Personal Strategy = Bystander: A role framework

Bystander: Unlike bureaucrats, who try to get through ambiguous situations by focusing on a narrow definition of role, or personalizers, who try to manage by sheer force of personality, grantmakers sometimes behave like bystanders, paying too little attention to either role or self. They convince themselves that they are mere bystanders, not protagonists, in the swampy situation at hand. As a result, they operate with no personal strategy for effectiveness at all, or, as one grantmaker put it, in “sleep working” mode.

Case in point: An experienced grantmaker at a medium-sized foundation noted a “nagging feeling” about the struggle of a long-time grantee — the founder and executive director of a nonprofit organization — to manage an expansion of his programs. The grantmaker opted not to inquire further, even though the organization was important to his foundation and he might have been able to offer valuable assistance in improving its prospects. It wasn’t really his place, he reasoned, to open “this Pandora’s box.”

Analysis: Had he explored his role further, this grantmaker would probably have concluded that his foundation expected him not only to administer grants but to be resourceful in supporting grantees. Taking up this broader role, in turn, would have called on him to mobilize his strengths and manage some anxieties. He would have had to try to raise his concerns constructively, put a potentially defensive grantee at ease, and use his “middle” position to broker a course correction that both grantee and foundation could endorse.

Becoming a bystander is not the same as “picking your battles,” something all of us do to conserve our energy for the problems that most require our attention. Ideally, we pick our battles after some consideration – perhaps about what our role would require us to do in a given battle; what personal strengths and weaknesses we’d have to manage in order to succeed; and where our time might be better spent. In bystander mode, we simply duck a battle, often because we dread the work or anxiety it might entail.

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