Bringing Honesty Back

September 15, 2009 Leave a comment

One of the issues with the current funding system is that it tends to invite dishonesty from organizations seeking grants.  And perhaps we should not say dishonesty, but the system certainly makes it easy to fall into the temptation of overstating the case, of presenting an aspirational goal as an established reality.  This pattern is detrimental to everyone involved.  It hurts the funders who will not be able to meet their goals even if they believe they are funding with purpose.  It hurts those being served, organized or mobilized, and it certainly hurts the organizations who get caught in the game.

Part of the problem with the normalization of this often subtle dishonesty is that it actually keeps organizations from staring their own reality in the face.  As a consultant to all kinds of organizations, from foundations to the grassroots, I experience this insidious state of non-truth as a serious obstacle to my own work.  We can’t help an organization move if the organization can not be honest about where it is.  The situation forces us to spend a lot energy surfacing the truth, but if we were starting from truth then we would be able to use that energy to hit the ground running.

There are many systemic reasons for this problem, and one of them is our habit of seeing failure as failure rather than seeing failure as learning.  When I think about my own life, I look back at the most important and transformative lessons I have learned and I realize I learned them through the painful process of failing.  And I mean real failing, not just coming up short on a project, but coming up short as a human being.  As I ponder what it would take to bring back honesty, I think that it would mean increasing our capacity to see failure as learning, and to do so as both foundations and funded organizations.

There certainly is more here, and as is often the case, there is a lot more than could be covered in a single blog post.  But if I had to offer a teaser for yet another way to bring honesty back, I think it would imply taking a harder look at what is measurable and what isn’t measurable and to find a way to come to terms with the fact that a lot of the highest leverage acts of transformation are not easily measurable with our current tools.  We need to measure.  Let us get our heads together in order to find the measuring tools that would bring honesty back.

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  • Federico says:

    I agree. As Director of Organizing for a CDC, I often had to inflate the truth without telling a lie. I honestly thought we were telling half truths to conceive our own shortcomings and failures. I recently read bell hooks book regarding ‘love’ and she talks about lying and the ‘power-over’ lies have to keep the receiver from knowing the entire truth. I found your words ‘on point.’ I also think that part of this insidious cycle is being perpetuated by grant funders to fulfill their own agendas. I believe building honesty in learning organizations is to constantly examine and improve within their own work and goals… good learning eval models.

  • Curtis says:

    I think you’ve really hit on something, Gibran. I am often mystified by the extent to which organizations exaggerate their missions and vision. It’s one thing to be bold, it’s another to be delusional. Not knowing the line seems to tip some organizations into believing that they can or have to solve the complex problems they are set up to address. The system then reinforces this belief, and we have a lot of spitting in the wind (and on one another) going on. Getting real would be a good starting point.

  • Andria Winther says:

    Appreciate your lifting this issue up Gibran. Certainly your point about honesty, failure and learning could be generalized well beyond the non-profit/funder relationship. The energy we waste in telling “half-truths” as Frederico eludes to could be much better spent taking a good unfettered look at: what is, what’s working for us, what’s not, and how can we, together, advance our work.

  • Gibran, as always, well said. Ours is a culture of liars – little fibs and big fibs to justify our ends. What a sad commentary on the state of things.

  • Curtis says:

    On the idea of embracing failure, I’m hoping the move from 20th century perfectionism to 21st century proto-typing and just-in-time solutions will allow us all to be more truthful about our necessary shortcomings . . . not one of us can do this alone! As Marty Neumeier writes in The Designful Company, “Fear of failure, aversion to unpredictability, preoccupation with status – these are the assassins of innovation.” We might add dishonesty to that list . . .

  • Wilnelia says:

    I am always amazed at how the Universe works. This blog post couldn’t have come at a better time for me.
    e home

  • I had a few moments to more thoughtfully consider my “culture of liars” comment and thought I’d like to add to it.

    I believe the central question is, what is the reward for ‘honesty’. Let’s face it, how often does honesty pay? Most folks resort to honesty only when it will cast a favorable light the user. If the truth (honesty) will bring pain (cast an unfavorable light upon the user) one is more inclined to gussy up the truth with as many fibs as necessary reclaim a favorable, or at least neutral, light.

    Now, also I believe this is nothing new. We learned to lie the moment our ancestors learned to speak or shortly thereafter. Lying is no more or less than a survival skill verbalized. Think of it as the spoken equivalent of camouflage. Look to nature for your answers – we all survive (the flowers, the trees, the birds and the bees – and people too) by way of deception.

  • Gibran says:

    So glad to find so much resonance with this post!

    Federico – I KNOW you have first hand knowledge of “the game,” and I agree, we need to make truth a practice in our orgs

    Andria – I think you are right, our financial crisis could be said to have been perpetrated by a cycle of dishonesty, a dance between bankers and investors

    Curtis – Yes, Yes AND Yes! It is a prototyping, about testing, about not knowing and finding out as a way towards something new…

    Charlie – I appreciate the evolutionary perspective, we’ve had to learn some good things and some bad things in order to get here – I’m all about conscious evolution, might we be at a developmental stage in which we can start to play a more conscious role in how we evolve? Could we evolve towards truth?

  • Cynthia says:

    Curious about the difference between dis-honesty–an intention to hide truth) and non-honest–by which I mean the absence of clarity about truth, perhaps without conscious intent. I think it’s honest to envision big things for the world an to envision having an impact that is somehow worth of those visions. I’m curious about what it takes to be more real about the impacts we actually can and do have a hand in. And, I wonder if instead of finding ways to measure the unmeasurable, if we could create a degree of comfort with naming the unmeasurable things we want to create/impacts we want to have without having to measure them at all. Not to say that we can’t look for them–just that the act of trying to measure things like quality of life, quality of relationship, depth of commitment or even degree of smart, strategic thinking are things that matter and yet defy measurement.

  • Gibran says:


    Lot’s of resonance here! I think the distinction between dis-honesty and non-honest is worth upholding. I too believe in the amazing power of a BIG BOLD vision, combined with the rigour of looking clearly at “what is.”

    I also agree that we benefit more from developing a degree of comfort with naming the unmeasurable rather than trying to measure it, though I guess we can observe it, we can perceive shifts.

    Thanks so much for your engagement.

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