Greater Than: Nuclear Threat Professionals Reimagine Their Field

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Greater Than: Nuclear Threat Professionals Reimagine Their Field | December 2019


Managing Director Erika Gregory

Dear colleagues, Several years ago, we set out to create an initiative designed to support the community’s ability to address increasingly complex nuclear threats. We expected the initiative, which came to be known as N Square, to bring new ideas, new partners, and new frameworks to the field in support of greater collective impact. In the meantime, the world around us has changed in ways we could hardly have anticipated, making progress on some of our shared goals even more difficult—and our shared capacity to solve problems creatively even more important. We recognize that while the strategic landscape is shifting, so too are the dynamics of this field. The funding environment is constrained. Promising early- and mid-career professionals bring new expectations and ideas about how best to accomplish our goals. Some longtime leaders have redoubled their efforts while others contemplate retirement. Yet all of us share a commitment to the ongoing vitality of this field, and remain dedicated to evolving in ways that advance our goals for a safer, more secure world. When the N Square team came to us with the idea of this listening tour, we were interested in the opportunity to deepen our understanding of the conditions that enable—or get in the way of—collaboration and innovation. Now that the findings from this in-depth effort are available, we look forward to learning more about your responses, your suggestions for addressing priorities and concerns, and your perspectives and aspirations. Over the coming weeks and months, we anticipate vigorous conversation about the opportunities ahead, and we plan to be part of those discussions wherever possible. For all who agreed to participate in the interviews on which this report is based, or who joined mid-term workshops to vet or shed light on the findings, thank you for your service and for your time. For all who jump in now with goodwill and ideas for improving the field, our thanks go out to you as well. With kind regards, The N Square Collaborative Emma Belcher The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Michelle Dover Ploughshares Fund Carl Robichaud The Carnegie Corporation of New York Bruce Lowry Skoll Foundation

Editorial Director Jenny Johnston Creative Director Myrna Newcomb Senior Research Consultant Dr. Fiona Hovenden Interview Lead Dr. Sara Kutchesfahani Illustrator Brian Payne Interview Team Morgan Matthews Paul Carroll Erika Gregory Our Thanks Go To Emma Belcher, MacArthur Foundation Carl Robichaud, Carnegie Corporation of NY Bruce Lowry, Skoll Foundation Michelle Dover, Ploughshares Fund Alex Toma, Peace and Security Funders Group Liz Adams, N Square Donna Broughan, N Square Leetha Filderman, PopTech Except where otherwise noted, this work is licensed under the Creative Commons AttributionNonCommercialNoDerivatives 4.0 International License. To view a copy of this license, visit licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, PO Box 1866, Mountain View, CA 94042, USA. Images on the following pages are excluded from this Creative Commons license: front cover, back cover, 13, 16, 40, 44, 59, 70, 71, 72, 73, 76, 77, 78, 79, 82, 83, 85-bird, 86, 88, 89 (iStockphoto LP); 19, 39, 85-glass (Shutterstock, Inc.); 30 (CartoonStock Ltd.); 53 – 58, 62, 63, 65, 67, 69 (people portraits, Brian Payne).

Greater Than: Nuclear Threat Professionals Reimagine Their Field

2 46 10 70 42 80

How Did We Get Here?

Vision for the Future of the Field

Dissatisfaction With the Current State

Feasible First Steps

Thoughts on Dissatisfaction

Resistance —and a Call to Action




In April 2019, roughly 40 fellows from the N Square Innovators Network gathered in Sundance, Utah, for a high-energy design session. For three days, the fellows brainstormed and gave feedback on early prototypes for everything from an interactive compendium of educational resources about nuclear threats to a film treatment for a black comedy about missing nuclear warheads. Roughly half the fellows were nuclear threat reduction professionals, working side-by-side with designers, technologists, artists, and funders, gaining handson experience in approaching nuclear threats from new angles, and collaborating in novel teams. They were there because of a shared understanding:

The nature of the threats we face today—and the chance that they will result in the accidental or intentional use of nuclear weapons—seems to be evolving more quickly than our collective capacity to address them. One of the biggest breakthroughs of the gathering, though, wasn’t a prototype at all. It was a conversation that took place during the final few hours—a conversation about why many of the nuclear field’s1 early- and mid-career professionals were feeling miserable. As the fellows sat in a semi-circle, sharing parting thoughts, there was a sense that many weren’t ready to leave. The energy, support, and creativity they had felt during the gathering, some said, was the antithesis of what they were used to. One person in the group

1. By “nuclear field” we mean the nuclear threat reduction field. See footnote 5 for further clarification.



mentioned how demoralizing and even toxic their workplace—and the larger field—felt by comparison. There were lots of nods and agreement. The non-nuclear experts present were surprised. At least one funder wanted to hear more. What followed was 90 minutes of candid, raw, and deep conversation about the state of the nuclear field. One by one, nuclear professionals, particularly those newer to the field, took turns sharing thoughts about a spectrum of workplace issues affecting their work and their mental health, and causing many of their peers to leave—issues like elitism, lack of diversity, work-life imbalance, and competition. Moreover, professionals across the experience spectrum expressed a craving for more collaboration and innovation, but felt they kept butting up against a system and a culture that were not designed to support it.



