October 21, 2020

Deep Work

By Bob Sorge

Bob Sorge

In mid-March as MCF was shutting down its physical office space in response to the Governor’s pending Safer at Home order, I happened to be reading a book by Georgetown Professor Cal Newport called Deep Work. I have a lot of self-improvement books on my shelves (some of us need more help than others). Currently Built to Last, Be Fearless, Leading Minds, When, and Winning Decisions are all in the queue.

In any case, in Deep Work, Newport sets out the well-researched premise that to do our best work we need to minimize distractions. We spend too much time running from one meeting to the next, and responding to email and checking social media in between. It saps not only our energy, but our capacity for deeper, more strategic work. If the goal is productivity, then in almost every case focus – at the expense of immediate email replies, posting on Facebook or adding more face-to-face meetings – will bring more consequential results. Maybe that sounds a little unrealistic given all the things people are juggling during the pandemic, but I would argue that cutting away the distractions is even more important now.

Carl Jung (the founder of analytical psychology) built a stone tower to focus his mind. And Cal Newport himself wrote Deep Work at the age of 34, while teaching at Georgetown, defending his doctoral thesis, producing twice the number of peer-reviewed papers as expected for his position, and still getting home every day for dinner and time with his family.

One of the things I have heard frequently from people during the pandemic is that for all the truly wretched things it has wrought on humanity, for a while anyway it slowed the pace of life and allowed people to take stock of how they spend their time. This was true for MCF initially as well, and I would argue the time to reflect on deploying our resources has yielded some of the best grants we’ve made while I have had the privilege of working at the Foundation. For example:

  • When the pandemic hit in March, MCF had about $1 million in discretionary grantmaking resources remaining for the year. We understood the immediate sting that nonprofits were experiencing as their operations ceased or evolved. We jumped in to help provide internet access to 1,800 families without it in the Madison Metropolitan School District. And yet we also quickly realized that our resources would not stretch very far in direct grants. Our board, grantmaking committee and staff paused to think about how to respond versus react – so that we could find a path to provide greater support for the field.
  • The federal government had just approved the Paycheck Protection Program and there was plenty of information about what was available, but no resources to help organizations navigate the process to apply. MCF retained Scholz Nonprofit Law to educate nonprofits about the program; provide working sessions to help fill out the paperwork; and provide one-on-one sessions for those who needed more help. For $35,000 we were able to reach 298 people from 170 nonprofits and help secure more than $20 million in support for Dane County nonprofits. The ability to pause, reflect, and respond strategically made all the difference.
  • More recently we funded several organizations engaged in Census work. When this was initially proposed, it wasn’t clear where the Census fit in our priorities. But when we stepped back and took stock it was clear that our community would lose valuable representation and funding if our citizens were undercounted. We could ensure more equitable representation and provide an average annual return to the community of $2,000 ($20,000 over 10 years) in federal support for every person counted. We funded eight organizations to promote the Census. Since this project just ended, we only have data from two of the organizations. In addition to all the people they reached and encouraged to fill out the Census, these two organizations helped 817 people actually fill out the Census. If you do the math that’s $16.34 million over the next 10 years.

It is hard to get excited about federal money coming in over the next decade. There’s not the immediate gratification. But by taking the time to step back and take stock, we recognized that this approach was deeply aligned with our promise to donors that we will use their resources effectively and efficiently to build a community where everyone thrives.

"Deep work … is a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship … And yet, most people have lost the ability to go deep – spending their days instead in a frantic blur of e-mail and social media, not even realizing there's a better way.”

There are many lessons to be gained in these challenging times. For nonprofits, perhaps one of those lessons is in how we reallocate the limited resources we have – ensuring that they are aligned with our missions and bring value to our community. As our calendars begin to fill up again, and the deluge of email, ENewsletters, and all things internet continues to grow, maybe a lesson learned in the pandemic is to pause and reflect – to recognize the difference between being busy and creating value, and to have the courage to resist busy-ness in favor of value.

Take care and very best wishes.

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