Because we love a “how to”

If How Matters has made any small contribution, I hope it’s been pointing the global development sector towards indigenous or locally-led movements and groups in the Global South. That is why I started the blog ten years ago, trying to elevate leadership rooted in community and move more money towards those grassroots efforts.

As the blog grew, this focus included revaluing what are the so-called “soft” skill set in the sector, which we know are the hardest to develop — the things beyond log frames and grant reports. The blog has always called for bringing more of our hearts into this work, and focusing on the innately human parts of changing the world together. How Matters has been about speaking up and disrupting oppressive systems, and the fact that our sector is built upon them.

Here I’m sharing the recording of’s 10th anniversary celebration. If you don’t have an hour to spend, kindly see a Q&A from the event with my beloved friend and co-host Neha Misra below.

What an amazing journey. I feel really blessed to be part of the community that has formed around How Matters over the past decade, and to have learned from its readership and from my colleagues and teachers who encouraged me along the way. I invite you to support my work, including this blog, via my new Patreon page:

Thank you to all of you for being the disruptors that you are, and for the courage and strength and authenticity that you’re bringing to our sector every day.

Neha Misra: As you have taught us and continue to teach and learn with us together…how matters — not just what. So how has How Matters been a part of your inner life and outer world for the past decade?

Jennifer Lentfer: In the beginning, the phrase How Matters was just a clever ruse to get people to think about grassroots giving, grant making, and support. One of the deepest lessons — and I will give a shout out to who came on the scene at the same time — it was very clear that the how is super important, but also the why. We weren’t just trying to do things differently for the sake of making ourselves feel good. It was deeply rooted in justice, and reform, and deep transformation of our sector. “How” is just a mechanism to get people’s attention because this sector loves a “how to.” Look at the trainings, and guidelines, and publications we constantly write! How Matters was the hook to have some deeper conversations.

Internally for me, How Matters has been an exploration of my voice, and how to use it. In the beginning, when there were just a few aid bloggers on Twitter, it could be brutal sometimes. I had to learn how to take criticism in the “marketplace of ideas” as this work falsely gets presented to us. What does it mean to stand up for something that doesn’t really fit with the norm? This is what the learning journey has offered from the very beginning. And in recent years, it’s been now that I have this platform, how am I going to use it? How am I going to give the mic over? And I think that is a big question, whether you’re a blogger or not, right?

Neha: One of my favorite early posts on How Matters was to do with faith, i.e. how do we grapple with the unanswered and unanswerable questions. It seems particularly poignant in these times. What was your relationship with faith at that point? Knowing you intimately, I feel it has evolved. So what role do you think Spirit or faith or however one relates to it has in the present moment, particularly?

Jennifer: I think if you’re a person who wants to see change, you have to understand Spirit as a source. Well, you don’t have to. Let me not speak for all. However it is important for me to have a source of strength to call on when all feels really broken. There’s just a lot of disappointment. There’s a lot of backwards movement in this struggle sometimes. And as you said, faith just makes room for the unanswerable questions. Otherwise, we’re so busy getting things done, we forget there are some other considerations.

For me, what’s been incredible about seeing the [impact of the #BlackLivesMatter] movement [on the sector] this year is understanding the power of us steadily putting out messages in the world, like, how important and unimportant that is at the same time. Because the sea change and the swarm that has occurred is far beyond what any one person could have predicted. Even though we’ve all been working towards it, and, there’s a deep humility that comes with staying connected to Spirit, and that feels really important to me.

Neha: As we know, we should not just take risks, we should take smart risks, right? We have learned that through our own journeys, and so many journeys that you and Tanya Cothran brought together in Smart Risks [the book]. So I want to ask you in ten years of How Matters, what is the smartest risk you’ve taken?

Jennifer: Perhaps I didn’t look at it as a risk at the time, but I have kept dropping my salary to be more values aligned. That’s my truth. It felt “risky” I guess, but then it created so much more ease and joy in the work. I just learned to value other things, right? I made do and this whole notion of enoughness started to arrive. What is enough, instead of what can I accumulate? Or what do I need to have in the bank? And that feels like an important set of lessons for the now for me too as our economy fails.

I think it still is a risk to just be willing to say what needs to be said, from your perspective, about what’s missing. It means you get push back, but that always gets to be actually a marker of success. I learned from my teachers and colleagues at Thousand Currents that when people push back, it means you’re doing something right. You’re pushing the envelope where it needs to be pushed. I guess that’s a risk I would invite other people to. It’s an important part of now that we are living. We’re in this post capitalist stage, but capitalism still operates. And we’ve got to figure out sort of new ways of moving money around really quickly. That includes in our sector and that includes in our own communities.

So that’s the risk I want us to all think about: How do we move more money to people who need it, ultimately within our organizations and within our own lives? I’ve learned in grassroots movements that it’s liquidity that is safety and security. It’s that notion that your well being is hooked up with mine, and that I’m going to support you when you need it, and walk in the world knowing that will come for me if I need it too. A new economy is gonna draw us into more smart risks, I hope.

Neha: Thanks Jen, I want to share two risks that I have learned from you. One is definitely in reclaiming voice and power, as a brown woman in white dominant social enterprise spaces in America and the world. I cannot say in enough words, how much you have impacted me — as a role model and as a sister, and as a confidant, and how much that has meant.

The second Smart Risk is about money, and my own relationship with money. We all have maybe complex inherited relationships with money, but I’ve come to embody it more and more as a soulful transfer of energy. How do we move energy in a way that serves our movements?

Neha: One question I really wanted to touch upon Jen is how, as a white woman, even if a radical one at that, how you show up. At this time in the world, and here in the U.S. the Black Lives Matter movement and the reckoning it has brought also has its ripples in global development. Particularly in this moment, what role do you think there is, particularly for white human beings from colonizer histories and Western civilizations, trying to make change in global development?

Jennifer: That’s definitely a journey that I was selected for, to be out in front and say some things about racism and global development, which has been happening since How Matters’ first post. My “right role” in this moment is held in an ongoing discernment process we hold within the Healing Solidarity Collective. Together with the other advisory circle members, we are asking: what is everyone’s role in this reckoning?

Understanding that there’s so much complexity, there’s so much past and future and present involved in this, I believe the first thing we have to do as white women is just to be really honest with ourselves about: Where I have been complicit? Where have I done harm? I’m a human person, and guess what? We hurt each other. We disappoint each other. We’re a reflection of the systems that we’re in…until we’re not. There’s just so much unlearning to do.

And I would say to other white women in our sector that an important thing is to not just let book learning be the thing. And I will look to my friends who identify as non-white [on the call] to back me up here. We’ve got to match all of our good book learning, with all of our powers of healing, to have really difficult conversations about race and gender. If we continue just to live in our heads as white folks, we’re not going to get to the real truth of how to shift things.

Neha: So my last question only for now…because, you know, I’ll always have infinite questions for you Jen. As Rilke says, “Live the questions.” Questions are part of life, it’s part of relationships. So for now, and for this circle, what are the lessons you have learned from the How Matters journey that you would like to share with us at this milestone on this road?

Jennifer: There’s something really powerful right now about everyone’s ability to visibilize our own learning. This is the time to really break down that notion of “the expert” endowed by “the institution” that is hierarchical, and says that those at the top know better. That’s so not true. No matter where you are, what level of positional power you may have, that ability to say “I was wrong” and walk through that deeper understanding that arrives and share your lived experience out loud…that’s where real power comes from.


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(Re)sister of ahistorical or apolitical social change efforts. Poet, writer, coach, and communications strategist. #globaldev #grassroots #philanthropy