Yesterday’s post got me thinking about the question of permeability and the virtual organization.  A few years ago Niko Canner shared with me and my Acumen buddies the idea of a “virtual organization.” In Niko’s words, loosely paraphrased (and potentially butchered in the process) there are many concentric circles of people surrounding any organization who do all sorts of valuable work (Board, advisors, donors, friends, mentors, etc. for nonprofits; but also suppliers and lawyers and bankers for just about everyone).  The virtual organization is this collection of people, and it is, especially for nonprofits, potentially more far-reaching, powerful, and impactful than the people who are actually on the payroll.

This brings up the question of permeability.  When we, who represent the organization, talk to people outside the organization about bringing their financial resources to bear to help us do our work, how permeable are we?  How bright are the lines we draw between “us” (the organization) and “them” (the donors, the advisors, the helpers, the friends)?  And how much, ideally, is the act of creating permeability something that we, external standard bearers of the organization, do in an ad hoc fashion, and how much should it be built in to the fabric of the organization?

Permeability only works where there is trust.  And while you can build trust with shared time, conversation, and exploration, what kicks things into high gear is shared action.  As we take action, we experiment – how do you and I act together, how do we treat each other, is this an us/them situation or can we leave that baggage behind?

So how are things, typically, different inside and outside the organization? When I problem-solve with someone on my team, I would never dream of leading with apologies or caveats; nor would I ever write an email asking for help that starts or end with “if you’re not too busy.”  By definition my teammates and I have signed up to the same goals so we dream together and riff together; we shoot ideas down and build them up and kick them around until they have enough fortitude to stand on their own.

We can’t act any differently when we move outside, to the virtual organization.  Yet because of the imagined, created (constructed?) impermeability between the organization and the virtual organization we convince ourselves that we have to ask for permission every time we “bother” someone who has said that they’re in and they’re signed up to help – which just serves to reinforce that we’re not all in this together.

And often I think that we – those of us inside the organization – are the main culprits here.  And if that’s right it’s good news because it means that we are in a position to make a change.

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