Conversations that Matter

Waikato ConversationSeveral weeks ago, we spent a delightful few days in retreat with some associates. One of the participants had offered his mom’s vacation home for this time away. In offering the house, Joe told us it was tucked into a hillside in California’s Sonoma Valley, that it had plenty of room for all of us, and that it would provide the perfect ambiance for the deep thinking we needed to do together.

Then he shared that there was “just one thing…”

“My cousin attends the Community College nearby, and so he is living at the house as sort of a caretaker. He’s 23 years old and very shy. Friends of mine stayed at the house last month, and for the entire time they were there, Charlie came and went through a side entrance – they never even saw him once.”

Our first night at the house, the magical scents of Dimitri’s cooking greeted Charlie when he got home. We made our introductions, and Dimitri invited him to join us – that there was plenty of food. Counter to our expectations from Joe’s “uber-shy” description, Charlie happily broke bread with us.Sonoma-scape

Over the next few days, Charlie hung around when he came home from work, joining us for almost every meal including breakfast. He listened to our conversations, chimed in, asked questions. He expanded on those group conversations in more intimate, quiet conversations with his cousin. If asked for words to describe Charlie, the word “shy” would not be anywhere near my top ten.

After several days of amazing discussion and idyllic surroundings – not to mention amazing meals prepared by Chef Dimitri – our retreat time was over, and we all went our separate ways.Sonoma trees

A week later, when we caught up via skype for follow-up, Joe shared this story:

“I got an email from Charlie’s mom yesterday. She said she can’t remember when she has seen him this energized and hopeful. She thanked us for involving him in our conversations – she cannot believe the impact those conversations had on him.

Charlie told me he has been so discouraged about the state of the world, that he believed the only solution would be true revolution. After our conversations, though, he shared that he has hope that things can be different, and that we can make that happen.”

I am sharing this story because it is becoming clear that there is an almost desperate need in our world – a need to change the dominant conversation from what is wrong to what is possible. A need to change that conversation from what is considered “practical” to what is both practical and meaningful.

And more than anything, as a pre-requisite to that changed conversation, there is a desperate need to create space for simply having conversation, period.

Which brings me to this month’s edition of Making Change – the 1 year anniversary of the podcast program I host for the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

This anniversary podcast is a bit different from the rest. Instead of one guest, there were 4 of us – Robert Egger (DC Central Kitchen), Kathleen Enright (Grantmakers for Effective Organizations), Margaret Martin (Harmony Project) and myself.Portrait composite

It is also different because the conversation just moves where it wants to go. It touches on some of the most interesting and deeply considered topics. And it points out a glaring disparity:

While some of us may be lucky enough to have these kinds of conversations with friends, virtually none of us have these thoughtful conversations with people who can make things happen – the people who can make a difference. Virtually none of us have these sorts of meaningful conversations with board members and community members and networking group members.

So here’s an assignment that can make an immediate difference for your work.

1) Download this podcast from iTunes or listen to it streaming online here.
2) And then vow to add a “conversation” item to even just one of your meetings this week.

Whether it is a staff meeting or board meeting or community meeting or networking meeting, add a 10 minute discussion about what is possible for your community (NOT your organization, your community – the reason your org exists).  And make that item the first item on the agenda – not an item for “If we have time…” but Item #1, proclaiming “We will ensure we make time.”

The following are some starter questions. If you think of others, please share them with us!

  • How are we defining success for our mission?  What would our community look like if our mission were 100% successful?
  • What indicators might we measure, to see if conditions in our community are actually improving?
  • What can we accomplish for our community if we work together with our “competition,” that we could not accomplish on our own?

These are the kinds of conversations that made a difference in the life of a 23 year old who had given up. Please let us know what difference they make for the groups you are working with!

Many thanks to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, and specifically to the generous and gracious Peter Panapento, for hosting the Making Change podcast this past year. We look forward to a tremendous Year 2, filled with even more exciting conversation!

Photo Info: Group conversation in the Waikato, Hamilton NZ (credit to Dimitri). Sonoma shots c/o me.

One Response to Conversations that Matter

  1. This is one of the most inspiring stories I’ve heard in a long time. I must say, I teared up a bit when reading the email from Charlie’s mom. It hit me so profoundly – mainly because I’ve been experiencing this same kind of thing lately in my own life. I have really stepped up my game with my writing, particularly as it pertains to optimism and sharing my thoughts on making a positive impact on the world. I’ve had several people contact me both online and offline to tell me how much they appreciate the positive outlook.

    Thank you so much for putting this out there, Hildy. I have always admired your writing, and this really underscores why I subscribed to your blog. I’ll definitely check out the podcast you mentioned. Thanks for that info as well.

    Keep up the fantastic work!