Givers, Doers, & Thinkers hosted Garrett Johnson, co-founder of the Lincoln Network, to share his insights on the relationship between the tech industry and the free market—and, ultimately, how to harness technology to strengthen civic engagement and society.

Garrett outlines a strong case for how the tech industry can offer a bottom-up approach to strengthen anything from government platforms (which have been tested most recently in our economic and health crisis and found wanting) to promoting educational choices for families to abating information asymmetry. This, Garrett argues, has unfathomable promises for people at every stratum of society by providing meaningful information for them to engage with and solve problems. Technology and information access have the ability to empower individuals in difficult social situations to rise above their adverse circumstances.

Their conversation carried on, discussing issues of free speech and free association and the role “big tech” plays in problematizing (for good or ill) some of these issues. But the most interesting part of their conversation was not about technology but about people. There’s an important initial insight here: technology is important, yes, but however good your tools and tech are, you still need outstanding personnel to have a thriving organization.

And that, Jeremy emphasizes, is a struggle for all leaders, not just for-profit leaders: how do I attract and retain talented employees?

This is where I found Garrett’s insight most interesting. Young people today—early and mid-career—are not only interested in the “bottom line” factors of pay and vacation. They want something more to attract them to work for and stick with a company or an organization. Now the easiest way to do this is to offer young employees some equity in the company. This move aligned incentives between employer and employee: suddenly a 32-year-old employee had significant incentive to be entrepreneurial at work. There was a motivation to not only work hard but to be creative in his work and to bring all of his resources to bear in executing his job excellently.

NONPROFIT “OWNERSHIP”

On the nonprofit side, however, equity obviously is not in the employer’s toolkit. No nonprofit president can offer an entrepreneurial fundraiser “equity” to motivate her going “above and beyond.”

So what can they provide instead?

Well, if “equity is a form of ownership,” then the trick is for employers to provide conditions for “ownership” and autonomy in work. Now, this of course introduces risk: if you are giving your young staff freedom, autonomy in the workplace, you might find yourself lying awake in bed at night, wonder how she is faring.

This means that the best employers—and likely the most successful nonprofits—will have high risk tolerance. They will be willing to give their employees latitude in order to encourage an innovative and entrepreneurial spirit. Of course, this means significant freedom to fail and even to make problematic decisions. But it also means motivating employees to bring everything they can to their jobs—which is more than just their time, but their creativity and the persistent use of their intelligence to do their job better and help their organization grow and thrive.

People want to know that they make a difference and impact society in a positive way, and “ownership” at work helps to keep talented employees invested in the organization and connected to the mission. Garrett is completely correct: your best employees will be given autonomy, ownership, a stake in decision-making at your organization. He’s correct again: this is risky.

It’s not news, but it bears repeating: this is why hiring the right people is of paramount importance. Granting employees significant autonomy is risky, but that risk is mitigated or controlled by hiring the right people to do the job.


Feel free to reach out to me if you’d like to discuss how to attract, identify, and retain top talent at your organization. You can reach me by email at nrizkallah@americanphilanthropic.com.

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