Robert Frost’s cautionary words for your non-profit agency

Welcome to O.D. Fridays at DonorDreams blog. Every Friday for the foreseeable future we will be looking more closely at a recent post from John Greco’s blog called “johnponders ~ about life at work, mostly” and applying his organizational development messages to the non-profit community.

In a recent post, John deconstructed one of my favorite poems of all time — Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”. While many of us read this popular poem and conclude that it is about self-actualization, John helps us see that this is far from the case when he says, “This is far from being about self-actualization and appreciating the immense satisfaction and reward of going our own way. It is about our propensity to rationalize.”

I’ve spent a lot time this morning combing through this post and all of the supporting links, and I buy into all of the analysis about “The Road Not Taken”.  I can honestly say that I will never look at this poem in the same way. Additionally, there are all sorts of organizational development lessons to be learned for non-profit agencies embedded in this poem.

For example, the line in the poem that says “Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.” are big time words of warning about the cause-and-effect nature of the world and the effect of our actions carrying us away so that we don’t typically backtrack to the divergence of those same two paths.

Up to this point, I am buying into everything and there are a number of “AH-HA” moments going off in my head, until I read this . . .

“But here’s the real deal:  We can’t possibly know which path is our path before we choose it.”

I have to laugh at myself sometimes because I have wrestled with these words for an hour now. I’ve paced my living room and consumed two cups of coffee trying to process exactly what John is getting at. I struggle with this because I am a planner. I have two degrees in planning from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. I have facilitated countless numbers of plans for non-profit organizations including strategic plans, resource development plans, board development plans, marketing plans, business plans, annual campaign plans, etc etc etc.

I believe “planning” is akin to creating a map for your agency, which means that as you approach those two roads that diverge in a yellow wood you have a map in your hands, you have considered a number of facts, and you’re prepared to make a choice that makes sense for your organization.

So, for the last hour I’ve struggled with John’s words because it feels like an indictment of planning. However, I can feel it in my bones that he isn’t saying that your organization shouldn’t invest time in planning efforts.

Since planning is an engagement activity (e.g. not something a non-profit professional should do in the silence of their office), there is a lot of value in it. Yet, you can have the best plan (aka road map) in the world and you may even know far in advance which of the two roads your agency will take, but you can’t and won’t know if the path you choose is the right path until you actually start walking down it.

Now that is a terrifying revelation for someone like me. LOL  Why? Because planning  is how I deal with an uncertain and scary future. Planning activities bring me peace of mind because it allows me to bring the uncertain future into the present, and it gives me the a false sense of security that I can exert some control over uncertainty.

Apparently, the Nile (read de-nial) is more than just a river in Egypt.

Did you see that big flash a moment ago? If so, then you probably recognize it as the final “AH-HA” moment and light bulb going off over my head.

Please don’t misunderstand me. As I circle back around to Robert Frost’s poem, I don’t see any mention of the traveler NOT having a map. I still feel strongly that any agency that chooses to do business in today’s rough-and-tumble business world without a plan is doomed to wander the woods lost and will likely starve to death.

So, there are a few different sets of cautionary words that emerge from today’s post:

  1. The cause-and-effect nature of our world has a tendency to sweep us away so that we seldom end up backtracking and approaching the same fork in the road again. One decision begets another decision, we get carried away, and oftentimes look back with regret and unable to unwind a series of decisions. So, be thoughtful and intentional
  2. The woods are confusing and a map (e.g. plan) is necessary so that you can improve your chances of making a good decision as your approach the fork in the road; however, you will never know if you are making the right choice until you choose it.
  3. Don’t let the fact that you have a plan fool you into making blind decisions or prevent you from questioning your decisions along the way.

Well, this “O.D. Friday” certainly involved a lot of deep thinking. I blame last night’s Thanksgiving turkey meal.  😉

What do you think about all of this? Has your agency ever had a plan/roadmap, used it to make a difficult choice, and then regretted making that choice? If so, what happened? Since hindsight is 20/20, would you please help others benefit from your experiences and wisdom? Please use the comment box below to share your thoughts. We can all learn from each other.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

About DonorDreams

Erik got his start working in the non-profit field immediately upon graduation with his masters degree in 1994. His non-profit management and fundraising experience numbers nearly 20 years. His teachable point of view around resource development is influenced by the work of Penelope Burk and those professionals subscribing to a "donor centered" paradigm. Donors have dreams and it is our responsibility to be dream-makers because donors are not ATMs.

Posted on November 23, 2012, in leadership, nonprofit, organizational development, Planning and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Erik, you crack me up sometimes! I can just picture you pacing around your living room with occasional detours to the kitchen to warm up your coffee … all the while stewing about a possible indictment of a planning regimen? Yikes!

    No, it wasn’t an attack on planning. I am a planner too!

    Despite our planning, though, we simply can’t know what lies ahead. We can’t see with clarity that far down the road. Therefore, pick a path, and make it your own. Until it doesn’t at all feel like it should; then, pick another, and make it your own …

    Hence, our path is our path because we chose it; we didn’t choose it because it was “our path” … The cause and effect is actually quite different than what we want to believe!

    As always, thanks for drilling deeper, and for the chuckle!

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