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If you want to do bridging work, hire a dedicated guide.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy recently launched the Commons project to discuss pluralism in philanthropy. I’ve loved the variety of articles and opinions there. (#MorePlease) Many articles there offer perspectives on the whys, why-nots, and high-level-hows of bridging work. But, as is necessary in short-form reporting, the nitty-gritty details of the work are missing.

Here’s an example: Drew Lindsay’s article “Data Don't Lie: We’re More United Than You Think” argues that some bridge building efforts backfire because, surprisingly, Americans already agree on the issue at hand. Trying to bridge a perceived rather than actual difference just deepens the difference, according to Todd Rose at Populace. The trick is to find and focus on existing alignment. 

I agree! My work is often about helping organizations that feel stuck on a polarized issue identify how their felt enemies might really be their accomplices by leaning into their 80% agreement instead of focusing on their 20% disagreement. The article describes this as a “reveal” strategy. It’s a powerful way to get contentious individuals and groups to join up for long-lasting change. 

Lindsay argues that “reveal” strategies can work where “persuasion” strategies backfire. Again I have to agree that bridge-building strategies that come at the work as “persuasion” are doomed to failure. No one wants to be persuaded to agree with “the other side.” I mean, do you? Probably not. Humans don’t work that way. 

That said, you also can’t just toss a bunch of folks who have 20% disagreement and expect them to come to a workable solution. That is also going to fail. Spectacularly. 

That’s where I wish this article had gone a little deeper. The work to develop unlikely allies or creative collaborations is exhilarating, and extremely rewarding. It’s also hard. Really really hard. That 20% disagreement territory can be full of landmines like ethical dilemmas, hurt feelings, and past injustices. A friend I know in this space says “If you don’t feel like you’re poking yourself in the eye with fork, you aren’t doing it right.” But if you can work through it, you can land at astonishingly creative solutions for long-lasting change. 

Developing collaborations that make felt enemies into accomplices takes skillful facilitation, dedication to the project from all parties, and a good dose of patience. It will also take a willingness to agree that some things are going to stay out of bounds (you know, namely most of that 20% disagreement where emotions run high). 

Last year I interviewed Lead Organizer Allison McCulley at Together West Michigan, which does broad-based organizing to connect communities for policy change in mental health care, childcare, housing, and immigrant/refugee well-being. She works with an incredible range of participants whose politics, worldviews, religions, and even languages don’t always align. Together, though, they carefully sift through what they can do together, leaving aside the hot-button issues that McCulley says, “would break apart the organization.” She acknowledges that this creates tension, but it isn’t a bad thing. “There is tension when you work with real people who have real differences. But that’s democracy at its best. And really,” she says, “most of life happens in the middle; in the tension.” (You can read more about Together West Michigan and other organizations in a piece forthcoming in The Foundation Review in October.)

Next week the Council on Foundations is hosting the Building Together conference, where philanthropy can hear from a number of organizations like the Greater Good Science Center and Better Arguments Project that have proven techniques to bridge differences. They can provide tools and frameworks, but they can’t sit with you to develop a strategy that addresses your particular impact areas and your particular worries. For that, you need a dedicated guide who can work with you to identify potential accomplices, develop a roadmap for collaboration, and facilitate the necessary conversations. Cohesion Strategy can be that guide. 

you need a dedicated guide who can work with you to identify potential accomplices, develop a roadmap for collaboration, and facilitate the necessary conversations. Cohesion Strategy can be that guide. 


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