can't keep a Secret


Recently, I broke a shoelace. I pulled the unbroken lace out of my other shoe and took a quick look at it to estimate its length. The lace looked like it was 16 to 18-inches long. That’s when I stopped myself. I knew my mind had played a trick on me. In the past, I had done the same thing and always had bought laces that were too short. So I measured it. It was actually 36-inches long.

Noble Prize winning economist, Daniel Kahneman, says that when part of our mind is faced with a question that we cannot easily answer (without a tape measure in this case), we will unconsciously substitute it with another question that allows us to come up with an immediate and acceptable answer.  This all happens in a split second.  In this case, the question I needed to answer is “how long is this shoelace?” The question my mind substituted was “how much shoelace does my shoe need?” Since it is preposterous to me that my shoe needs a yard of lace, the easier question allowed me to come up with an answer I could accept.

In the nonprofit community we do the same thing. We substitute…

Q: How can we get more people to care about our work?

…for the harder and more important…

Q: Is our work both valuable and relevant to the communities we are trying to serve?

The substituted question typically brings us to an answer that is regularly accepted and understood…

Q: How can we get more people to care about our work?

A: We need to build more awareness.

…whereas exploring value and relevancy may lead us to conclusions that are not clear and easily comprehended.  In order to be truly successful in our engagement and participation-building efforts, we need to follow the literal meaning of an often-used phrase…

“We are the best kept secret in our community.”

When I hear board members and staff say this, I know that what they really mean is that more people need to know about the organization’s work. But if you take what they say at face value, it implies that the board and staff of the organization are purposefully (and successfully) keeping the larger community from knowing about the organization and it cause.  If more organizations stop and say to themselves “That’s right. We are the best kept secret and we made ourselves that way,” they take the first step toward addressing the harder question about relevancy and value.

Boards make choices about how resources are allocated. These choices are made based on their beliefs and experiences. Staffs make choices about how to apply resources. These choices are based on their expertise, understanding of need, and beliefs about how the world should work. All of these choices are baked into programs and services that communicate a composite view of what is valuable. The reality is that not everyone is going to want what is offered. No amount of awareness building will overcome the limitations of an organization’s chosen value proposition. It is true that organizations may not put enough resources behind promotion, but even then it is a fool’s errand to invest in these activities without understanding how relevant the value delivered is to the communities that are served.

Broader and deeper participation requires us to reframe the easier question exploring how the choices we are making set the boundaries of engagement. This requires board and staff leadership to recognize the key assumptions that drive decision-making, overcoming the easier question and diving into the opportunities and challenges associated with clarifying its value proposition and the effect it has on its stakeholders.

Being a “best kept secret” is not symptomatic of needing more attention. Instead, it is recognition that the organization made a choice to be that way.