At N Square, we have been hearing comments like these for five years. While our mission has been to understand and amplify opportunities for innovation in the field, and we have had occasion to support extraordinary professionals doing exceptionally creative work, we have also listened as people shared their frustrations with what they perceive as the incapacity of the field to address and attend to its own health and sustainability— or even to recognize the need to do so at all. We have also heard a rising worry that a failure to address these core issues will have long-term consequences, preventing the field from adapting, reinventing, and reimagining itself to tackle an evolving set of 21st-century nuclear threats. In the last year, these concerns seem to have taken on more urgency—and garnered forceful pushback. After this year’s “NukeFest” (the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference, which convenes biennially in Washington, DC) a heated back and forth played out on Twitter over a piece2 that posed a fundamental question: How is it that a field that can talk easily about nuclear annihilation remains mostly silent on the very human workforce issues that are eating away at so many professionals in the field?

As Bidgood points out, the nuclear field (like many fields) is in the messy middle of a generational shift, with an “old guard” poised for retirement and a new generation hungry to take the reigns—but on their terms.

The Future of the Field

When the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Hewlett Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, Ploughshares Fund, and Skoll Foundation formed N Square, they created a platform for advancing innovation within the field—which also meant addressing impediments to cooperation and to the acceleration of new ideas. Almost everything we have done since has been in service of helping identify and remove those barriers, while also creating new pathways for the field to learn new skills, gain new partners and perspectives, and experiment with new approaches. This is a field where fascinating new uses for emerging technologies, and promising new partnerships with innovators in media, communications, and the social sciences, are beginning to happen. But we’ve also observed that the very real inner challenges facing the field are not going away—and that they are unlikely to unless considered head-on. And the truth is, there is not much time to figure this stuff out. Young people are already leaving because of these issues, and the signals are strong that the field is not replacing itself. Sarah Bidgood, in an August 2019 Nonproliferation Review article, put it starkly:

40% BY 2023

NNSA Employees Eligible for Retirement

80% BY 2029

State Department Leadership That Could Be Drawing a Pension


Number of Americans Who Took the ForeignService Exam in October 2018 vs October 2017

“By 2023, nearly 40 percent of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s employees will be eligible for retirement. Within the next decade, 80 percent of the State Department leadership could be drawing a pension. Meanwhile, the number of Americans who took the foreign-service exam in June 2017 was down 26 percent from the previous year and fell 22 percent from October 2017 to October 2018. If a new generation of experts cannot be recruited to replace those who are stepping down, the branches of government responsible for nonproliferation and disarmament will be unable to do their work.”3

2. Matt Korda, “At #NukeFest We Asked All the Wrong Questions,” Inkstick, March 19, 2019. 3. Sarah Bidgood, “Undergraduate Disarmament and Nonproliferation Education: Gaps, Opportunities, and New Approaches,” The Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 26, Issue 3–4, August 16, 2019: 329–340.



The gist of her article was this: We are going to need many more people in this field, but we don’t just need numbers—we need creative thinkers, working at every level of organizations, who know how to work well together with limited resources and are willing to dedicate themselves to solving nuclear challenges. If the best and brightest in this field aren’t feeling motivated and inspired to stick around, developing new competencies and leading the way on new approaches, then we have more than a numbers problem. We have a field that might soon be incapable of staying ahead of nuclear threats. As Bidgood points out, the nuclear field (like many fields) is in the messy middle of a generational shift, with an “old guard” poised for retirement and a new generation hungry to take the reigns—but on their terms. It’s downright archetypal, and it isn’t pretty. Many veterans of the field want to preserve what they’ve built, ensure their legacy as they retire, and feel respected and even honored by new and younger colleagues. Professionals new to the field want to feel respected as well—by being treated fairly, being heard when they call out bias and discrimination, and being encouraged to bring their own creative ideas to the table. Right now, the field is a reflection of these tensions, and everyone within it is suspended inside a liminal moment— trapped between what the field is and what it might become.

But if we are going to end the nuclear weapons era, then we have to short circuit this traditional generational process. Ample research tells us that workplace satisfaction matters when it comes to performance and creative possibilities. It also tells us that teams that are inclusive and diverse solve thorny problems much better than those that aren’t—and that their practices and processes are less likely to fail.4 So how might we create a plan not just to replenish this field but to reinvigorate its practices, its mission, and its workforce for a new time, designed around established ideas on how to do these things well? Because that is the goal—not just to help the field function better but to strengthen and grow it in ways commensurate with the level of threat we face, applying all we know about how best to tackle wicked problems. How can we respect what has been done but reinvent for a new moment? How might this field become, truly, one of the brightest sources of creativity and innovation on the planet?

4. See, for example: Vivian Hunt, Lareina Yee, Sara Prince, and Sundiatu Dixon-Fyle, “Delivering Through Diversity,” McKinsey & Company, January 2018; Colette Rausch and Tina Luu, “Inclusive Peace Processes Are Key to Ending Violent Conflict,” United States Institute of Peace, May 5, 2017; “Women’s Participation in Peace Processes,” Council on Foreign Relations Interactive, January 30, 2019. 5. In our interviews, we focused on a slice of the nuclear threats community—just those working in DC on policy issues related to nonproliferation, arms control, nuclear security, and disarmament. That leaves out many other stakeholders, including but certainly not limited to funders, academia, the government, and frontline communities. We bounded our interviews in this way because of concerns specific to this community, but also see this as a starting point for understanding system challenges and opportunities in the field more broadly. It is worth noting, though, that in this phase we learned things that suggest questions for other constituents (e.g., funders), which could be the focus of further study. 6. Our scale/metric of early, mid, and advanced was not based on any scientific grounding. We created this scale in order to better proportion the professionals we interviewed.



