What Broken Air Conditioning is Teaching Me About Trust

By Lisa Pilar Cowan

Vice President

Hot enough for you? We are having a typical sweaty summer here in New York City – on a recent July weekend the temperature hit 100 both days, and most of my conversations have been about how miserably hot and humid it is, or else about the movies I’ve seen to escape into air-conditioned darkness.

Here at the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation office, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, our air conditioner broke at the very beginning of July. It is an ancient machine, and it turns out that the replacement part will take 14 weeks to come in. Yes, you read that right, 14 weeks, in the age of Amazon. We should have our AC up and running in time for the first snowfall. And in the meantime, it is steamy in here.

So we have, all of a sudden, become a virtual organization – reasoning that we can get more done in the air conditioning of our own homes than we can in the office, where we spent the first few days post-AC-breakdown whining. My friend who is a long-time Executive Director is making fun of me for taking the ultimate Foundation summer Friday – “so you just are calling in hot for the summer?” I know she was imagining trying to do that at her job, where not showing up is not an option.

We’ve been doing okay at getting our work done – but it has taken a lot of ‘trust in action’. At the Foundation we talk and write a lot about how important trust is in the relationship between a funder and a grantee partner, and now we are learning about how important it is among us as staff members, and in our dynamics with our consultants and colleagues across the field. 

Keeping the core values that inform Trust-Based Philanthropy in mind – equity, humility, transparency, curiosity, and collaboration – we are piecing together our decentralized work life with:

·      Trust that people will do what they say they are going to do – beyond face time, or verbal reminders. We are trying to keep in touch but not micromanage each other.

·      Trust that people will show up when they need to. For example, I recently met with one consultant in three different offices lent to us, over three days. With meetings all over the city, we can’t all be everywhere – so have to trust each other to represent.

·      A good dose of humor and people IQ. At the Foundation we talk about providing “support beyond the check” to our grantee partners – in this case, we’ve striving for “support beyond the job” for each other. We’re texting jokes, using well-placed emojis amidst frustrating conversations, and calling when we worry that an email might not convey the tone we intend. 

In short, we’re being kind to one another as we weather (pun intended) this summer sizzle. So it’s true – broken air conditioning has taught me a thing or two about trust. I’m happy for that – and I’ll be even happier when our AC is fixed!