Transforming the Not for Profit Sector by Telling the Truth: An Interview with Vik Maraj of Unstoppable Conversations

His two primary roles in Unstoppable are to drive the innovation of our programs through learning from other disciplines and to expand our ability to impact people faster and more deeply.
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His two primary roles in Unstoppable are to drive the innovation of our programs through learning from other disciplines and to expand our ability to impact people faster and more deeply.

Although Vik had been working with organizations for years, in 2008 he participated in the Landmark Forum which deliver a powerful "wake up" that left him with a penetrating insight into his taken-for-granted views that limited his life and what was possible. Within the process of his own transformation he also saw what it actually takes to make a REAL difference with people. Vik has been speaking on, teaching, facilitating, coaching, and leading game-changing conversations for over 13 years. His work has dramatically shifted governments, corporations, boards, non-profits, and teams of people.

His clients have ranged from the United Way to the United Nations; from the First Nations of Nunavut to the Government of Dubai. He has broken a deadlocked 4 Billion dollar international impasse on Carbon Capture and Sequestration and taught negotiation and hostage negotiation to the RCMP. And at the most human level, Vik has permanently and positively transformed the relationships, quality of life, and futures of communities, organizations, families.

He has a master's degree in molecular and cell biology, is trained in high stakes conflict, ontology, group behaviour, neuro-linguistic programing, and the use of language systems in shaping human thinking and behaviour. He is also the co-founder and former CEO of a now 200+ person international education design company.

And most impressive of all, he can wiggle his little toes independent of the other toes and apologizes for the necessity of self-aggrandizing biographies written in the third person that were clearly authored by the subject of the biography himself!

Question: What is the over-arching challenge in the not for profit sector?
Answer: We act mostly inside of a context of charity not empowerment. Very few people are "learning to fish". And this is a societal issue not just a NFP issue. The same thing goes on in our education systems, children being thought what to think not how to think. Having been with many groups in the Not for Profit (NFP) sector, I have noticed that in most cases, while the truth is known and is often in plain sight it is not acted on. This all-to-common phenomenon is known as the elephant in the room and it constitutes a large part of what it is to be human. And the messenger, the one that musters the courage to talk about it, is often socially ridiculed, marginalized, or beheaded.

Question: With respect to the Not for Profit (NFP) sector, what is the truth that we don't want to talk about?
Answer: We compete with each other with a "smile on". We protect ourselves. And we collaborate in an opportunistic way. And the game is "rigged" such that this behaviour is almost inevitable. And the "rigging" is usually done by a decades old governmental policy. That's the truth from my vantage point. Having said that, let's be clear that everyone working in this sector is nothing short of a hero. I mean, the NFP sector is the last line of defence that underpins the social fabric of society. Without this sector the actual limits of our political, corporate, health, and educational systems would be devastatingly obvious. The NFP sector is the often unsung and most noble aspect of almost every culture. At the same time, as with any sector of society, the challenges the NFP sector faces are historical, entrenched, and at first blush, beyond its control. At first some of the obvious challenges are a lack of funding, a lack of resources, a lack of volunteers, turnover, a lack of being valued, lower salaries, lack of training and development, lack of policy, political unwillingness, the economy, etc... And there are many more that I have not mentioned and what they all have in common is that none of them are the REAL problem.

Question: What's the real problem, and what's the answer?
Answer: The real problem is that we don't collaborate and align our vast, often duplicated resources, talents, and mandates, to have a collective voice. Collaboration is both a missing mindset as well as a missing process. We mostly define collaboration as "getting together". As one of our clients said, "[we act as] independent islands chipping away at symptoms". Almost all transformative change started with a series of small groups led by a few courageous people. They came together to tell the truth to one another, did the tough work to get over their differences, and then whole-heartedly went after an intolerable circumstance that each could not surmount on their own! The answer is to move from a "me or you" mindset to a "me and you mindset" and to stop pretending that we are always noble or even often noble!

Question: If this is the answer, at least one powerful answer - so then why aren`t we doing it?
Answer: Good question. Given the common goals, overlapping skillsets, and in many cases overlapping client bases and services, why aren't we truly collaborating and coming together to increase the power of our voice and share resources, information, and talent? Why? The answer is that there is too much self-interest and survival thinking to allow for this. Making it and surviving forms an almost inescapable context within which people operate.
Here is what is obvious from my vantage point, within the NFP sector there is a culture of competition, scarcity, sacrifice, and pretending that underpins the thinking of almost every NFP group (keeping in mind that there are several exceptions). Without taking anything away from the formidable social circumstance we face, the real "enemy" is this disempowering culture of thinking that limits our authenticity and risk taking with each other.

Question: Many people working in the sector could take what you are saying about their mindset and frame of thinking the wrong way. How would you respond?
Answer: For sure! It is, bar none, and highly provocative assertion. I am not asking anyone to believe what I am saying, take a look for yourself. Take a moment and see if you discover this in your own experience. My contention is that if you look closely enough you will find that this pervasive kind of thinking exists and leaves you and your organization having the experience of continuously trying to survive and make it. And if you really look you'll see that you aren't the only ones who are consumed by this experience of surviving.
As Peter Druker said, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast". Within this pervasive culture collaboration looks like sharing information guardedly and incompletely, competing with others while inauthentically being nice (competing with a smile), winning funding by saying we do things that we actually don't do well or as well as the guy next door, and working extra-hard and extra-long to keep the boat afloat. It is a dismal future in which our accomplishments are short lived and our failures and threats are highlighted. And that is what needs to sink in - that this future will fail to make any real difference in what we are all committed to. This future will fail to make a systemic impact but will rather perpetuate the business as usual charitable mindset where "helping" (and not empowering) is always the answer.
Everything I am saying may not apply to your organization but if you get what I am pointing at - something should have gone "klunk" - as in something should have hit home or rang true for you. The first step to derailing this predictable future is to tell the truth to yourself that the way you have been approaching others in your sector has been some version of "me or you".

Question: So as a professional working in this sector, and owning what you are saying, what do I do now?
1.Tell everyone you work with or have attempted to work with that you have been operating from this limited competitive, protectionist, survival view and you're sorry - I'm not kidding.
2.Tell them the impact this has had on you truly being willing to share and collaborate and all the stuff you've hidden or been reluctant to say and do with them. Get specific so they know you this is real for you.
3.Promise to relate to them as a partner and ask them to hold you to it and call you out if you ever try and hide stuff or pretend ever again.
4.Kiss and hug and get on with actually collaborating, being vulnerable with each other, truly sharing, and increasing your capacity to make a difference.

That's it. Super simple and super courageous.

With the dozens of NFP clients I have worked with, I have witnessed this kind of conversation fundamentally alter the working relationships of numerous organizations and the people within it. It is a transformative conversation which alters the relationship in minutes, allowing for a new found freedom to just "be" for everyone involved.

Without a fundamental shift in how we relate to each other it will be business as usual. However, if you have the courage to both see the limiting context you have held others in and share this with them, in the way I have outlined, you not only stand to alter the relationship but transform what is now possible.

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