How might we create a plan not just to replenish this field but to reinvigorate its practices, its mission, and its workforce for a new time?

The Listening Tour

In June 2019 we embarked on a “listening tour� to create a venue for these critical conversations. Over two months, we interviewed 72 DC-based nuclear threat reduction professionals to better understand how they view the state of the field today and how they envision its future.5 We wanted to give a wide range of stakeholders the opportunity to voice their concerns and contribute ideas for the field’s replenishment. To make sure we had good representation, we broke the field into three segments: early career (1-7 years of experience), mid-career (8-15 years of experience), and advanced career (15+ years of experience).6 We heard so much. The professionals we interviewed were extraordinarily candid about their challenges and dissatisfaction, as well as their hopes and desires. Their observations were honest, brave, compelling, and sometimes very emotional. Together, these interviews generated 270 pages of data derived from 64.2 hours of interviews. We then organized the data into a framework for social change called the Beckhard-Harris model, which looks like this:

DxVxF >R D stands for dissatisfaction with the current state; V is a vision for a preferred future; and F equals viable first steps for achieving that vision. In any change effort, the product of these factors must be greater than R, or resistance to change (and there is resistance in every system). If any of these



Our hope is that this work shoots a flare across the field, illuminating the contours of a new, collaboratively developed future along with ideas about how we might collectively begin to get there.

factors is zero—for instance, if there is no clear vision for the desired future, or there is insufficient dissatisfaction for the way things are, or no agreement about first steps—change becomes exceedingly difficult. After sorting our data and noting key patterns, we held a series of collaborative workshops with professionals across all three cohorts in order to check our analysis and invite further input and elaboration. We also used these workshops to turn the conversation away from current challenges and toward a new vision and how we might achieve it. “If this is what we know,” we asked, “then where might—or must—we go from here?” We then shaped output from these workshops into a set of scenarios for the future, which we offered for input and revision at a final workshop in November 2019. After refining the scenarios once more after that session, we now share all we’ve learned and what many stakeholders in the field have built together through this process. Our hope is that this work shoots a flare across the field, illuminating the contours of a new, collaboratively developed future along with ideas about how we might collectively begin to get there. Some may still wonder why any of this matters, given the urgency of the work that professionals in this field do every day, and given how heavily concerns over not just the obvious security risks



but also the loss of public interest, funding, political influence, or opportunities presented by diplomatic openings or scientific and technological inventions weigh on people’s busy minds. How do you focus on issues of unfairness and access when it feels like we’re running out of time to avoid nuclear catastrophe? But we believe that refining the way the field works will not detract from making progress on policy goals. In fact, we propose that it is only by addressing these issues of health and sustainability head-on that there is any hope of reaching these goals in our lifetimes. To be clear, N Square doesn’t presume we can solve these issues, or take the lead on turning the field’s vision for itself into a reality. Rather, we see our role as creating a container for important conversations, facilitating dialogue, and supporting the field’s efforts to address internal cultural challenges with the same ingenuity required to tackle global nuclear challenges. We feel humbled by this work, honored to be trusted, and eager to see what might come next.

Interviews by the Numbers




40 32


72 (81%)


5 2 1








12 6 WOMEN




13 19 WOMEN




15 7










2 3 6






October Workshops







November Workshops





3 Women Including 2 Men 2 Funders MID-CAREER PROFESSIONALS





(64.2 HOURS) 7. The proportion of male to female interviewees in each cohort loosely matches the composition of the field at these career levels. For a study on the “gender tax” facing women in nuclear security, see Heather Hurlburt, Elizabeth Weingarten, and Alexandra Stark, “The ‘Consensual Straightjacket,’ Four Decades of Women in Nuclear Security,” New America, March 5, 2019.





DISSATISFACTION WITH THE CURRENT STATE Voicing dissatisfaction can be a powerful lever for systems change. While taking the time to linger on what is “wrong” in this field might feel uncomfortable (or, alternatively, deeply cathartic), documenting and interpreting dissatisfaction is a positive investment in the health of a system—the beginning of a new chapter. Problems, once voiced and acknowledged, can become productive, generative, and honest fodder for reinvention. Our interviews unearthed a range of perspectives on the current state of the field—including issues that many felt were holding back the field and more specific factors that were disrupting their ability to do their best work. Much of the dissatisfaction we heard fell into four distinct categories—different facets that together signal a field that is ripe for re-imagination.




STASIS + RISK AVERSION One critique we heard repeatedly in our interviews, especially from early- and mid-career professionals, was that the field feels old (in terms of both age and ideas) and static.



Interviewees painted a picture of a field that has grown “top heavy with advanced-career leaders, advisors, and fellows” (whom we sometimes, for purposes of brevity, refer to as “senior” in this report)—a dynamic they saw as preventing the field’s focus, thinking, and ways of working from adapting and evolving to keep pace with a changing world. Generational frictions are inherent to any field where the people who virtually invented the field are still in it, and the field’s newer members want it to operate differently. It’s a function of generational change for a newer group to seek ways to subvert the dominant paradigm, and not just in the workplace. But perceptions of the field’s stasis extend even beyond this core tension. Indeed, advanced-career professionals also freely described ways in which the field is “stuck.”

“Most of the people who work in this field have been doing the same thing for 30 years and their thinking has not evolved at all. Especially in arms control. It’s the dogma. This community … hasn’t evolved with changes in the security environment.” A-M



Many interviewees shared a strong aversion to expressing these views—that is, to taking risks and speaking up.

