Fakeness and flakiness are not hard to spot in the social sector

Intellectual flakiness is less about ideology and more about not applying enough rigour to what they should be doing, why they are doing it, how it can be improved, and so on.
Intellectual flakiness is less about ideology and more about not applying enough rigour to what they should be doing, why they are doing it, how it can be improved, and so on.

Summary

  • There’s plenty of authenticity and rigour but some organizational cultures are weak on both aspects. Here’s a handy guide to the sector.

A fellow donor waxed eloquent about treating partners as equals. ‘Partner’ is the word often used for NGOs that receive financial grants from donors. I cringe at the word ‘donor’ and find ‘partner’ misleading. Our organization is not a donor, nor am I. If there is a donor, it is my boss, who has donated most of his wealth to the Foundation along with a mandate to contribute towards justice, equity and humaneness. We are not donors; we are actors in civil society’s social sector.

‘Partner’ is misleading because only a very generous notion of partnership would accommodate the relationship between an NGO and the organization that gives it money as one. But let’s get back to the story. A few months later, someone narrated to me with amusement and irritation how this “fellow donor" assumed that she was looking for money and treated her as though she was being interviewed for some entry- level job. It was like, in a first meeting with someone like Amartya Sen, I start off by asking “Tell me something about yourself."

A difference between the statements and behaviour of donors is not unusual. Treating your grantees as equals is a virtue in the social sector. So, who would not profess this virtue? Virtue signalling of various sorts, very often totally out of sync with reality, is surprisingly prevalent in the social sector. I think of this as a kind of ‘fakeness,’ of which there are other kinds too. Fakeness is one of two dimensions that I find very useful to understand organizations and their people. The other dimension is ‘flakiness’—a measure of rigour, solidity and reliability.

‘Fake’ and ‘flake’ are like the X and Y axes on which organizations can be mapped mentally. The labels at the other end of these dimensions are ‘authentic’ and ‘rigorous.’ The sharpness and usefulness of this mental tool increases when different kinds of fakeness and flakiness are included, helping us observe behaviour patterns and their sources. At least four kinds can be identified; and any organization may have one or more these four kinds.

The first is intellectual: Faking intellectualism is rife in the social sector. So much theory and ideology is so freely thrown around that it is impossible to escape it anywhere. One level of questioning leads to anger because those who wave these notions as flags either do not understand what they are mouthing or have no real commitment to these ideas. Intellectual flakiness is also too common. This is less about ideology and more about not applying enough rigour to what they should be doing, why they are doing it, how it can be improved, and so on. Basically, a lack of intellectual rigour in their work.

The second is operational: Doing things that you don’t do routinely in your organization or doing things every day only for the show of it, is operational fakeness. Running loose operations, not knowing what’s going on, assuming one thing would lead to another without setting up and running the process and systems that would make such things happen, not adequately accounting for human frailties and strengths, having a naïve faith in ‘somehow things will happen,’ and more, are all characteristic of operational flakiness.

The third is relational: This refers to human relationships. None of us need examples of being fake in relationships. The facade put up being quite different from one’s real feelings and sentiments within is at the core of such fakery. Relational flakiness is when you repeatedly fail to do what you say you will, or treat a relationship very transactionally or instrumentally for some narrow purpose. Such relationships are usually ineffective and often dysfunctional. In this context, they are less about individuals and more about what the particular organizational culture fosters.

The fourth is ethical. From professing commitments that you don’t believe in to plain lying, there is a wide range of ethical fakeness. Ethical flakiness is equally common but a more subtle phenomenon. Under some kind of pressure or circumstance, such as the donor’s belief system, you dilute your ethical stand. It’s not as though you are faking anything, but sort of just let go in the expediency of the moment.

‘Fake-flake’ is catchier than calling this mental tool ‘authentic-rigorous,’ which is why I have used those phrases. It is not because more organizations are fake-flake than authentic-rigorous in the social sector. In my experience, the distribution of organizations is quite even across the four quadrants: fake-flake, authentic-flake, fake-rigorous, and authentic-rigorous.

Fake-flakes are easily noticed and can be weeded out. Authentic-flakes are hard to deal with, often full of righteous anger and indignation. Fake-rigorous are hard to catch, and usually insidious on all fronts. Authentic-rigorous usually punch way above their size, and fortunately there are many.

It is good to admit that we are all fake and flake to some degree. But there is a categorical difference between those who are somewhat or sometimes like that, and those for whom that is a basic mode of being. I find this tool useful and fun. One of the conclusions I have drawn after many years is that flakes drive me up the wall, while I find fakes hard to put up with, causing me to disengage with lighting speed.

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