Leave Us Alone

Frank Gehry is one of my favorite living architects. You know when you’re in a building designed by him. He sculpts space. You get lost in them. It’s what architecture should be. His buildings are beautiful. I was reminded of this on a recent trip to Los Angeles when I had the opportunity to explore The Walt Disney Concert Hall.

By and large architecture today is boring. Simple boxes to put shit into; repeated into infinity. There are a few standout architects that have access to the necessary funding that allows them to produce daring structures. Frank Gehry is one of those architects.

At a 2014 press conference in Spain a journalist asked whether Gehry’s own architecture was just about spectacle.

His response was to give the journalist the middle finger.

Gehry then replied, “Let me tell you one thing. In this world we are living in, 98% of everything that is built and designed today is pure shit. There’s no sense of design, no respect for humanity or for anything else. They are damn buildings and that’s it. Once in a while, however, a group of people do something special. Very few, but God, leave us alone. We are dedicated to our work. I don’t ask for work . . . I work with clients who respect the art of architecture. Therefore, please don’t ask questions as stupid as that one.”

When I read that quote, I thought, holy shit, he just said what I’ve been saying behind closed doors for years.

It’s so difficult to create something remarkable in today’s world of cynicism and unrealistic expectations. It’s as if the majority of people on this planet are happy living in a mediocre world. I’ve never understood that way of thinking. I’ve never wanted to live in a world of square boxes repeated into infinity. It just seems lazy.

The non-profit sector is not immune to stupid questions. One line of questioning that I receive regularly is, “Do you pay yourself? Does your team get paid? How much do you pay your team?” This is an absurd line of questioning to evaluate a non-profit organization on. After I explain that I get paid, I pay my team, and my team also receives performance bonuses, insurance and annual raises; I must then watch this person judge the worth of my team.

This presents two very real challenges for leadership at non-profit organizations. The first is regarding our staff’s self worth; this line of questioning demeans our teams. It implies they are not worth getting paid. It implies their work is not worth payment. This is just wrong. The second is regarding how the general public fundamentally does not understand how development work is accomplished. You can’t automate development work. It’s people helping people. It’s accomplished by dedicated teams working long hours toward a mission based outcome. These outcomes are rarely properly measured in days, weeks or years; but in generations.

Those working in the non-profit sector have a thankless job. Leadership at non-profit organizations must stand by their teams and clearly communicate, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, then please, leave us alone. Let us do our jobs.”

Over the past eleven years, we’ve built incredible partnerships at The Library Project ranging from individuals, families, companies, foundations and governments. We’re very lucky. These partnerships have enabled us to impact over a half million children attending rural primary schools in Asia. With that said, we’re constantly filtering out those that do not get it, while searching for those that understand how to support our short and long-term goals. It’s not easy.

I don’t think anyone in the non-profit sector is expecting those outside of it to understand what we do; any more than an architect expects me to understand how to build a beautiful concert hall. With that said, we are looking for people that aren’t afraid to ask real questions, get involved, value our work, and empathizing with those we support.

As leadership of a non-profit organization, it is critically important to only form partnerships with those that support your team, and to not try to change the minds of those that do not. It is both a waste of your time and of your organization’s financial resources.