“Young people still have the same complaints I did a decade ago. I’m a bit concerned. Things are happening so slowly. We are so stuck.” M-F “Anytime there’s an absence of innovation, for not just a little while but … several generations, that’s stale. And meanwhile the world has changed dramatically. There’s much more complexity. But our approach toward nuclear weapons does not take that complexity into account.”A-F

In this field some feel emboldened and/or encouraged to take risks while others do not, often because resources are at stake— and sometimes the stakes are quite personal. Many early-career professionals felt that being open with their critiques or otherwise “rocking the boat” could put their career and reputation in jeopardy. By contrast, some mid-career and almost all senior leaders said they felt sufficiently secure about their reputations, showing no conflict between self-expression and self-preservation. This is another archetypal generational tension— albeit one that can only be present if the field’s more seasoned members find some value in reinforcing it. As one mid-career male put it: “We need to stop rewarding the behaviors that reinforce the systems that exist.”

Perspectives on Stasis

“We are largely going about this the wrong way. [The field is] so wonky, based on outdated models/theory. Normal people … are way more on the left in thinking about these issues.” E-M “I was doing all of my arms control, deterrence theory classes at [place] while the TPNW negotiations were happening. There was a fascinating juxtaposition of this old theory with this new young movement that was happening.” E-M “There is an established expertise within the community that wants to continue to do business as usual. It’s a bit challenging in the current environment where nothing is business as usual. We need to be creative about how we tackle the issues.” M-F

“Very fixed ideas about the field are part of the reason why the field isn’t transforming/ adapting. [The field is] clinging to ideas about deterrence based on Cold War data/ assumptions, beliefs about the value of nuclear weapons, assumptions of American power and leverage, uncritical beliefs in some camps about the necessity for nuclear weapons, and the stubborn clinging to tools (like arms control as it existed in other quarters).” A-M

In this field, early- and midcareer professionals see danger in speaking up and challenging norms—especially when job security is on the line. Also important was the way that gender threaded through conversations about risk. Many earlyand mid-career women shared concerns that speaking up or suggesting that something be done differently—or getting things wrong—would lead to them being labeled “complainers,” “dumb,” or unable to “hack it.”

“Most of the people who work in this field have been doing the same thing for 30 years and their thinking has not evolved at all. Especially in arms control. It’s the dogma. This community … hasn’t evolved with changes in the security environment.” A-M

E-F: Early-Career Female; E-M: Early-Career Male; M-F: Mid-Career Female; M-M: Mid-Career Male; A-F: Advanced-Career Female; A-M: Advanced-Career Male




Early Career “I don’t want the reputation of being a complainer. How do you reconcile these two concepts of being a nagger but wanting to change the field?” F “Our positions are very highly sought after. If I leave/get fired, there will be at least 300 people applying for the position. You can easily be gradually frozen out of the community.” M

“No one will want to fund your organization if you are open about the problems of the organization…. If you speak out about someone with great standing in the community, you are professionally done.” F “If we had a really honest conversation about gender discrimination, I fear that there would be blowback in this community…. We don’t think these things happen in our community but they happen all the time. The reason why we don’t hear about them is because we all still feel beholden to certain folks.” F

“Particularly as a woman in the field, I’ve felt that there is more pressure not to screw up. The culture is not kind to unique ideas that push the envelope. That results in self-censorship, playing it safe, because you can be so quickly branded as irrelevant or ridiculous. Or you can be excluded from the conversation. Finding that balance of how much you can push while still being relevant is extremely hard.” F “There’s very little that I haven’t said publicly.” M

“I have been honest. I care deeply about this field, and providing honest feedback is the best way I can help this process. I don’t think anything I’ve said is at risk of me losing my job. If funders are worried about what I’ve said, I would welcome the chance to talk.” F “I’m not all that worried. But I think there’s an element of risk today in challenging some of the emerging orthodoxy from the left. I assume personal risk, and I’ve already paid the price for it. On the left, the level of litmus testing has gone through the roof: Are you with us or are you against us?” F

The Risks of Speaking Up

“I have this fear that if something I said is misconstrued or misquoted, it just follows you around and can destroy your career.” F “The reaction to junior employees dissenting can be visceral. It stifles opportunities for growth and anyone from wanting to stay in this field.” M “If this transcript was released with my name on it, I would be working at McDonald’s. There is massive retribution, a huge fear of retribution if you are honest about how you feel.” F “My research will be regarded as less valuable. It is an insane requirement for humans to not want to have politics, especially those who work in politics.” F

“If I was totally dependent on the big three [funders] I would keep quiet.” M “I am in a position where I have enough clout on my own merits that any pushback I can handle. Not everyone is in that position.” F “[I worry] that I would be labeled as a complaining woman who can’t hack it, and [told] that I would need to man up. Comments I’ve made about the … lack of willingness to entertain viewpoints/challenges of the status quo could put my career opportunities at risk.” F

Advanced Career “I don’t care. I would wordsmith my thoughts, but I wouldn’t say anything I haven’t already said. I may be called dumb, and that I don’t know what I’m talking about.” F “Nothing. There’s nothing I haven’t already said publicly.” F

“I don’t have any career ambitions beyond where I’m at. So, the consequences for me would be personal, i.e., myself. I don’t think there is anything I would hesitate to say.” M “I’m not trying to impress people anymore. I’m sure some of the things I’ve said don’t make liberals happy, and I’m saying this as a Democrat, but frankly I don’t care.” M

