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An End-Of-Year Message from Anita Walker

Anita Walker, Executive Director

The best advice I’ve ever been given came in a very small package: a sentence of only two words, no adornment in the form of adjectives, adverbs, clauses or prepositions. A tiny sentence containing a philosophy, a framework and a call to action. I’ve come to view these two words as a gift, oft used, whenever I’ve had the presence of mind to pull them out. And, since this is the season for giving, I’d like to share them with you, in my “end-of-year letter to the field.”

Traditionally, an end-of-year letter takes the form of a list, usually naming all the good stuff that happened over the past twelve months. An effort in validation that shows despite the inevitable shortcomings or bumps in the road, that the year was worth the trip. In the spirit of generosity, I’m going to spare you the list, and instead pass along the two words.

First, some context. This advice came to me 20 years ago, from a consultant I had no interest in being consulted by. I was in another state, leading a government agency for the first time for a newly elected Governor. The Governor brought in a busload of consultants to help shape his administration and teach us all a thing or two about governing. The consultant met with every state agency and gave us all the same two words:

“Eliminate mistrust.”  

Mistrust is expensive and unproductive, the consultant explained. Building bunkers around government programs with rules, regulations and redundant review is the product of mutual mistrust. The public mistrusts government, and government returns the favor by protecting itself from a skeptical public with layers of bureaucracy.

But wait, don’t we need more rules and regulations to protect the public from government waste, poor service, and inefficiencies? These are bred from mistrust. In fact, efficient, excellent service can only be delivered in a trusting relationship.  Resentment and fear are the DNA of mistrust. It is impossible for any of us to do our best work in an environment where mistrust exists.

Over the past dozen years, we’ve looked under the hood, taken apart and rebuilt just about every program at the Mass Cultural Council, from our operating support and artist residency programs to how we support Local Cultural Councils and YouthReach. Along the way we’ve added some new services as well. Our guiding star has been two words: eliminate mistrust. The change has been dramatic.

A decade ago, the Cultural Investment Portfolio (CIP), our operating support program, was designed to pit cultural organizations against each other for funding. The application required a week’s worth of time to complete and mountains of information. After years of asking you to fill out the same forms — with the same information — over and over, we realized that we knew you. And we decided to trust you.

Our Portfolio organizations are now funded by formula. We visit you in your community, sit with your staff and board members and take seriously the challenges you face. You tell us the truth about your strengths and weaknesses. As a result, we develop services that you need, not just programs for the sake of programs. This year we launched a new stress test to get an early warning signal alerting us to those most financially fragile. Then, we reached out to offer help. The response was relief and gratitude, not fear and resentment. This was possible because the Mass Cultural Council eliminated mistrust.

Twelve years ago, our in-school residency program was moribund. Teachers were not applying. How could they? The application was like a term paper. The wait-time for a decision on the grant was months long. And we insisted that only teaching artists that we had evaluated and put on our roster could be hired. We struggled to invest $40,000 in grants for lack of applicants. This year we exceeded $1 million in investment, reaching nearly 300 schools and thousands of school children. The application takes teachers a half hour to complete. The grants are awarded in less than 3 weeks. And the teachers can choose any artist they deem appropriate. We decided to trust the teachers… and we have not been disappointed.

The story is the same in our Communities Department, where we’ve streamlined guidelines for Local Cultural Councils, freeing up these talented volunteers to contribute more to the cultural life of their communities.

Recently, there was a provocative op-ed in the New York Times about Finland, and the way business and government work together. The country boasts high quality medical care, education and other government services. Business supports the funding needed to make this possible. The big lesson, according to the authors, is that when government is perceived as a logistical ally rather than an ideological foe and when citizens have a stake in high quality public institutions, it’s amazing how well government can get things done.

By eliminating mistrust, the Mass Cultural Council evolved into a service agency and a logistical ally with our cultural organizations, where every dollar works harder because of the services that come with it. This is only possible in an environment of trust. In fact, our work has a name in the world of grant-making: trust-based philanthropy. Our relationship with you is seen as a model for national funders.

It amazes me that something as fragile and intangible as trust can add so much strength to organizations, relationships and outcomes. Building trust takes a lot of time and a lot of humility. It is earned, slowly and authentically. We don’t think we have all the answers. We know you do. We have learned to listen and be comfortable in an environment of risk, ambiguity and learning.

I bumped into a story on a visit to a library a couple of years ago which shows how difficult and easy eliminating mistrust can be. The library was undergoing a major renovation, adding more creature comforts, cozy seating and a lovely cafe. The biggest area of disagreement among the staff was whether visitors to the library would be able to bring the books they were checking out into the cafe. Imagine drinks spilling or a mis-aimed shot of mustard soiling the page of a book. But then someone stated the obvious

We let people take the books home. Wouldn’t we trust them with our books here?

How can trust work so well yet be so hard? It is a gift, but a gift with strings attached. When someone says, “I trust you,” you feel an obligation and responsibility to deserve that special gift. That sense of responsibility is more compelling than compliance with a set of rules and regulations.

Don’t get me wrong. The elimination of mistrust is not a free-for-all, and it is not incompatible with due diligence and excellent stewardship. The public gives government a gift of trust, to spend their precious tax dollars wisely and safeguard the public realm. That is an awesome responsibility that we hold dear.

We are living through a time of epidemic mistrust: in our government, in our institutions, in our neighbors. We resent those who have more wealth and those who receive more government help than we do. We fear those who look or speak differently than we do. We believe in conspiracies and reject expertise and science. And yes, we are building walls everywhere. Impenetrable. Sharp edged. Anxiety producing. Walls of mistrust. These end-of-year letters traditionally end with a hope for the New Year. Mine is that we might all try to follow the wisdom of just two words:

Eliminate Mistrust.

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