“The Glory in Creating Honey”
If you have read my other blogs in 2012, then you know I’m spending the entire year complaining about how shopworn the discussion of “values” has become, with organizations and corporations trumpeting the supposedly remarkable attributes attached to their worldly efforts. In fact, such efforts strike me as an arid exercise in public relations, designed to impress outsiders with righteous-sounding words, with little reference to the actual weight they carry inside the organization.
I’m arguing that we need to get away from vague talk about values, and focus instead on virtues, which are qualities that can be fostered and nurtured, both organizationally and individually.
So far this year, we’ve considered such virtues as patience and generosity, and now I want to turn my attention to diligence. Diligence is a characteristic of most successful people and groups; a diligent entity completes all tasks without complaining, finishes projects on time, over-delivers and under-promises, and understands that the life of an organization, just as for the people it comprises, is a long process and needs to be nurtured carefully.
We sometimes play an imagination game at EMW called “Abracadabra,” where staff members are handed a magic wand and asked to wave it around, say out loud their greatest wish for EMW or themselves. It’s a way of naming dreams, but we are all well aware that only disciplined hard work will allow those dreams to come true.
“Diligence,” Ben Franklin wrote in The Way to Wealth, “is the mother of good luck.” I truly believe that individuals and organizations can create their own luck, and one thing business school brochures never mention is that luck has much more to do with success than smarts. A diligent organization carefully builds the resources, infrastructure and systems necessary to capture good luck when it comes around. A sloppy organization isn’t prepared to take full advantage of good luck and, like the hapless lottery winner, fritters it away instead of using it to build the future.
If you don’t mind a ranting digression, can I just remind everyone that “overhead” is not in itself a bad thing? Rating agencies, donors, foundations and self-appointed experts all conspire to sanctify or demonize an organization based on that most holy of numbers, the percentage of its budget spent on overhead. This is idiotic. Don’t get me wrong: overhead (administration, finance, fundraising, marketing, data management, etc.) should be as low as possible; donor funds should be used to the utmost to benefit people directly.
But show me an organization or company that doesn’t invest in the necessary systems and infrastructure to sustain growth, and I’ll show you one that doesn’t believe in its own future. Growing rapidly means being able to serve more people, but you can’t grow if you lack the basic infrastructure.
Let’s be honest, at some point, you have to stop spending 100% of your time and money on implementing programs, and spend a decent amount of it thinking about how to prepare yourself for good luck to come your way. This is the essence of diligence. So there may be a year or two here and there where the “overhead” ratio goes way up. This might be a sign of organizational malpractice. Or it might instead be an example of a diligent organization doing what it needs to do in order to ready itself for the future. Donors should be diligent too, and figure out the difference.
No discussion of diligence would be complete without the social insects – bees, ants and those impressive builders the termites. The industrious ant is rightly celebrated in fable and scientific literature, but the busy bee is more appealing. For one thing, bees make something delicious.
Let’s make a quick trip back in time to visit one of the great philosopher poets on the subject of bees. According to Virgil in his famous poem about farming:
“Often too as they wander among harsh flints they bruise their wings, and breathe their lives away beneath their burden, so great is their love of flowers, and glory in creating honey. And though the end of a brief life awaits the bees themselves (since it never extends beyond the seventh summer), the species remains immortal, and the fortune of the hive is good for many years, and grandfathers’ grandfathers are counted.”
This then is the purpose of diligence – the glory in creating honey, a substance that simply amazes me. How could it be that a bunch of bugs somehow produce something so sweet, fragrant and pure? It’s a miracle, really, that all that buzzing around results in ambrosia.
As I write this, I’m on my way back to Oakland after our annual EMW staff retreat in Da Nang, Vietnam. This event is always a profound pleasure, as it brings together most of EMW’s talented staff in one place for a weekend of discussions, feasting and merrymaking. Organizational honey, the event is a celebration of all that has been accomplished, and a serious discussion of all that remains to be done.
We are brutally honest with ourselves, examining our shortcomings and making plans to fix them, and yet we do it from “a great love of flowers,” or in our case (not being bees), a deep joy in building the structures that allow us to fulfill our mission.
Toiling away in the salt mines of grant proposals, financial reports, trainings and the like can feel like drudgery at times, but done with diligence, these activities lead to success. Luck isn’t something that just happens; it is something that a diligent organization can make manifest. If you have done everything right, then you simply need to wave your magic wand, say “Abracadabra,” and glory in the honey.