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The Most Toxic Phrase In Philanthropy

The Plenty Team
September 1, 2015

Recently I spent a day with a team of passionate fundraisers discussing their fundraising program. The team had strong personal connections to both the organization and the event itself, and many had been working on the program for the majority of their career. In short, this was a dedicated and knowledgeable group.

Unfortunately, the program was in decline, and because the group is so connected and committed, they naturally had strong opinions about what they should to turn it around.

As the conversation progressed, a particularly thorny issue surfaced. It was a topic that split the group, each opposing side strongly arguing their point. It was clear that there wasn’t middle ground – a choice needed to be made. The tension was building, the discussion was reaching the tipping point, and then someone uttered the most toxic words in philanthropy – “I guess we’ll just agree to disagree.”

Agree to disagree – a commonly overlooked phrase, with major repercussions. It sounds harmless, and can even end disagreements on a friendly note. But don’t be fooled by the seeming good nature of the expression. “Agree to disagree” is code for “I’ll do my thing and you do yours” and erodes organizational alignment. It is a dangerous path that results in your team being on opposing sides of the issue instead of aligned on the greater purpose. “Agree to disagree” can’t, and shouldn’t, be used to end important conversations. 

So what is the right way to move forward when an agreement can’t be reached? At Plenty, we encourage clients to replace “agree to disagree” with “disagree and commit.” We want to keep the passionate dialogue and strong opinions. But at the end, we want the team committed to a decision that supports a common vision.

Here are a few ways you and your team can start embracing the “disagree and commit” philanthropy mantra:

1. Create a common vision. The first step in creating healthy dialogue is having everyone at the table aligned on your purpose. Ideally, this is a common vision of your purpose as an organization. If you’re still working on creating that alignment, set a common vision for the department, the program, or even the specific meeting. Start with something that everyone at the table can agree on.

2. Encourage people to share different opinions. Don’t shy away from letting your team express differing viewpoints. People do not mind hearing different opinions, but they do mind not being heard. If people don’t feel like their opinions matter, they aren’t listened to, or that they don’t have a way to share their ideas, they won’t stay invested in your purpose. Their ideas need to be shared – better they be shared in passionate dialogue on how to fulfill your vision than behind closed doors with frustration and disappointment. 

3. Be clear and direct about how decisions are made. Once everyone has had the opportunity to speak, and persuasive arguments have been made, how should the conversation end? Whether the decision is made now or with a smaller group later, be clear from the start who will make the final call, the criteria they’ll use to weigh the options, and when the decision will be made.

4. Relay the decision back to everyone involved in the conversation. Your team was willing to open up and engage in passionate dialogue about an important issue, but that is only part of the process. If you want them to accept and embrace the path forward, you need to clearly communicate the decision, why it meets the criteria, and how it supports the common vision.

Remember, the goal isn’t to stifle ideas or opinions – even when they create tension. Tension is often a sign of passion, which is critical for progress. Without passionate people working to fix the world's largest and most important issues we will not create change. Impact requires a voice. Don't muffle the voices of your organization. Instead, create an environment that welcomes open communication among your team and a platform for them to share. It is then up to you to support those conversations with clear reasoning and instructions for how you plan to move forward.

Organizational alignment is at the center of successful nonprofit programs. Discover the best practices for aligning leaders and employees as well as how you can enhance the other critical areas of your program in our e-book "The Seven Success Factors." Download your free copy today!

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