Specializing in GeneralismPosted on June 01, 2022 by Connor LaGrange, experiential learning with The Patterson Foundation
Editor's Note: Glimpse "A brief history of Connor LaGrange."
"Well, they are a jack of all trades and a master of none."
You may have heard this colloquialism quite often over the course of your life. Typically, it refers to men like my grandfather or women like my mom — folks who can manage their way around a myriad of projects but may not have formal training in any of them. Sometimes, it can carry a connotation that falls on the slightly negative side.
As I entered the world of philanthropy, it was described as a highly specialized field. To do X, you need to know Y programs. To participate in C, you need to have a background in D information systems. As a Fellow at The Patterson Foundation, part of our position is exploring in-depth the sector. I have interacted with many trailblazers within the sector and witnessed firsthand a litany of job descriptions in said sector. What I have witnessed is a seemingly strange disconnect between the specificity requirements within the sector and the diverse backgrounds of the possibilitarians I have encountered.
Nearly all I have interacted with, from top foundation CEOs to philanthropic alliance directors to nonprofit executive directors, attest that they "never saw themselves ending up in philanthropy." Many have taken a wandering path through multiple positions, sectors, and specialties, all ending up in the business of taking care of people and their communities and hoping to improve the greater good in the world. These highly skilled change makers have another thing in common. Many of them are versed in a wide variety of skillsets. Philanthropy is the business of people. One must be well versed in communication, empathy, trust-building, and so much more.
This brings us back to the finishing line of the aforementioned quote. "A jack of all trades but a master of none… Sometimes is better than a master of one."
What if our philanthropic sector focused on bringing in the best and brightest folks specializing in generalism. How nimble and efficient might our organizations become if we had a small crew of mighty warriors who dabble in a wide array of skills. Maybe for that development position, we quit requiring a CFRE and start asking for higher empathy competency. Could we make a larger impact if our requirements start becoming human connections instead of proficiency in CRMs?
These specialized skills need not be forgotten. In fact, TPF would be an absolute wreck were it not for our team members who have highly specialized skills ( for example, our phenomenal accounting team, Valarie Law and Nancy Vafeas). Those of us who are generalists typically rely heavily on the specialties of others to make our impact. The two should not be mutually exclusive, but we can at times undervalue generalists and place too high an emphasis on skills that may be easier to teach.
Kindness, compassion, and love can be harder to teach than data-based management or grant writing. Speaking as one who finds himself in the generalist category more often than not, what we bring to the table on paper may not impress from a degree or certificate point of view. But what we generalists bring to the team is flexibility and willingness to adapt and evolve constantly. Spreadsheets are quite simple to learn. A love for fellow humans is a bit tougher. Let's find the nimble helpers and teach them "hard skills." As a generalist, our dabbling in a large number of pots at one time may just spur the change our communities need.