Guest post by Kate Wing
We’ve all been in a meeting where someone new to the field sits down at the table and says, “Wow – why don’t you all do it this way? Haven’t you ever thought of this?” about a topic where yes, the rest of us in the room have been thinking about this for a long, long time. Maybe we have our own special name for it, our insider’s jargon, and the newcomer just hasn’t learned the code yet. Or maybe it’s an idea that’s been tried before and failed. The old timers may respond wearily that this ‘new’ idea isn’t really new at all, it’s just unknown to the freshman. Where, they wonder, are the really ‘new’ ideas – brilliantly original concepts or things that have never before existed and will change the world the second they come into being? That’s the kind of ‘new’ funders like to fund.
The Network Funders meeting this week crackled with excitement. I overheard comments like: “my brain is in overdrive,” “I can’t wait to try this in my work,” and “I wish the conference were longer.” Funders were fired up. But the anthropologists and social scientists in the room were a bit more blasé. Measuring relationships? The importance of reciprocity? That’s Anthro 101. Today’s tech tools just make it easier for more of us to appreciate, track, and measure the qualities social scientists have been investigating for years.
So maybe this idea of network thinking isn’t really ‘new.’ It’s was just unknown to the philanthropy community. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be transformative. You’re introducing an idea into a new environment, where it may be adapted, absorbed, and morphed by people who are looking at this old knowledge from a new perspective. By getting to know these ideas, we blend them into our own frame of reference, creating something that is changed, if not wholly new. And by taking this leap into the unknown as a group, we’ve built relationships that can lead us into new territory, or combine into a really good idea, like two of Stephen Johnson’s turtles [link to video here].
Will network thinking be the new happy accident for philanthropy? At the very least, it’s a reminder to be patient and less world weary when we encounter an enthusiastic new colleague. Who knows what their experiments will lead to, if we give them room to explore instead of just telling them the old answers.
Kate Wing is a program officer in the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation’s Marine Conversation Initiative.