The Pollyanna Principles
Hildy Gottlieb
Renaissance Press

Reviewer: Stephen C. Nill, CEO,
Tuesday, March 17, 2009

 If you’ve followed Hildy Gottlieb’s postings to the CharityChannel professional forums over the last decade, you would come to realize that hers is an intellect that will invariably tackle a question by going deep, exploring aspects that at first seem distractingly far removed from the issue at hand. This tendency could be a bit annoying to the uninitiated practitioner who is just trying get something quickly solved and move on. Yet, invariably, her probing would lead to insights that suggested ultimate solutions that were far more effective and sweeping than the usual surface treatment of topics on discussion forums.

Despite these tendencies, Gottlieb’s prior books, many of which I have had the pleasure of reviewing for CharityChannel, have been relatively easy, fast reads. Though insightful and immediately practical, they rarely left familiar territory for those of us who have been in the trenches for years.

So, I was not prepared for The Pollyanna Principles, published this week. This work is simply stunning. It is a magnum opus, if not Gottlieb’s maximum opus. Frankly, it is the most important and transformative nonprofit-sector work I have read.

Correction: Gottlieb would slap my typing fingers for the “N” word (“nonprofit”), as she advises us to expunge it from our lexicon. So, allow me to make a nunc pro tunc correction by substituting the term “Community Benefit sector,” composed of “Community Benefit Organizations.” In fact, CharityChannel is adopting the term “Community Benefit Organization” and “Community Benefit Sector,” making it the first professional community to do so.

Named, presumably, after the fictional character Pollyanna from a best-selling 1913 novel by Eleanor H. Porter, Gottlieb presents what she calls The Pollyanna Principles. Here’s the first one: We accomplish what we hold ourselves accountable for.

Pollyanna was a hopeless optimist. When she gets hit by a car and loses the use of both legs, she overhears the physician state that she’ll never walk again. Pollyanna decides she can still be glad that she had legs. This optimism, no doubt spurred by a vision of walking again, leads her to eventually do exactly that.

So too is the first principle put forth by Gottlieb driven by unfettered optimism. Writes Gottlieb, “Imagine the potential … if we held ourselves accountable for making our communities healthy, vibrant, resilient, humane places to live? If we accomplish what we hold ourselves accountable for, our potential is limited only by us!”

The other Pollyanna Principles are just as, well, Pollyannish – and I mean that in a good way. Pollyanna often gets a bad rap, her optimism sometime being dismissed as naive or impractical. Yet there is no denying that, despite the injuries to her legs and the pessimistic prognosis, she walked again because she envisioned herself doing so, and worked hard to regain use of her legs. Say what you want, Pollyanna was, in the end, triumphant.

One can imagine Pollyanna herself nodding with enthusiasm at Gottlieb’s Pollyanna Principle #2: Each and every one of us is creating the future every day, whether we do so consciously or not. Adds Gottlieb, “If we are creating the future every day, then every day we can expect to aim our work at the cause-and-effect that will create a healthy, vibrant, humane future for our children, our grandchildren, and their grandchildren. Our actions will then flow from those expectations.”

I’ll leave to the reader to discover the power and depth of the first two Pollyanna Principles, and the others. I don’t want to give too much away. Besides, I cannot possibly do these principles justice in a review.

The book opens by identifying assumptions we have come to accept as “reality,” then demonstrates how those assumptions have led to the systems under which community work is done. It then moves to The Pollyanna Principles, which I have only briefly touched on but which set out a new set of assumptions and expectations, aligned, as Gottlieb phrases it, “behind the goal of creating a healthy, vibrant, humane world….”

I have previously written about Gottlieb that she is a practitioner’s practitioner. She has, like me, been in the trenches as a founder of a successful Community Benefit Organization. Though she somehow sees farther and deeper than almost anyone I know in our sector, her feet remain firmly planted on terra firma. Indeed, the latter sections of the book provide practical, down-to-earth case studies and examples. These are very much needed, because any new way of governing – of thinking – requires reinforcement by specific examples. Even the most battle-weary, harried practitioner will conclude that The Pollyanna Principles identified by Gottlieb become real and practical when the reader can see how they work in action.

I will now add one new, and unexpected, observation: Gottlieb is now the Community Benefit sector’s philosopher. It is simply impossible to read this book and continue to view our work in this sector the same. It is a startling realization in my case; I am in my fourth decade of service in this sector.

I will say that this book will demand of you that you confront your preconceptions. Do not start reading it unless you are prepared to pause repeatedly, especially in the first chapters, and become uncomfortably aware of your assumptions and precepts being challenged. I found myself writing notes in the margins and pausing for days simply to contemplate the implications of what I was reading. Having been favored with an early pre-release copy of the book so that CharityChannel would be the first to review it, I had no choice but to delay this review in order to be certain I had fully contemplated what I was reading, and its implications.

Even now, I am in need of reading the book again – for the third time. Rarely has a book so elevated my thinking and recharged my belief in a bright future of humankind. I now challenge you, my gentle colleague, to read this book and decide for yourself if what I have written is a fair description. You are invited to jump on to the CharityChannel forums, where both Gottlieb and I – and thousands of other colleagues — actively participate, and discuss the book and its implications.

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