I was lucky enough, this past weekend, to venture into blissful aridity to highlight some early results of a mobile health project I’ve been working on at the university-level congregation of the Clinton Global Initiative. The ups constituted an electrifying experience: there is nothing quite like Hillary Clinton discussing the importance of working past the threshold of exhaustion to promptly jar any remnants of lazybones from the body. But some arrangements left me stewing over the necessary evil of self-promotion in pursuit of broader good and the difficulty of pinpointing which takes precedence when evaluating projects.
A recurrent theme in panels and keynotes was the importance of mission-driven work: maintaining a clear focus on the intended impact even when it may mean dissolving your efforts to join forces with a better-armed party, and embracing humility when making this assessment. I really appreciated that speakers emphasized this point: the nonprofit marketspace is beyond saturated, and I do strongly believe that a donor-driven model leaves many well-intentioned organizations lingering beyond the threshold of viability. A second theme was the importance of hard skills: the importance of (women in) STEM was continually emphasized, and my secret favorite John McCain made a compelling case for building useful and fulfilling expertise through the traditional ladders in public service.
These values and directives seemed fundamentally at odds with the types of participants that these events select for – something of an ever-present conflict between mission, values, and self-promotion. I think this is a notion I’m coming to a bit late in the game, due perhaps in part to growing of age in a technical field, where inquiries and criticisms and measures of worth and self-worth are always about The Thing (the best insulation against poor performance as a blow to the ego, I assure you, is the happenstance failure of an op-amp 10 minutes before showtime). But does the get-it-done nature of technical work diminish the role of ego when it comes to the broader spectrum of idea ownership? I don’t think that’s quite it, either – in my experience, nothing quite generates the same ineffable pride as designing something good, and I think a physical construct provides more, not less, room for claim than a system or idea.
So there’s got to be something else going on here. I’m not sure what. We, jaded graduate students, raised eyebrows upon looking away and attempted to engage projects critically (as many undergraduates also did, to be fair). Some university facilitators who joined us theorized that it might have to do with What’s Next: the pressure to mark a resume with a presidential handshake to get a job or into medical school, rather than validation itself. But even if so, that led to turning around in the front row to catch speakers in the camera frame, rather than absorbing brilliant and nuanced Ukraine analysis from a leading senator and a former president. Reinforcing punditry by asking a repetitive question guaranteed to make news, rather than considering whether it is desirable or prudent to effectively draft a president.
The way I most commonly saw this manifested was in results reporting. Posters listed raw numbers signifying volume: 900 hours, 200 tutors, 12 chapters. But how efficient those hours, how much greater the understanding, how lasting the growth? The Number of Things was often the focus; the impact of the Thing Itself was often left hanging. CGIU did certainly push back against this by offering monitoring and evaluation support. Furthermore, it’s all part of the learning process – social impact starts with getting excited and then getting better. So maybe my murky grad school tainted glasses mixed me up a bit.
I don’t pretend to be absolved of all of these complaints – can’t hide from my own snapchat timeline – but I’d rather acknowledge them head-on, even in retrospect, than to linger in affirmative validation of something questionable. And validation itself is probably a big part of the point, with intent of encouraging more nuanced service later on. Clintons, all three brilliantly droll and earnest, underscored the need for that nuance, so let’s hope it sunk in and that all of us continue to fight the good fight for true positive impact.