Photo Credit: gardnergp via Compfight cc

Maybe I’d been drinking too much of the Peter Diamandis Kool-Aid over at Singularity University, but I thought crowdfunding was going to be easy. Correction: I thought crowd-funding for a resource to support global survivors of sexual assault, an issue that directly affects one in five women globally and, as a consequence, all of us indirectly, would be easy.

I was wrong.

And in the process of our crowdfunding campaign to create a Rape Crisis Counseling app inspired by this story, I learned and am continuing to learn important lessons about shame, vulnerability and showing up for what matters. (Megan Norbert is actively crowdfunding for her organization, Report the Abuse, that’s working to combat aid worker sexual assault. Please support her important work here.)

Crowdfunding was a risk. I knew it might fail and I did it anyway. Real change is like that, the kind when we’re out at the edge, creating with others the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible. But the public vulnerability was more challenging than I expected it would be. Usually in development, we co-write our funding proposals, email them off to some anonymous arbiter and hope for the best in private. This time, everything was out in the open – not just in public, but on the Internet, forever.

When I read Brené Brown’s “Daring Greatly,” her work inspired me to crowdfund the project in the first place. But reading about vulnerability and shame is one thing. Nothing prepared me for the raw, messy vulnerability of putting something I care deeply about out in the open and asking others, often repeatedly, for help.

Brown defines vulnerability as “exposure, uncertainty and emotional risk.” To me, vulnerability is courage, plain and simple. Vulnerability is also the surest way to know that you’re doing the real work, the kind that really matters – the kind that we signed up for when we chose to be of service in the world’s most challenging places.

In the interests of sharing what I’ve learned so that you may benefit, here are my “4 Steps to Being More Vulnerable in Aid and Development.” If this resonates with you, I highly recommend Brown’s TED talk, “The Power of Vulnerability” and her book, “Daring Greatly.”

4 Steps to Being More Vulnerable in Aid and Development

1. Uncouple vulnerability from weakness. They are not the same.

Us aid workers often have an Indiana Jones complex that makes it hard for us to acknowledge vulnerability. There’s a stigma around showing our messy bits in public (or even in private, given that our social network is usually responsible in some way for us getting our next assignment). Almost by reflex, we tend to avoid delving too deeply into the exposure, uncertainty and emotional risk naturally associated with our work. But the “everything’s fine” facade does us a deep disservice, as it shames where we really are and prevents us from authentically connecting with others to share where we are and to ask for the support we need.

2. Try seeing and practicing vulnerability as an asset for better leadership.

The best leaders aren’t plastic, they’re the ones who access and allow their vulnerability and don’t get caught in the trap of pretending to be perfect. In our current global mindset of scarcity, to declare, “I am enough, I have enough, and I do enough,” is a radical act. To speak out consciously about our vulnerability, without shame, de-armors us of the self-protective thoughts, behaviors and emotions we normally cloak ourselves in to hide. To be the leaders we know we are, we must choose to let ourselves be deeply and authentically seen. The rawness and the realness matters – to us, to our communities and to the vision and values we serve.

3. Connect with your community about what it looks and feels like to be vulnerable.

Shame becomes powerful when it tells us to stay silent about what’s important to us and what’s really going on. It tells us to hide behind appearances and gives us any number of convincing stories about why we can’t be authentic or why it’s not a good idea to deeply connect. When we chose instead to be vulnerable and to speak out, shame begins to lose its power. By being vulnerable, we encourage others to recognize themselves in us and create allies and friends in unexpected, often fortuitous places.

4. Make a leap of faith and decide, in one important way, to be open to vulnerability.

The leadership 1.0 paradigm of the authoritative leader removed from their obedient followers is outdated and no longer works as well. What seeks to take its place is a leadership that is self-aware, connected and willing to be vulnerable. In this way, vulnerability is a pathway to becoming the leaders required by our current challenges, by all the complexities of the contexts we serve in and the situations we face. We no longer need to pretend that we have all the answers or that we can do it by ourselves.

The first step is deciding to be vulnerable. We declare that we are willing to be seen for who and where we really are. We stop pretending to be tough or that we have it all together. This often triggers a fear of exposure, a fear that if we show others our true selves that they may find us flawed or unlovable.  Brown’s research is clear on the fact that instead, vulnerability is the beginning of love and belonging, empathy and joy, and even expanded creativity and innovation.

For us and our work to be truly transformative, we must bring the conversations about shame and vulnerability to our work as aid workers, to our non-profits, to our donor offices, to our organizations and those of our partners. There are simply too many challenges headed our way to keep on with “business as usual,” too much accumulating stress to pretend that our systems are working and that everything will be okay.

I hope that my own sharing about vulnerability inspires you to explore what more vulnerability could look like in your own work, in your own way. I hope that there’s something hard that you want to do that just could change the world. When you decide to do it, let me know how I can help.


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And if all this talk of choosing to be vulnerable and speaking up against shame resonates with you, please consider sharing this with people you think might benefit. Sharing can be a great way to start a conversation about what making space for vulnerability could look like in our aid and development work around the world.

Thanks for reading.

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