“I’ve said a lot of what I have said in public settings. I am proud of our community. There is a lot to be excited about. It’s not a bad thing to recognize where you could do better. I can say this because of my privilege. I have immunity because of my reputation, my status, my spouse making enough money that I could leave the field if I were to be fired.” F “I don’t feel that there is a high risk of saying things because I’m one of the established figures in the field. I know that younger people feel there’s a lot of risk in being outspoken. Funders need to recognize that they won’t get candid feedback from their fundees. They need to step back and listen and make judgments.” M

F: Female; M: Male



Stasis and fear of taking risks feed off each other, helping maintain a loop where nothing can change because the call for change cannot be voiced. This dynamic keeps the field suspended in a “steady state” rather than being open to exploring new ways of working—and it also has outsized impact on early-career professionals and their prospects for staying in the field. Given the enormous stakes of not making more rapid progress on nuclear issues, this fear of risk-taking could have real consequences as young people’s pioneering spirit is tamped down by fear of retribution or punishment for breaking out of the norm.

Opposite / Aspiration: Reinvention + Reinvigoration



Across cohorts, interviewees expressed awareness that this aversion to risk can limit learning, quash innovation, and rule out more creative responses to emerging threats and opportunities. Risktakers and iconoclasts who are wired to question prevailing wisdom and challenge traditional approaches are cultural misfits in a static system. And yet we heard in these interviews an admiration for those who say what others can’t or won’t. “What enables my best work is the freedom and the comfort level to take risks, and to pursue innovative projects even if I can’t promise or ensure that there will be a measurable positive impact,” said one mid-career female. As another put it: “We need to be nimble—getting rid of our hubris and being really open to ideas and innovation and trying new things and failing.”

Structures and fields that regularly renew and refresh themselves are far more sustainable than those that do not—and yet this field has not yet found a way to reshape itself to meet a changing landscape of external threats and internal needs. But rebuilding is not the same as tearing down. How might this field renew itself, or even open itself to perpetual renewal? What might it look like if the field made a commitment to sustainability rather than stasis? What if everyone felt supported and heard when they had new ideas about how the field might evolve and work better?

Ise Grand Shrine (Inner shrine, Naiku, officially known as Kotai Jingu)

The Opposite of Stuck

The Ise Jingu grand shrine in Mie Prefecture, Japan, has existed for two centuries. But for the last 1,400 years, the shrine has been torn down and rebuilt every 20 years. Twelve years after a new shrine is created, construction of the next shrine—built right next to the existing one—begins and lasts for eight years. The wood for the shrines is harvested from a self-sustaining forest attended to by the shine’s caretakers. While each new

shrine is similar to the last, the architecture has evolved over the years to reflect new influences. Why all this rebuilding? Because Shinto belief holds that the concept of sustainability is more important than the physical existence of a structure— in other words, renewal is the constant, while structure is made to be temporary. In this way Shinto believers are

never disengaged from the process of perpetual renewal. The tradition also helps to reinvigorate spiritual and community bonds, transfer technical skills and spirit to a new generation, and engage in a constant process of creating a gift for the future. The shrine’s treasures move from old shrine to new shrine each time, so that these sacred objects with a long history have an honored place within each new version of the temple.



“Nobody knows what anyone else is doing, what they’re funded to do, making coordination difficult if not impossible. How can they coordinate if they don’t know what others are working on, what their deliverables are, etc.? [There is] so much scrambling over small pieces of money that we forget what we’re actually supposed to be fighting for/doing.” M-F

“The collaboration piece is really valued. But there are spaces where it’s [just] lip service, where really it’s someone who wants to be in charge and bring people together, just to say they’ve brought people together.” M-F



“A good marker of success which we haven’t explored is collaboration, trading notes. That doesn’t happen because we’re competing. That’s very self-serving.” M-F

“The issue spawned so many different organizations and everyone has their turf that they are hesitant to share with other people, which is harmful to field success. [There are] inherent barriers to coordinating and networking.” M-M “Territorialism is really problematic. The funders, not purposely, feed on this a lot. [I was involved in a project that funded] multiple organizations, but there was no coordination across the groups. None of the groups knew what the other groups were tasked to do. They had to figure it out for themselves.” A-F

Interviewees also described a field marked by fragmentation, with each organization largely operating as its own silo.


A lack of awareness of one another’s work, they said, hinders collaboration and leads to unnecessary and uncoordinated duplication of effort. Despite the small size of the field, and the fact that people move around from organization to organization (particularly early in their careers), there was also a sense that this lack of connectivity is not accidental. Rather, organizations often feel the need to guard their work, a dynamic linked to competition for resources and the valuable currency afforded by the publication of ideas in the field. “How do we overcome the obstacle that the community is so fractured? How do we work together to find success?” M-M “I think some organizations are a little more wary than others about being affiliated with an organization that may not reflect well or might raise awkward questions for them. But the kind of collaboration that we’re doing now is still a lot like the collaboration 10 or 15 years ago— joint reports, a joint op-ed, and things like that. So I guess maybe there hasn’t been the same level of innovation in terms of taking advantage of new technologies that we might expect. I’m not sure why that is.” A-M

“I don’t understand why there are so many different organizations doing the same thing. Why are we all at odds with each other when we are all working on the same thing? The younger staff … view it as stemming from senior personalities. [It’s a] weird, combative relationship.” M-M

Interestingly, in cases where people did have topsight—that is, they felt sufficiently able to see the big picture—there was uncertainty about the value of each organization’s efforts: “There are a lot of groups whose contributions aren’t clear to me as a participant in this field. I think there are groups that are quite capable, and there are others [where it] isn’t obvious what they’re adding. There might be a possibility for some mission consolidation.” A-F

