizations hit the nail on the head with its 2010 "Do Nothing About Me Without Me" action guide. It defines stakeholder engagement and provides concrete suggestions for "being a zero" -- connecting, listening, and valuing the input of the people we're trying to serve. That funders often jump straight to "solution" without hearing from their stakeholders isn't (necessarily) a sign of arrogance or disinterest. On the contrary, it's often born of urgency (trying to get the problem fixed now ) or capacity (we'd love to talk to the community, but we just don't know how to go about it). At the Tower Foundation, we're learning to embrace process and patience, and we're working hard to develop our capacity to listen.

As we've noted in previous posts, we're being deliberate about getting out into the community to learn about what's going on from the people on the ground. We're hiring a new program officer to help us grow our outreach capacity, and we're trying out new grantmaking approaches that will give stakeholders more control and flexibility with how grant funds are used. We're also learning more about how we're doing and -- more importantly -- where we can improve with a Grantee Perception Report being conducted by the Center for Effective Philanthropy.

It turns out that "being a zero" is a lot of hard work, but we know it will pay off in the long run by giving us the wherewithal to become a "plus one."

Photo attribution: "Astronaut Mike Hopkins on Dec. 24 Spacewalk" by NASA
Licenced under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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