Jul. 28, 2020 7:30 am

Nonprofit AF: How progressives’ addiction to overthinking is sabotaging our work

We have built entire industries of data/evaluation and strategic planning consultants around toxic intellectualizing, says guest columnist Vu Le.

Endless researching, planning, and pontificating cannot take the place of action, says guest columnist Vu Le.

(Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash)

This guest post by Vu Le was originally published in the blog, Nonprofit AF.
About a year ago, I was complaining to my friend Ben Reuler, executive director of Seattle Works, about my backyard.

I told him how the yard had been cleared the year prior and had just remained a patch of dirt. This was because my spouse and I were indecisive. We didn’t know whether to plant grass seeds, or maybe roll out some turf, try for an ecolawn full of clovers, or possibly hire a landscape designer. We wanted to do some more research. So for 14 months the yard remained barren, save for weeds. The kids refused to play in it except when it rained, then they loved jumping around in the mud. No one complained. We just thought, “We’ll get to it and some point.”

A few weeks later, we invited Ben and his family over for lunch (I make kickass bánh xèo). Ben arrived with a bag of grass seeds, a bag of compost, and a seed spreader thing. “Come on,” he said, “we’re planting grass in your yard.” And just like that, we were out in the yard, sprinkling grass seeds and compost. I was skeptical. Ben is not an expert in lawn care; he is a nonprofit executive director, and everyone knows we EDs have very few useful life skills. Over the next few months, though, as we moved into the rainy season, the grass grew. Now we have a lawn! It’s great for picnics. The children wrestle on the ground. This little yard has been a lifesaver during this pandemic when schools are closed.

Why the heck am I bringing this up? This story is an analogy for a critical weakness in our sector: Our over-intellectualization, tendency to complicate things, gravitation toward research and planning, and avoidance of risk and action. Just like my partner and I hemmed and hawed and was indecisive about what to do about our yard for over a year, we nonprofits and foundations too equivocate and overthink all sorts of things. And gradually, over the years, we start to praise ourselves for doing endless researching, planning, and pontificating instead of taking actions, to the point where we now consider this course of inaction as “best practices.”

This is not to say that we shouldn’t plan or research, but the pendulum has swung too far and it’s become destructive and we don’t even realize it. For instance, I talked to a foundation CEO who asked me to facilitate a discussion about how to better fund Black and Indigenous communities during this time. I told him to just increase payout and give multi-year general operating dollars to Black and Indigenous-led organizations, the end, stop wasting time. Another funder, when I told them something similar about increasing funding to communities-of-color-led orgs, said, “Well, we would love to do that, but we are very white and haven’t really done our inner work yet to be more diverse, so it would feel hypocritical.” So basically communities are suffering because you need months or years to think and reflect and plan and look good to the public.

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Toxic intellectualizing is pervasive across our sector. We have deeply internalized it, overusing concepts like “due diligence” and refrains like “the process is just as important as the results” to justify it. We have built entire industries of data/evaluation and strategic planning consultants around it. We are geared toward planning and thinking because it is safer and less risky to do. The consequences of taking impulsive actions and failing are usually serious in our sector and in society, but we don’t want to seem like we’re not taking any actions, so the middle ground is to think and talk about stuff, and in doing so we continue to waste so much time and resources.

In our daily work, this is exasperating. But taken as a whole, toxic intellectualization explains why progressives have fallen far behind conservatives in getting things done. At the beginning of the year, I wrote “It’s 2020, be bold or get the hell out of the way.” I said that if we need change in our society, nonprofits and philanthropy must collectively focus on five key areas:

  1. Get more women of color elected into office
  2. end voter suppression and ensure marginalized folks are able to vote
  3. remove the influence of corporations on politics
  4. change the tax code so rich people pay their fair share
  5. change public perceptions to align with facts and science.

Let’s take the first one, the importance of getting women of color into office (and also into every leadership position in every sector). Progressive women of color have saved us time and time again; let’s not forget how Black women turned the tide in this critical election in Alabama. As the group most affected by systemic injustice, WOC being in positions of influence is vital to every single issue that we care about, and it is imperative for us to either support them or GTFO of the way. Whenever this is brought up, however, the response from fellow progressives is often, “That’s great. But how do we know that getting women of color into office will work? What outcomes and metrics should we use to measure if it’s successful? What is the research behind it? I dunno, that seems a little political, maybe we should focus on educating people about issues.”

Can you imagine right-wing conservatives doing the same things that progressives are doing? While we are distracted fighting the pandemic and a racist police system, they have confirmed hundreds of conservative federal judges who will prevent and reverse progressive policies for decades to come. They didn’t stop to think, “Hm, getting more conservative judges into power sounds great, but how do we know if it will work to advance our conservative values? Do we have a theory of change or logic model? Why don’t we plan a summit a year from now to discuss and create, like, a strategic plan to do an assessment that would lead to a white paper? Also, is this a little too political, you think?”

Progressives/liberals’ propensity to think that we are smart leads us to do things to make us appear to be smart. These things include being excessively skeptical, planful, and mired in vetting. We are addicted to appearing intelligent and measured, so we overdo it with the outcomes and metrics and proof of concept etc. Instead of acting, we discuss. Instead of taking risks, we research. Instead of learning by trying and failing, as conservatives have done so effectively for decades, we waffle and equivocate. Yes, measure twice, cut once as the saying goes. But it’s reached a point where we measure a hundred times and barely cut anything.

It is time for action. We must all be like my friend Ben Reuler, who brought over some grass seeds without even checking in with me first. Which was good, because I would have been like “I don’t know, Ben, I need some more time to think about it, maybe spend eight months researching how clover affects local honeybees, and something called ‘fescue.’” To thank him for this valuable lesson, I’m naming a concept after him (unless someone already named it, in which case, sorry Ben):

Reuler’s Razor: Once you have sufficient information to act to create change, start acting.

Nonprofits and foundations, do an inventory of stuff you’ve been thinking about and figure out what’s preventing you from acting on it. Knock it off with more research and discussions, or gear these things deliberately toward immediate action. Learn to accept and embrace failure in an iterative process where we learn stuff as we go along.

At the systems level, we need to get a grasp on this. We have fewer than 100 days left before the elections in the US. I don’t need to state how vital the defeat of this current president and his cult is. We need to end our infatuation with intellectualizing everything. It hasn’t been working. We need to take actions, and do so quickly.

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If you are a funder, please join this webinar this Wednesday 7/29 at 1pm ET, led by NDLON and Hispanics in Philanthropy, where you will hear about the impact the pandemic has had on day laborers, domestic workers, and other low-wage earners, the organizations that serve them, and what is needed from funders at this time.


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