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Though competition provides the opportunity for bringing out our best, we in the nonprofit sector continue to look for ways to cooperate and collaborate. I find that this spirit of working together for a better tomorrow requires us to be more intentional in our thinking, as our instinctual nature to compete always seems ready to polarize conversations at the drop of a hat.
Recently, I was delighted to observe the innocence of my good friend’s very young grandchildren sharing and playing so nicely. They had yet to be indoctrinated into our culture of competition. My earliest recollection of “the law of the jungle” may be connected to the classic story of Bambi. By the time I was in high school I had a pretty good sense that my ability to compete and win, to survive in the jungle, would be assured through study and hard work.
Unlike the predator devouring its prey, most of us are unable to ignore the suffering of others. Our instinct to compete seems to be tempered by our desire for compassion. Ironically, last year we found ourselves in Copenhagen debating over the very survival of our jungle.
In nature, survival of the fittest is clear and to the point. From 1987 through 1992, California experienced one of the most widespread and severe droughts in our
state’s history. It wasn’t until moving from New York in 1993, that I really became aware of this drought and the story of abundance that it was once all about.
One of my elderly neighbors spoke of a time when the wild grasses stayed green, tall, and plentiful for a “right smart piece” of time. He shared how a decent amount of rain brought about an abundance of grass seed, which brought about an abundance of mice, which brought about an abundance of snakes, birds of prey and so on. He would joke about being able to hear the mice chew seed.
As the annual precipitation began to taper off, the ecology could not sustain the creature population density that had evolved with the abundant rains. It didn’t take much for me to imagine a National Geographic episode documenting the violent survival struggle of creatures competing for the dwindling supply of grass seed and how breeding patterns throughout the food chain were instinctually reprogrammed by the new level of rain; or how some creatures may have had the good fortune of migrating to “greener pastures” as nature went about its business of restoring balance. I was grateful to learn that the rattlesnake population had been greatly reduced.
Naturally we humans can find it rather painful at times to change our behaviors; even when it’s in our best interest. Unlike our fellow creatures, we humans have the gift of choice. We get to choose how we respond to life’s opportunities and challenges.
As the nurturing rains of our economy appear to be experiencing an overall drought of sorts, we find ourselves struggling to find alignment and build consensus around strategies that will continue to foster the opportunities to meet, at the very least, our basic needs.
I’m fond of referring to the “Survival Rule of Threes.” It’s a convenient way of memorizing the order of importance for each basic survival necessity. In extreme survival situations we cannot survive more than: three minutes without air, three hours without shelter, three days without water, three weeks without food, and three months without hope. Of course this is just a generalized approximation and will vary according to our health, resources, and survivor mentality. But for me it frames the need for priorities.
As the State of California grapples with another estimated $21-billion budget deficit, we are all faced with the daunting responsibility of reestablishing personal, local, state, and federal priorities. More times than not, we lose sight of our basic needs in our debate over strategy.
Competition is the corner stone to “survival of the fittest,” but we humans can choose to cooperate and collaborate with each other through these troubling times. In the coming years, we in the nonprofit sector are facing some very tough choices. Getting very clear on our priorities may be our most important assignment. We need to remember that necessity can be the inspiration for innovation.
We don’t have to end up like mice fighting for seed. Our behavior patterns do control our destiny. We can be more cooperatively and collaboratively intentional in our thoughts, words, and deeds. That’s what “Live United” means to me.
Rick London is Chief Executive Officer of United Way of San Luis Obispo County. Send comments via the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org