by Sean Kosofsky
In July, my partner, my parents and I went to Traverse City for the annual Cherry Festival. I hadn’t gone since I was a boy so I was excited to see this fun summer destination.
Whenever I want to relax by the water I buy bread or crackers and spend about an hour or so feeding the ducks, sea gulls, fish or any other gluttons that want to a free feast of my preservative-soaked gluten. At one point, I had nearly fifty ducks desperately hoping that the next toss of crust or cracker would land with a splash right in front of their beak. I probably went through an entire loaf of bread before I noticed, as I looked at the swarm below, that these ducks were a metaphor for our community organizations.
Here you have this benevolent fountain of generosity from on-high throwing free morsels of nourishment to you with very little work. Every duck, who has made the investment of visiting the fountain, understands that this lottery of luck could result in a jackpot of complimentary cuisine a la Hostess. They know there will be competition and they know it is survival of the fittest. There are sea gulls swooping in and bullying the ducks. There are baby birds trying feverishly to find crumbs left behind by the ducks, and there are ducklings trying not to get squashed by the bigger and much faster (and incredibly rude) Canadian geese.
As I throw food down, I watch them fight and snap at each other and chase food desperately to make sure they get what they want for themselves. It was a free for all. No sense of sharing. No sense of collective responsibility to others of their clan. It was exactly what many of our non-profit organizations do when they stumble upon sources of funding.
I think of myself as a nice guy so I try to find the ducks that are on the margins – the ones that refuse to fight and bicker and run to the front of the group to grab and horde everything their beak can gobble up. I thought these well-behaved, perfectly lovely and accomplished ducks waiting on the sidelines should be rewarded. In fact, every time I saw a duckling or a shy or injured duck, or a duck that wasn’t like the others, I would shower them with tender vittles. Because of my unique positioning fifteen feet above all of them, I could see a clearer picture of who was lacking adequate resources. None of the birds were working to ensure that everyone got a little bread. They either didn’t care or it wasn’t in their instincts to collaborate, like some animals do.
But from my perch I tried to be fair. I wanted each bird to feel supported, affirmed and fed. I think many of our community foundations (private or public) really want to support good programs and good organizations and they want to spread the wealth. But on the other side of the equation many of the programs and organizations that need this money to serve their members look out for themselves first and don’t think about collaboration. They work from a scarcity model that says there is only so much bread that is going to fall from the sky so we must do all we can to get it and spend it for our people.
We would like to think that funders will act like I did with the bread, but they may not always have the clearest vision of the bay, let alone the sea. Our community organizations should focus more on working together and resist the tunnel vision of wadded up bagel chunks that make a splash right in front of us – that we are convinced can be ours if we are smart or fast enough.
As an organizer, it frustrates me to think of how many missed opportunities there have been because of this mindset. I feel like there would be greater cooperation, less tension and certainly more creative leadership from our community institutions if we worked together and thought bigger – bigger than we are now. Without a strategic vision, we may end up alone and fragile — like a sitting duck.