Polite Conversation Should Give Way to Real Discourse

William Schambra, who spoke at GMN’s 2013 Conference in St. Petersburg, has thoughts on the polite conversation that’s lacking true discourse in the nonprofit realm. From an opinion article in the Nonprofit Quarterly:

The world of foundations and nonprofits is almost entirely bereft of the vigorous back-and-forth, the lively exchange of conflicting points of view, which compels our major political and economic institutions periodically to re-examine their assumptions about the world.

In his piece, Schambra refers to a similar writing by Cynthia Gibson, published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Gibson asserts:

Everybody in the nonprofit world talks these days about innovation, but not about what drives change: open debate and critical thinking.

In science, technology, business, academe, and elsewhere, people are encouraged—and are given forums—to express opinions and disagree with each other publicly. But nonprofits and foundations continue to embrace a culture of silence and politeness that gets in the way of their growth and vitality. Yet it’s impossible to change the world unless we create more opportunities for people to regularly call into question whether a nonprofit’s or foundation’s activities are effective, ethical, and strategic.

We don’t need to dive into the pool of vitriol and incivility that marks the current state of public discourse. But we can pursue a middle ground by building a culture that encourages healthy skepticism.

The peril of not taking this approach is that we risk wasting money, time, and other resources that are already stretched too thin.


This conversation seems to go hand-in-hand with the new focus on overthrowing overhead as a primary measurement of nonprofit success. Both positions are advocating for more authentic conversation about what the philanthropy sector is trying to do and a more in-depth look at whether we’re meeting those goals. Given the enormous task put before nonprofits and their funders, it seems like polite-but-pointless cannot be afforded.

Nikki Powell

Nikki Powell is PEAK Grantmaking's effective practices director. You can find her on Twitter @nikkiwpowell.

One Response

  1. Cynthia Gibson says:

    Hi Nikki:
    Thanks for the nice blog post. I especially like the last paragraph. Well put. WIll pass around.
    Cynthia Gibson

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