Public Purpose and Its Counterfeits

Wednesday, July 1, 2009 (All day)

Collaboration and creativity researcher Keith Sawyer wrote a great book called Group Genius: the Creative Power of Collaboration. In it he returns in various ways to a consistent theme: A “mindset of possessiveness,” Sawyer insists, inhibits the essential exchange of ideas that leads to innovation. A recent conversation with a colleague, who today manages community relations for a major national corporation, helped me appreciate the danger of such a mindset when it overtakes an initially public-minded start-up enterprise.

My colleague, early in her career and over a decade ago, participated in a Community Partners-sponsored incubator project aimed at developing civic leadership skills. We thought the project had legs. She appreciated the project leader’s creativity and promotional fervor in pursuit of the venture’s public purpose. Yet, as the project became more successful, the leader’s attitude began a subtle shift. What he had once promoted as good for the people and political culture of a particular city, he grew to realize had revenue-generating possibilities beyond his initial ambitious vision. Participants in the program began noticing that the project leader started gauging his involvement and relationships on the basis of a new calculus. He prepared an exit from the sponsored project, and soon after re-positioned himself as a private business owner supplying the same service for a fee. 

My colleague was struck by how this gradual transition – moving from a public posture to a mindset of private possessiveness – sapped both her interest in participating and her trust in the project leader’s broader intentions. Doubtless she was not the only sensitive reader of the signals indicating the project leader’s one-time charitable intent had morphed into self-interested possession of insights and contacts he’d acquired in the course of his project. I’d like to say, but cannot, that as the project leader grew more and more interested in setting himself up in business we saw him changing as clearly as he eventually did. But my colleague, from a closer vantage, confided that she heard less and less in his voice a true civic ring, and rather watched as he mouthed increasingly empty words.

You might ask if society is any better or worse off for the eventual closing of this project and its leader’s move into his business venture. No funds were misspent or stolen. Many people gained useful training as a result and saw their city’s dynamics afresh. Social innovation and charitable initiative in the region remained intact. But one instructive thing occurred that altered my colleague’s world view. No longer would she readily embrace champions of innovative civic enterprises without more evidence that high-flown words would be backed - for the duration - by genuine commitment and authentic action’s solid results. The experience sharpened in her a wary eye for proof that private interest was not, indeed, masquerading as public benefit. 

For my part, I await the day when Community Partners – reborn each day as we are with proposals to partner in good works – can register a 100 percent accurate reading of every prospective project partners’ future trajectory. Yes, I know that it’s impossible for everyone with a good social change idea to enjoy a lively and true correspondence with their innermost soul. But I can say that we want to ally our knowledge and assets with risk-takers ready to stay the course; people truthful to themselves and others about their hearts’ and minds’ desires; citizens awed and honored that a pledge of public purpose is never taken lightly and reneged on at the price of a trust that’s never worth losing.

*With titling appreciation to John McKnight, author of The Careless Society: Community and Its Counterfeits.