Note to the Reader

I have worked in some type of philanthropic activity for most of the 25 years of my professional career. My English and Philosophy majors prepared me for that career in ways I could not have imagined when I took my first job that brought me to the Dominican Republic. The ensuing career included working in Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, Europe and even Cambridge, Massachusetts. For the past thirteen years I have served as director of a family foundation office in Amherst, Ohio about 30 miles west of Cleveland. I have come to find that few people in my profession write with and for each other – too busy I suppose with grant review or reading grant evaluations. My colleagues often find time to have telephone conference calls with one another, but few really write. The wisdom shared is evanescent and too valuable to be lost to the archive of public knowledge.

People in the philanthropic sector have great collective wisdom. I am privileged to work with many people who are dedicated and highly intelligent individuals. We have much to offer each other and others. My colleagues know that I push more open use of social software tools in the nonprofit sector. I have pushed to have us make better use of blogs, wikis and other tools that will keep us connected. I have heretofore not had much luck. My inner English major urges me to persevere.

With that background, I begin with site with a friendly nudge. Put fear aside, and write. Let our colleagues in the government and nonprofit sector share our conversations. It is a very democratic activity and quite rewarding.

In a ramble through a book store in Oberlin, Ohio I happened upon what I thought might be good. Better – A surgeon’s notes on performance turned out to be one of the more delightful reads of the spring. I share with you the comments of its author Dr. Atul Gwande and look forward to your comments.

“My…suggestion: Write something. I do not mean this to be an intimidating suggestion. It makes no difference whether you write five paragraphs for a blog, a paper for a professional journal or a poem for a reading group. Just write. What you write need not achieve perfection. It need only add some small observations about your world.

You should not underestimate the effect of your writing contribution, however modest. As Lewis Thomas once pointed out, quoting the physicist John Zitman, ‘the invention of a mechanism for the systematic publication of fragments of scientific work may well have been the key event in the history of modern science.’ By soliciting modest contributions from the many, we have produced a store of collective know-how with far greater power than any individual could have achieved. And this is as true outside science as inside.

You should also not underestimate the power of the act of writing itself. …writing lets you step back and think through a problem. Even the angriest rant forces the writer to achieve a degree of thoughtfulness.

Most of all, by offering your reflections to an audience, even a small one, you make yourself part of a larger world. Put a few thoughts on a topic in just a newsletter, and you find yourself wondering nervously: Will people notice it? What will they think? Did I say something dumb? An audience is a community. The published word is a declaration of membership in that community and also a willingness to contribute something meaningful to it.

So choose your audience. Write something.

From: Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, Atul Gawande, Metropolitan books Henry Holt and Company LLC, New York. 2007