“[The field is] ego-driven, particularly in the midcareer cadre. It seems like quite a number of the heads of different orgs or the de facto policy heads have personal drama which holds back collaboration. That trickles down to create an uncomfortable environment for younger staff.” M-M

Moreover, interviewees across experience levels showed concern that the field seems calibrated to reward personal gain over collective impact:

This fragmentation operates at the individual level as well, where a lack of shared goals or sense of collective accomplishment/ contribution has fostered a competitive “every person for themselves” dynamic. Yet the sense that accomplishment in this field might be measured more by personal goals than the achievement of global goals—or that ego is a factor in strategic decisions—was clearly unsettling to those who joined the field in the hope of being part of a high-performing, more cohesive “team.”

“We don’t live up to our full potential. Too much repetition. Ego gets in the way. If we were doing complementary but different work, ego would be less of an issue.” E-F

The word “ego” did not come up even once in the advancedlevel interviews but was referenced repeatedly in earlyand mid-career interviews.

“[It’s] self-aggrandizing the way we label ourselves as experts. Expert to me implies that there’s an end post. It’s impossible to know everything in this field. You have to be humble; you only know as much as you know right now. But people are very definitive on their views and position.” M-F

“Folks within the space are not willing to give up their power or their access or their privilege for new strategies and for new approaches to actually progress on the issue. They’re not able to recognize that [they] haven’t meaningfully moved the needle forward in decades and are … clinging towards their own egos and their own sense of their relevance.” M-F “Egotism and competitiveness is our greatest enemy. If people are more secure with their identity, it’s easier to be genuinely collaborative, and the greater good is what is in sight rather than individual gain.” M-M


“We need to check our egos at the door. This is not about personal legacy … this is about having success. If we are too concerned about who’s getting credit for it, then we shouldn’t be doing the work. That’s what hinders great minds coming in with new suggestions.” M-F


“The field is too focused on individual contribution as opposed to collective contribution. That becomes exacerbated with social media. As opposed to a focus on collective … gains.” A-M

This competition—along with the risk aversion noted earlier—is further fed by the fact that in this field, great importance is placed on the demonstration of certain kinds of expertise: “We don’t allow ourselves to be wrong enough.” M-F “People want to look smart, not ask stupid questions, not expose their weaknesses/flaws. This is true in all fields. But in this field in particular, there is that fear of looking stupid. Being told ‘that’s not how it works.’ It’s a consequence of the fact that this field has been around for a while—[it’s the] judgmental/closeminded attitude by senior figures in the field.” M-M

Lyubov Popova Painterly Architectonic , 1918



Generational Bias In her article “Empowering Multigenerational Collaboration in the Workplace,” published in The Systems Thinker, leadership development expert Deborah Gilburg notes that many fields and workplaces are plagued by intergenerational conflicts, where older and younger colleagues are at odds with each other. These conflicts, she says, arise from deep biases that each group has about the other. Some of the generational perceptions and critiques she calls out, focused on Boomers and Gen Xers, mirror those that we heard in interviews involving Millennials as well.

Typical Boomer Biases of Xers Slackers Whiners Unwilling to pay their dues Cynical, detached, uncommitted Not loyal, therefore, unreliable Selfish Unprincipled, rude Apathetic Political drop-outs

Typical Xer Biases of Boomers Arrogant, pompous Narcissistic Sell outs Self-serving

For example, several advancedlevel leaders we interviewed expressed intolerance for what they perceived as younger employees’ “whining” and “entitlement.” The challenges and anxiety of being new to a field—and unsure about your career path—seem to have been forgotten by these elders: “I detect a culture of complaining and that leaves me cold, because it puts your agency in the hands of others. I also detect a culture of entitlement. Nobody [ever] gave me anything without hard work. Nobody rewarded me without me paying my dues. Don’t assume you’re worthy. If you show me what you’ve got, I’m going to help you get ahead. Show me you are willing to earn it, and I will be there. This is meaningful work and if you have the gift as well as the calling, the work will be there. Somehow the mortgage will get paid.” A-M

Grandiose Incompetent Workaholics Unaccountable Impractical



Unsurprisingly, early-career and many mid-career interviewees shared a very different perspective. Many saw elders as using their privilege as a weapon for asserting and ensuring their own power. They read this as self-serving, grandiose, and responsible for keeping the field stuck and unable to make meaningful forward progress: “The patronization of the field— it’s inherent. The ‘silverbacks,’ the ‘greybacks’—that needs to stop. It’s 2019. We should move beyond that. It’s important to have senior experts, but they need to engage in a more open way, rather than advocate their career trajectory.” E-F “White dudes are heading up basically every organization that is a part of this space. They give a lot of lip service to the challenges but aren’t actively sharing their power or making space for folks to lead with new visions. I think the best way I can articulate it is that folks within

the space are not willing to give up their power or their access or their privilege for new strategies and new approaches to actually progress on the issues. They’re not able to recognize that [they] haven’t meaningfully moved the needle forward in decades and are still sort of clinging to their own egos and their own sense of their relevance.” M-F This painful, fraught, and emotional tension has real consequences for how the field operates and for the prospects of intergenerational collaboration. As Gilburg writes: “Individually, we may be unaware of the insidiousness of these biases. Left unacknowledged, they have a profound effect on our ability to recognize areas of compatibility and work toward common purposes. In essence, the biases each group has of the other reflect a generation centric perspective, one that fuels a belief that ‘my way is the right way’ and ‘your way doesn’t measure up to my values.’” But she also highlights the promise and imperative of figuring this out: “The challenges that face the nation’s institutions and communities today are deeply complex. No single generation can adequately address these issues without the cooperation and contributions of the others. The best hope for the future of our organizations and our culture rests on our capacity to form a shared vision that encompasses the best of what each generation values and has to offer.”

