Professionalization and professionalism. Two pretty similar words. And pretty similarly boring, huh?
Well, it probably depends on who you are talking to. I happen to think that six character change makes all the difference.
I love professionalism. I can’t stand professionalization. I strive to be professional in everything I do (my coworkers might cite my wardrobe as evidence against this, however), but I hope to never “professionalize” anything in my life. I jump at the chance for “professional development,” but I get uneasy when I hear people lament that there is no set path for a nonprofit professional, like there is for a management consultant or a lawyer. We all need a little bit of professionalism in our lives, but professionalization can only deepen the divisions between us.
The tension between these two concepts is something that has come up at our UnSectored Talks several times. There is a desire to be efficient and effective and respectful, which I see as being “professional.” But participants said they get concerned when that professional nature is “professionalized” with standards and best practices, leading to the establishment of rigid and arbitrary boundaries between individuals and organizations working for basically the same goals. Laura Tomasko wrote this week about the vitriol that comes along with professional divisions.
I think one perfect example of taking professionalism too far is the social entrepreneur “messiah complex,” as some UnSectored Talks participants started calling it. Social entrepreneurship has been a buzzword for so long that people don’t realize it still is one. (Reminds me of a Paul Mooney joke: “The price of gas is so high, we think it’s low.”) The explosion of the concept since the 1980s has caused countless organizations, associations, and student groups to form under the dogma of “social entrepreneurship.” Many of these enterprises have done and are doing good things, but they’ve needlessly carved out a “social entrepreneurship space.” A recent Stanford Social Innovation Review blog post claimed social entrepreneurship was a concept specific to the Millennial generation, when you could find many examples of social entrepreneurship throughout history if you instead focused on the processes behind the idea, rather than the idea itself.
By “professionalizing” social entrepreneurship, we’ve created a division that did not exist before. Funders only want to fund social entrepreneurs and their sexy “business practices,” rather than what a community needs. Sometimes, grassroots advocacy is what is needed most. Sometimes, it doesn’t make sense to scale up a program. And sometimes, a community really does need a social entrepreneur. But by professionalizing ideas, movements, and yes, even professions, we build up arbitrary divisions that have real impact on getting work done.
I could use examples of numerous reports and organizations that take a piece of advice or an idea a little too far and try to apply it to a little too much. Instead of being comfortable with keeping an idea contained within its original context, we want to expound it to the masses and make it the next big thing.
I’m not trying to say we shouldn’t learn from each other, but there’s a difference between sharing something as a professional and packaging something as a necessary and integral part of effective work, when really, we have no idea. Its a fine line, but one that should never be crossed. I see this line being crossed in the arbitrary distinction between for-profit and nonprofit, and in the way funders think their own brand of grantmaking is the best way to do things. I see it being crossed when corporations think only about short-term profit instead of long-term sustainability. I see it being crossed when a young nonprofit employee thinks she has to steel herself rather than express herself to get ahead.
Somewhere along the way, we all took professionalism a little too far. We built up ideas around paradigms, walls around ideas, and then organizations in between the walls. I know that if these walls come down and we think a little more about how to work together, we won’t lose any degree of professionalism.
The question is then, how do we break down these walls?
Photo credit: David_R
By "professionalizing" social entrepreneurship, we've created a division that did not exist before.
There's a difference between sharing something as a professional and packaging something as a necessary and integral part of effective work, when really, we have no idea.