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Be the Duct Tape

Publication date: 
Saturday, March 1, 2014
Linda Baker Program Officer, Organizational Effectiveness Program David and Lucile Packard Foundation

There’s a song that I bet only a few of you are geeky enough (like me) to know, called the Duct Tape Madrigal. I love this song because it celebrates a spirit of quirky inventiveness and also because it is about duct tape! Growing up, my Dad provided proof positive that duct tape is THE answer for most broken objects – cars, shoes, school binders, whatever. There’s nothing you can’t fix with duct tape. And, these days you can get duct tape in an amazing array of colors and patterns, and it isn’t limited to fixing things. People make just about everything from it – from wallets to prom dresses. It is practical, flexible, and part of lots of solutions.

So, those of you who were at Mae Hong’s fabulous short talk (Did I Make a Bad Grant, or Did I Make a Grant Badly) can imagine my delight when she encouraged us to be the duct tape. She was referring to the movie Apollo 13, in the scene where there was an explosion and mission control had to help the astronauts build a way to fit a square peg into a round hole using only the very limited materials they had on board their rocket – which, in the movie, included duct tape.

Mae said that in the beginning, as a funder, she imagined herself in the role of the astronauts, doing the glory job in space, but it soon became apparent that that wasn’t quite right. Perhaps the role of the grantmaker is more like mission control with all that cool equipment, in charge of directing the action from the ground – all of those theories of change and logic models and whatnot? Some of us do approach it that way.

But in the end, she decided that what the funder role REALLY should be is not the astronaut, and not mission control, but the duct tape. The tape obviously doesn’t have the glory role and isn’t in charge, but was one of many inputs necessary for this group of smart people (both the astronauts and mission control) to solve the problem. Funding (and funders) can play the same role – a necessary and flexible piece of a larger solution, applied in the right place by people who have a detailed understanding of the ever-changing situation at hand.

Being the duct tape fits right in with the notion of humility that Carol Larson, Starsky Wilson, and Julie Rogers discussed on Tuesday morning. As a funder, it is always a challenge to manage the power relationship inherent in the fact of having resources, and it is tempting to take charge and be mission control, or even to try to be in the limelight and be the astronaut. While foundations do need to use our voice to further the causes we believe in and fund, we also need to pay careful attention to our role as one of many duct-tape-like inputs into the creation of social good. As funders, the biggest tool we bring to the table is money. Without it, our nonprofit partners cannot get their job done. But without the knowledge and expertise of others working together toward solutions in the field, our money can’t do much. The best grantmaking allows funding to be used, like the duct tape, in the most flexible manner possible to achieve the goals we share with our partners across all sectors – and that is power.

Be humble yet powerful. Be duct tape.


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