“Hella tribal…. People can be very absolutist in their perspective…. Trying to understand the middle ground makes you seem less credible.” M-F

There is a generational aspect to these observations as well, signaling a clear tension between the value of expertise and the value of novelty/new ideas in the field. On the one hand, many value the contributions of new members to the field. “My colleagues are in their mid-20s and they are the smartest and most effective people I’ve ever worked with,” said one mid-career female. On the other hand, while some senior leaders welcomed an infusion of new and younger members to the field, others dug in: “People get too wrapped up in the innovation and the new. They get turned on by the new, leaving behind the people who have done great work.” A-F “There is a certain degree of faddism which I find annoying.” A-F “Old minds want to see their years of experience honored, which makes sense.” M-F “What’s good is you have the commitment of people who stay here and are committed to nonproliferation, arms control…. It’s a lifelong commitment of the usual crew which is actually kind of nice. I work with people now I knew from many previous chapters which is a good thing when you’re working on such a hard problem.” A-F There is a prevailing sense, though, that organizational and personal interests get in the way of collaboration and open dialogue as a matter of course. This is by no means a situation unique to the nuclear threat reduction community: Competition for control, historical tensions, and concern about stakeholders pushing their own agendas continues to undercut the promise of collective impact in many fields. But one critical factor feeding and supporting both fragmentation and competition in this field is a notable lack of shared metrics. Interviewees spoke about the ways in which nuclear threat reduction resists classic markers of success: “Our model of impact is … hard to demonstrate. We have a lot of anecdotal evidence, which is hard to turn to quantitative metrics.” A-M

“People should be judged by their effectiveness, but on an issue such as ours, you can be effective but still can’t get a lot done by traditional measures.” M-M Certainly, there are differential definitions of success at a global level (e.g., to disarm or just reduce, support the Ban Treaty or not). As one advanced-level male put it: “There’s no national/ international game plan. Ideas are tested but get stranded at second base.” But this lack of shared goals and metrics also operates at the level of the field, the network, the organization, and even the individual—that is, all the way down. Many interviewees drew focus to the lack of shared goals/metrics at the field level, where successes are rarely acknowledged and where there is both an absence of and a hunger for long-term, strategic alignment: “One of the things that’s missing is patting ourselves on the back from our earlier battles. We’ve come such a long way and we started from scratch.… We have controlled and reduced very dangerous weapons. We have achieved setbacks along the way but we have accomplished a great deal.” A-M “This is a field where there aren’t typically huge victories. You have to celebrate small things— even having an administration that’s hostile toward traditional arms control, there are still things people outside can do to make a difference, like material security. They can find allies in government. Maybe things feel a bit adrift. I can see that some people may be thinking we’re rudderless. There’s not a clear heading, [a] common goal.” A-M

“It would be nice if funders came up with a five-year plan and [did] not change it. Here’s the amount of money we have available. A lot of people feel like they’re constantly trying to figure out how to appeal to short-term projects.” A-F

“We want to support [the] New START [Treaty]. We want to oppose Trump’s new nuclear weapons and cut back on modernization. And we want to [move] forward on No First Use. Pretty clear goals. We don’t all agree on how important each of them is, but we all agree on them generally for the most part. But we don’t really have a community plan for achieving those goals.” A-M

E-F: Early-Career Female; E-M: Early-Career Male; M-F: Mid-Career Female; M-M: Mid-Career Male; A-F: Advanced-Career Female; A-M: Advanced-Career Male



“Funders speak about collaboration but they don’t foster coordination amongst the different groups. They foster competition, rather than collaboration.” A-F

“My dastardly plan is to be consolidating. Massively. If not all in one organization, we should have just a few large orgs that are both think tanky and advocacy. Think what we could do with a comms team of 10 and a set of five or eight lobbyists. Subject matter experts wouldn’t have to do everything but could be more focused and specialized.” M-F

“There’s a need for better coordinated planning and activity. I do think the community should do a better job at trying to pick several priorities where we all should work together more closely and have a joint plan.… We need more support. [Our funders say] they want to be more engaged, but we actually need a plan to do that and we don’t really have that plan. We’re just sort of ad hoc running around doing things.” A-M

“You have to really WANT to do this. It’s bleak, you have to be OK with rare ‘fruition.’ It’s grinding, and successes do happen but they are always at risk.” M-F

Organizations in the field value different goals differently and work accordingly. Without shared goals, or the kind of topsight that enables us to see where we duplicate efforts or miss opportunities, the field will not be able to make best use of the technology-mediated forms of movement building that have developed over the last decade. If looked at as a systems problem,8 there is (as yet) no framework for defining the outcomes we seek or the elements and interactions most likely to achieve them.

