Lessons Learned

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We are terrible carpenters. For much of the past decade, we focused on renovating our house at Vantage Point. We tried to modify the standard, tried-and-true ways of involving volunteers. In the process, we failed miserably.  When we were acting as carpenters, every renovation failed.

Once upon a time, we had one person responsible for volunteers. Standard. That person was the only one who engaged volunteers. We had one-person buy-in. (With huge support from the Executive Director!) Other employees thought volunteers were only “her job”. She was the Director of Volunteer Resources. We realized that was less than ideal, and looked for obvious remedies. Like typical renovations, we began with an overhaul of one room - the kitchen. We installed modern appliances, granite counters, new cabinets and cookware. However, the house was still an old house. Ultimately we threw in the dish towel and declared we learned lots, but… All the work couldn’t get done in one room. That failed.

Then we considered – in a volunteer centre, doesn’t it make sense for everyone to involve volunteers?  With that in mind, we assembled a work crew to rearrange, paint and update every single room. We all had work plans for that magical idea. I was certain a new water heater, new furnace, new staircase, and hardwood floors would create a strong, sturdy house. What did we learn? The employees weren’t keen to take this on. They didn’t have skills to lead volunteers – as they had to have other skills to do their jobs! That failed.

Two years later, building on everything we had learned, the renovation crew determined the entire leadership team would be responsible for involving specifically-skilled volunteers. Our leadership team was amazing and wonderful at getting each of their jobs done. They were state-of-the-art perfectionists, they were strategic thinkers, and they had passion and energy. They repaved the driveway, installed a new roof and replaced the stucco exterior with vinyl siding. However, we discovered even these people had limited experience in leading others to “do.” They didn’t naturally look to involve outside expertise. In practice, they relied on themselves. As they always had. That failed.

Six years later - and after three “strikes” - it became apparent we had to dump our renovation business. It had failed. It was time to look for a new business.

What would that business be? How could we engage all the talent we knew was out there? Could we maybe become architects after having failed miserably as carpenters? Could we stop modifying an old structure and begin to plan and create a completely NEW structure?

With those questions in mind, I assembled an outside group of experienced talent “architects” to build with us. If we were going to create a completely new structure, we would require people who understood much we knew nothing about - property development, zoning bylaws, planning and building regulations, creative manipulation. They knew about Vitruvius, the Father of Architecture, who says a good building should satisfy the three principles of firmitas, utilitas, venustasWikipedia loosely translates these as:

• Durability - it should stand up robustly and remain in good condition.
• Utility - it should be useful and function well for the people using it.
• Beauty - it should delight people and raise their spirits.

Aha! Maybe that was it…

Firmitas. We had to build a durable structure that involved ALL the people together in significant ways. It would have to stand the test of time and not be dependent on any one person. That meant the Board had to understand the structure; the employees all had to understand the structure. It had to be built for the long term.

Utilitas. The structure had to be about delivering our mission. Everyone who worked in the structure – ALL the people – had to understand their part in making a difference. We had to be doing this work to achieve our purpose. Not to serve employees, not to serve the Board, not even to serve funders. We were all about delivering our mission.

Venustas. The architects all know Vitruvius’ idea of beauty was complex. Meaning literally “found in nature". It is this idea of beauty that really excited us. Could we build a beautiful structure? What if we gave up our “carpenter ideas” and created an organization where everyone worked together and learned from each other?

Unwittingly, over this last decade, we have become students of Vitruvius. We questioned and experimented, explored and wondered –  IS it natural for ALL the people to work together harmoniously to deliver a mission?

Today, we think so.  Through all our failures we’ve ultimately created a new house. We are very proud of it. We truly hope others will move into the neighbourhood and create exciting new homes of their own.

We are betting our future on it. We have burned our carpenter’s apron.

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Martha Parker's picture
Martha Parker (not verified) on
Loved the reference to the principles of Vitruvius - new thinking (and innovative construction) always requires risk and dedication - thanks for being both brave and deliberate in the work you have undertaken.
Colleen Kelly's picture
Colleen Kelly (not verified) on
Appreciate your comment, Martha - and we are fortunate to have you along for the ride. It has been a wild one.
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified) on
Interesting point of view. I've never thought about latinism in this case. However I like another proverb about success - If someone spits to your back, it means that you're ahead!
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