Monday, May 5, 2014

Collaboration and Diffuse Reciprocity or The "What's In It For Me Right Now" Conundrum

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on………………."

Dinner-vention nomination reminder:  May 15th is the deadline to submit your suggestions for the Dinner-vention 2 guest list.  Do you know someone who is very likely to one day be considered as among the most powerful and influential leaders within our field; someone whose star is clearly on the rise?  Someone whose thinking, and ideas you admire.  We would greatly appreciate it if you might take a moment or two and email that (those) name(s) so we can include them for consideration in the 2014 Dinner-vention guest list - and give them an even wider platform for their ideas.   Thanks.

Larry Kramer, former Dean of the Stanford Law School and now the President of the Hewlett Foundation, in an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review argues that a cause of the difficulty in mounting collaborative efforts in the Foundation world is because of the lack of a culture that embraces and champions the willingness to postpone direct benefits in the short term for the gain of the larger field in the long term.

He talks about "diffuse reciprocity":
"Diffuse reciprocity is more like a cultural norm within a community: I do things with and for others without demanding or expecting an immediate payback or return, knowing that you and others will do the same later and that we’ll all be better off in the long run as a result. Diffuse reciprocity is an attitude, a willingness to give without demanding a precise accounting of equivalent benefits for each action, albeit because others in the community do so as well."

He goes on to say:

"Foundations work hard to ensure that grants have maximum impact in accomplishing the foundation’s strategic goals. They are, as a result, reluctant to make grants outside their defined strategies and (often highly) specified theories of change—even if that means losing opportunities to collaborate. But what if, in so doing, they are actually accomplishing less? Is it possible that, in seeking to squeeze maximum efficiency from every dollar this way, we achieve marginally greater short-term progress but sacrifice what economists call “gains from trade” that would leave everyone’s strategies more completely realized in the long run? 
Equally important, a regular practice of diffuse reciprocity makes other things easier—including finding more and better instances for specific reciprocal exchanges. This is because few exchanges involve perfect equivalence: There is always some looseness in the joints, some likelihood that one party will benefit less or need to depart from usual practices more than others. The potential obstacle presented by such disparities is reduced by the extent to which partners know they will engage in future exchanges that, over time, will smooth over any one party’s particular advantage or disadvantage. The net result, again, is greater benefits over time for everyone as a result of successfully cooperating."

Can the same argument be made that any and all collaboration within our arts universe similarly suffers from a kind of attitude that demands a quid pro quo benefit before individual organizations or segments of our world are willing to collaborate?  Are we guilty of a narrow perspective that limits our wider successes because our de facto position is to reject the value of diffuse reciprocity?  Are we too quick to say "no" when asked to collaborate?

Take our advocacy efforts as a case in point.  There is fairly decent sector support for the effort required to protect the funding for the NEA.  But that support (the response to rally cries to lobby one's elected officials) is hardly universal.  The quid pro quo for a lot of those who are willing to collaborate on a national advocacy platform to protect the Endowment's funding is to be a recipient of that funding.  Both large and small states benefit as do virtually all discipline areas.  While the NEA's budget isn't huge, it is large enough so that a lot of people get something.  Would the challenge of protecting that funding be easier if more organizations and people (including those that are not direct recipients of the funding - but might someday be) were willing to collaborate on the advocacy necessary to convince elected officials that the value of the agency justifies the expenditure of the money to fund it?  And might a much larger contingency of the nonprofit arts succeed in finally growing that budget to a meaningful level, so that more could share in the bounty?

Is the same true on the state or local level?  When state and local available funding drops dramatically, is there not a growing segment of our people who then aren't nearly as interested in joining the advocacy movement for state or local funds as they don't see any direct, immediate benefit in doing so?

Without meaning to suggest that there is any dearth of collaboration within our sector, is the same true in other areas where we might collaborate more?   (While I think there already is significant collaborative efforts going on, and the level of those efforts has been steadily growing, I don't want to imply that I think we've now reached the level of collaboration that is essential for our sector's health).

To be sure, collaboration takes time and resources.  And that time, and those resources, are often in short supply.  It's not always an easy decision to positively respond to invitations or entreaties to collaborate.  Nor is it easy to prioritize what is good for the field as a whole in the long run over what might be good for us as individual organizations in the immediate "now".  That's understandable.  And the need for mutual benefit seems apparent on its face.  The question is whether or not that benefit must always be immediate or short term, and whether or not there always needs to be a perfect alignment of interests.  If Mr. Kramer's theory applies to our sector at some points, then we really must ask ourselves whether the attitude of rejecting diffuse reciprocity as a value may be hurting us in the long run.  I think Mr. Kramer is right.  We need to think more "as a field" and not just as members of a field.  A lot of our challenges simply can't be effectively addressed except as a field. Collaboration may just not be an option, but a necessity - again, in the long run.  And apart from the specific benefits of any single collaborative effort, the benefits to the whole of us by collaborating in the first place are immeasurable.  We can't just talk about the "big tent".

The fundamental challenge is how to promote a culture that embraces diffuse reciprocity and promotes the interests of the field as those interests may be in competition with our individual interests?  What precisely can we do?  The antidote to the attitude that only immediate, direct personal gain is a prerequisite to justifying the involvement in collaboration, is probably an increase in all kinds of collaborative efforts over time.  The more we engage in meaningful collaborations, the greater the likelihood that an increasing number of them will succeed with widespread benefits; the more we send the message to everyone that this is something we value precisely because it yields across the board positive benefits for everyone - at least in the long run - the more of us are likely to at least try to say "yes" to invitations to collaborate - even if we have to carefully and judiciously pick and choose between numerous opportunities.  And as we get more into the 'habit' of collaboration, the easier it will be to incorporate it as a given in our strategies to move forward.

Mr. Kramer concludes thusly:

"How many times has someone asked you to partner on something that was roughly but not perfectly within your strategies, and you’ve said no? How often have you asked someone else to partner with you and they’ve said no? Are you satisfied with the resulting level of collaboration, or are you open to the possibility that we are making it too hard by being too inflexible, requiring too much alignment, and demanding too much process? 
That is not to say that everyone should always say yes to every request. Resources are limited, and we can’t do everything. One of the biggest obstacles to growing diffuse reciprocity in the foundation world may be a shortage of discretionary funds, which could enable foundations to test partnerships without having to change or abandon existing programs or strategies. But I think the real problem may be cultural. The current norm among funders feels like a presumptive no—no unless the fit is precise, no unless it’s done our way. Perhaps if we all bend a little more, we’ll all achieve a lot more."

Quite probably, if the arts funding foundations were even more collaborative, were they to champion diffuse reciprocity more as a value, that message would resonate across our field.  Their leadership might be an effective catalyst to accomplish more collaboration of the kind Mr. Kramer suggests.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit

Thanks to Bruce Davis for forwarding me the Kramer article.