"Naming Norm"

Organizations that institutionalize deep diversity have learned to challenge norms. In our book, we define capital “N” Norm as the insidious, often subtle and unacknowledged tyranny of “normal.” Webster’s Third defines norm as “an ideal standard binding upon the members of a group and serving to guide, control, or regulate proper and acceptable behavior”—an innocuous enough definition describing a fundamental building block of civil society.

Like HDL and LDL cholesterol, however, there are good norms and bad norms. High-density lipoprotein (HDL), the “good” cholesterol, protects against heart attacks. But too much low-density lipoprotein (LDL) circulating in our blood forms plaque, a thick, hard deposit that clogs arteries. Bad norms get in the way of our health and the health of our relationships and organizations. So the key questions about Norm are: Who gets to decide “proper and acceptable behavior”? Who decides who looks “normal”? Why do these controls and guides so often become blind spots that get in the way of effective organizations?

At its most extreme, Norm becomes racism, sexism, heterosexism, homophobia, transgender phobia, classism, fundamentalism, egotism, ableism, ageism, and xenophobia, and abuse of social, economic, and political power. Most organizations have learned to avoid at least the appearance of these egregious manifestations of Norm. But it is the hidden assumptions, the unspoken expectations, and unyielding attitudes that make Norm so dangerous for deep diversity. Norm assumes the face of neutrality, the appearance of “universal”—generic, genderless, objective, colorblind, classless—in determining policies, procedures, and informal cultural interactions and assumed values that in fact are neither neutral nor universal.

We wrote this book to help foundations, nonprofits, and a wide range of other organizations recognize Norm, the arbiter of “proper and acceptable behavior” that too often becomes an unnamed, undiscussable elephant on the table, the invisible dead center of organizations, and we wrote this book to help organizations learn to dismantle Norm—to learn to spot and avoid the pressures of convention, those “normal” organizational imperatives that reproduce “the way it’s always been done” conventions, the ruts in the brain, over-and-over-and-over-again preferences, styles, and comfort zones instead of reaching for innovative and effective governance, staffing, and collaborative partnerships.

Of all “normal” group identities, gender is perhaps the most familiar. For better or for worse, in virtually all modern societies, people are identified as males or females, men or women, boys or girls. So understanding gender and gender identity becomes a key strategy in this book for understanding differences, deep diversity, and Norm knowledge. Understanding how unexamined assumptions about gender in fact structure relationships and expectations of what’s normal and what’s rewarded in organizations is key to achieving effective philanthropy. Throughout this book, we use examples of the social construction of gender and gender identity to document how Norm undermines innovation and effectiveness, both in foundations and in their grantees. And how understanding gender enhances and strengthens innovation, especially an understanding of gender framed within deep diversity, the complex textures of people’s lives and cultures and an understanding of the cultures of their organizations.