Molineaux is co-publisher of The Fulcrum and president/CEO of the Bridge Alliance Education Fund.
As I was speaking to a colleague, Rev. F. Willis Johnson, recently about something that feels “off” in our collective approach to fundraising, specifically for the civic engagement/bridging community, I had an epiphany.
As humans, we love the predictability offered by the “assembly line” or the latest “app” which gathers data for performance and allows us to feel accomplished when performance improves. What is “off” for me is how many funders try to apply this to human interactions. The funding community asks for predictability and accountability (which is good and reasonable!) and the nonprofit community responds by setting up a process where we can recruit unskilled humans, run them through an assembly line of training or experience and at the end of the process we have a cohort of individuals with bridging skills. While on the surface this seems reasonable, it is a gross oversimplification.
As I think about the process and whether it works or not, I move between maybe, to unlikely, to not at all.
My “ah-ha” moment came about as I realized the nature of the process is more industrialized or technologically oriented, instead of human or nature oriented. We’ve all spent far too much time lost in automated phone trees, talking to AI and trying to find a live person. When my problem doesn’t match the decision matrix I often end up hitting ‘0’ with a lot of force. When I manage to find a human, if they are based overseas, chances are my problem still doesn’t fit in their scripts and I end up getting ‘elevated’ to someone in the U.S., to finally have my situation resolved. I feel frustrated, disrespected, discouraged and ultimately, denigrated. As a result, I may decide to change companies, if I can, because 1) it was too hard to get help and 2) the company has failed to balance needs of customer satisfaction, productivity and profitability.
In our desire for efficiency and profit, many companies have lost the ability to make their employees and customers feel valued. As more and more people lose their jobs to technological efficiencies and higher profits, is it any wonder that we are a disgruntled and angry nation? Is it a surprise that toxic polarization has increased to the point where we see our fellow Americans as the enemy? While our economy is still the strongest in the world, it is getting increasingly harder for everyday people to earn a livable wage, support their families and have the belief that they can work hard to achieve a better life or fulfill their dreams. When we lose hope, anger often fills the void as its replacement.
Which leads us back to finding a way forward, as a nation. The problems are palpable and real. The impulse to decrease toxic polarization and increase a sense of friendship and kinship is a critical correction that is needed. Unfortunately, the solution of how to encourage, promote, engage and persuade will not be through setting up a human assembly line of training that is so commonly funded and employed today. Instead, training is needed, but it’s only part of the solution. Our biology demands the solution be relational and networked; customizable for each person to connect to their own humanity, first. Then recognize our shared humanity, offering compassion and generous listening to others.
This is where the fungus comes in. It’s a different organizing paradigm.
Back to my conversation with Willis – in my next thought, I remembered the living network of mycelium (a root-like structure of fungus). A quick google search brought me to this article: Underground Networking: The Amazing Connections Beneath Your Feet. The writing outlines the symbiotic relationship between trees which is facilitated by a fungus (mushrooms are the yummy fruit!), allowing nutrients to be delivered for each tree’s optimal growth. This is called a mycorrhizal network. The mycelium are the tiny threads that make up the network, connected to each other and each tree.
We bridging humans are like tiny threads of mycelium, connected to others in a way that can address the unique needs of those around us. Will training for better bridging skills help? Yes, of course. It’s part of strengthening the forest/society. Training is like the minerals that the trees need, but cannot obtain except through their fungus friends. Our community of bridging fungi need something in return. They need the sugar (resources) that the trees produce through photosynthesis. This model is based in nature; a model that honors each of us as a valued member of the ecosystem.
The overall health of the forest is the outcome for a healthy mycorrhizal network. Without the fungus, the forest withers and dies. And similarly without social cohesion, our nation will wither and die. Let’s be the fungus among us. Invisible, but essential.So now I ask myself and I ask you: How might we become a more effective and amazing network of mycelium threads (the bridgers) to help the forest (our society) restore health? And how might we communicate this idea to the funding community? I’d love to hear from you about how you organize in your community. Is it a mycorrhizal network? A production line? Something else? Please share your story with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.