Tuesday October 17th 2017

From the Inside Out: An Autobiography


Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.”

Benjamin Franklin

 

The phrase “from the inside out” is popular these days, more so that I realized when I chose the title for my book on nonprofit strategy. Books have been written under this heading on such diverse topics as parenting, leadership, student grading, beauty, and even organizing your physical environment. So much for originality.

 

But what the title lacks in originality, it more than makes up for in its authenticity. If it is true that all social theory is autobiography, then the idea of working from the inside out as an approach to strategy reveals much about me. Personally, I have come to understand that acting from the inside out is more rewarding and useful than acting from the outside in. The former is about understanding who you are at your essence and then finding ways to express that. The latter is about chasing images of who think you are supposed to be.

 

My early attempts to become a full-fledged academic were thwarted by the gradual recognition that I didn’t think like a researcher. I was curious enough, but I could never pin myself down to a researchable question. I was once told by an advisor in graduate school that I possessed a “penchant for high inference.” I don’t think it was intended as a compliment. Through trial and error, I came to recognize that my true nature is that of a consumer and an interpreter of research rather than a producer of it. It is this that opened the way for me to pursue life as a nonprofit consultant.

 

I have been able to grow and sustain my consulting practice because of a similar commitment to working from the inside out. This means staying in my lane. Early in a consultant’s career, it is easy and necessary to say “yes” to everything that comes along. For me, I would ask myself one question before taking on a consulting engagement: Am I able to do the work well? Now, I have learned that working authentically requires me to consider a second question: Is there someone else who can do it better? This has made things more enjoyable for me, better for my actual clients, and fairer to those who end up being someone else’s client.

 

It is in this spirit that I wrote my new book, From the Inside Out: A Nonprofit’s Guide to Meaningful Strategy. As with my own trials, errors, and successes, I believe that nonprofits are more effective and ultimately more sustainable when they work from the inside out. This means focusing on who needs you most instead of who is willing to pay you to do something. And it means making difficult choices between what you like to do and what you are actually good at.

 

The journey that produced this book was prompted by a self-imposed challenge to come up with a better way to “do” nonprofit strategy. I discovered that the more I did the actual work, the greater was the need to clarify for myself the conceptual foundations and practical implications of my emerging approach. My own desire to make sense of what I was doing led me to write about it. Hopefully, you will judge the book to be worth reading.