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August 12, 2015 - Aaron Walker [see other posts]

Communication Inequality

The New Kid and Communication Inequality

Being the ‘new kid’ in any situation can induce both excitement and anxiety, even when you are an adult. I tried explaining this to my 5 (now 6) year old son in January when I started working for the United Methodist Health Ministry Fund and we talked about his first day at his new Preschool, his upcoming first day in Kindergarten, and other comparable situations for him but it seemed unfathomable until we talked about why. It gives me strength to know he couldn’t imagine a situation where his Daddy would be anxious or frightened. To know that, in his eyes, I’m Superman. But that is a fallacy – I want him to know that it is okay to be anxious or frightened. How we feel is important, yes, but never so important as the choices we make and our resulting actions.

Since this is my first blog post on the TMWoT blog (and hopefully not my last), I thought it might be good to give a bit of an introduction. I am the new Vice President for Strategic Development for the Health Ministry Fund and I have had the good fortune to work with Kim (our President, the primary blogger here), Katie, Kristine, and Jeff since January. I enjoy writing a great deal so was very excited when Kim asked me if I would like to be a part of the blog. But what to write about?

I came here after more than 10 years in child welfare where I sat, entrenched, on the other side of the funding table. Though both agencies are considered part of the non-profit realm I had no idea how different the world could be from this side of the table. In my (old) world, wondering from whence funding would be available was not quite a daily consideration…almost though. Now I work for a public charity, a non-profit with a completely different funding structure and thus with a very different outlook.

But how does the difference in outlook really play out? Does it matter? While I enjoy the feeling of working for a place that writes and awards grants rather than providing direct service, there are some subtleties of communication and interaction with outside entities I had never really considered. I mean, I was told “People will treat you differently as a funder. They want to impress you so you will give them a grant.” But being told does not give you experience in an area.

I recently attended a training at one of our partner philanthropies, the Kansas Health Foundation, that helped me put it into perspective. We spent a lot of time discussing communication and interaction with external entities, more specifically the way persons communicate with an organization that provides funding, and what those communications may mean. It was eye opening for me:

  • When someone asks your opinion about a project or idea, they may be asking, “Would you fund this?”
  • Remember your excitement in a topic or in an idea may be taken as interest in funding.
  • When asked for your opinion, people may be asking what you think about a potential project.
  • If you’re invited to a brainstorming session, or if you’re invited for drinks or to dinner, remember your position and your organization’s position and be clear when you communicate. Don’t lead someone on thinking you are interested in funding a project.
  • When you ask questions or communicate with grantees – people may feel they have no choice but to agree with you or provide you with information, and they may come to resent you if they think you are taking advantage.

The general gist of the discussion, titled Communication Inequality, may sound fairly obvious to you now but even as I sat in the training they were just barely beginning to connect for me. And when they did…. WOW!?! I work for a funder now…and I have no idea if I’ve led people on during my first few months but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if someone called me on it. I had never really internalized what this meant and what it could mean to interactions with persons I might think of as friends, and the thought made me sick to my stomach. How many times have I met with people to talk about some new idea to help rural health? How many times have I said “that sounds like a great idea” unaware of the possible subtext of my words? Had I been unintentionally giving the impression that the Health Fund was committing future funding? Did I make some sort of unspoken or implied promise without realizing the possible ramifications of agreement?

I know I tend to worry about more than is necessary, but these are all questions I began considering the day I participated in this conversation; with which I have grappled on an almost daily basis since. I hope I have not led anyone along or made anyone feel like I was challenging them to meet my needs with their ideas. I hope not, yet I know I burn hot when I am passionate about something, and that I value honesty and open, real communication more than almost anything. So I own my actions and my participation and I ask you to understand. Still, I am thankful I have been a part of these discussions, contributed to a meaningful discourse. I am hopeful for the future of this great organization, for the relationships we have built over the years, and I am thankful for the people who are here who have already taught me so much through their choices, their actions.

I hope I always try to do the right thing, which means I’m going to make some mistakes along the way. I’m just excited I get to make them along with you (Kim, Katie, Kristine, Jeff) and with all of you who read this. There is a lot of work to be done, should we choose to act. And I am proud to get to act alongside each of you.

-Aaron

*I’d love to hear what you think about this and my other (forthcoming) blog posts. If you have a response or would like to have a dialogue around this subject, please email me at awalker@healthfund.org. If things get interesting we may post them here as well.