There is, essentially, no shared understanding of what system we are all part of or how we should operate together within it. Without some kind of top view, it is difficult to assess or optimize the field’s performance, or to agree on the most advantageous leverage points. But there is also a lack of consensus about who should coordinate this kind of systemic review or cooperative planning, or whether that role can be played effectively by people or organizations with vested interests in the outcome. “I don’t feel like we are a cohesive movement. The community is kind of islands, competing for financial resources, key stakeholders, getting attention from the public. We are missing a link amongst us that can make us more effective. I don’t feel like we are a movement. The potential is there but we are not seizing it.” M-M

fragmented approaches to an issue that is global by nature. But these interviews reflect that this field is not designed as strategically as it might be to produce the outcomes the field desires —that is, if the field could agree on what those outcomes were and adopt shared metrics for evaluating progress against them. While many interviewees indicated the need for skillful strategic coordination, there was less clarity about how that function should work in practice, and currently few incentives to make sure it happens. Interviewees noted that funders have a particularly important role to play here. In promoting collaboration and innovation, financially constrained funders—who have access to a fraction of the resources devoted to other global threats— currently address one pent-up demand (the need for new and better approaches) but in doing so may inadvertently contribute to another (the sense of competition for resources and lack of capacity to coordinate successfully): “Major funders haven’t put forth the resources necessary to provide for collaboration. There has been a call for collaboration, but there has been no real help to establish the collaboration in terms of follow through or resources, so we do the best we can.” A-M “Funders often say ‘please collaborate/coordinate’ and then it doesn’t happen but there are no consequences.” M-F

Opposite /Aspiration: Coordination + Collaboration Right now this field lacks the mechanisms, capacity, and competencies to coordinate efforts effectively, and incentives and rewards—often established by funders—can be at cross-purposes with the goal of greater cohesion. How might everyone in the field gain clear understanding of what everyone else is doing? How might mapping the field and seeing it as a system rather than a collection of parts change how everyone works—and how progress gets measured? What kinds of supports might be needed to make cross-organizational collaboration not just possible but a foundational part of the field?

There was agreement across all segments about the value of collaboration and the dangers of

8. Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems, Sustainability Institute, 2008.




Another theme that arose from the interviews relates to the field’s culture—both who gets to be in the field and how people are treated once they enter it. Many interviewees stated a desire for more inclusivity in the field.



While most focused on race, ethnicity, and gender in these comments, they also described diversity in terms of viewpoint and perspective, socioeconomic background, career and/or academic background, and frontline/firsthand experience of the effects of nuclear weapons and materials. Some spoke of a wish for a more diverse funding base. Others noted what they see as a tension between the desire for greater inclusivity and a current state that seems to operate via accidental meetings, tribal relationships, haphazard career paths, and unpaid internships. On this point of not paying interns for their work, they were particularly vocal:

“The influence of networks, privileged routes into the field through certain people or programs, coupled with the prevalence of unpaid internships means that this is a field that is neither welcoming nor viable for many people....� E-M

“Washington is the home of the internship. [It’s] very valuable for getting your foot in the door, but that can be very limiting because you’re not being paid. It limits us to kids whose parents can subsidize them.” A-F “We need to pay the interns. It’s a very narrow, non-diverse group of people. It’s not fair. Nukes impact minorities disproportionately, so if we approach high schools, it shouldn’t just be at the AP classes.” E-F “Stop having unpaid internships. Organizations that do should be viewed as pariahs in this field. It really should not be allowed legally in the US. It’s basically a step above slave labor. It’s hypocrisy. It undermines the moral claim the field has and the intellectual integrity of the field. It’s going to restrict the interns that you get to rich kids who view this internship as a stepping stone to law school, rather than people who might be interested but can’t afford to live without pay in one of the most expensive cities in the country. Stop hiring that eleventh senior fellow! Where’s the line item on proposals to pay for interns?” E-M “The influence of networks, privileged routes into the field through certain people or programs, coupled with the prevalence of unpaid internships means that this is a field that is neither welcoming nor viable for many people. We should be getting more diverse educational backgrounds and experiential backgrounds. It would be nice if the field was more creative.” E-M



This tension underscores an inherent irony: While nuclear threats are global and indiscriminate, only a privileged few have the economic, political, and social resources to engage in the professional community designed to eliminate them. Advancedand early-career respondents alike were clearly uncomfortable with this selectivity. The desire for greater inclusivity seems based on several things: the belief that diversity enables creative problem-solving by providing different perspectives that challenge dominant viewpoints; the ethical importance of including those who will be most impacted; and the perception that current efforts to promote inclusion are not always sincere.

In a field in which people talk about the moral case for nonproliferation, this exclusivity can feel highly discordant and even damaging to the field’s credibility. “Across the board there are not enough access areas for people; it’s clubby. The movement for more inclusion feels tokenistic. Some is real and substantive (i.e., ensuring panels are balanced). But some is more style than substance…. There is too little focus on building a true consensus that is non- or bi-partisan.” A-F “You need to have different voices in anything you do. People say it doesn’t matter because it’s science and numbers. But when it’s policy the people who aren’t there are the most negatively influenced by it. I know nuclear weapons is a technical area but it’s still the same thing. Things that make up a policy or a position that the US is going to take should be made with different voices weighing in on how that policy is going to impact them. Different groups should be at the table. There is nothing so different that we can’t benefit from the viewpoint.” A-F

The interviews were also full of commentary—largely from early- to mid-career professionals—about what they saw as the field’s “toxic” culture. While we did not get the sense that toxicity permeated all organizations or colored the experience of all respondents, many interviewees mentioned experiences that were combative, draining, unkind, retaliatory, and systemic. They described a field marked by an intensely critical and sometimes biting culture where many are made to feel “less than,” to the point of driving good people out of the field. “People need to behave. We are losing common manners. Listen to each other. Respect each other’s opinions. We should agree to disagree. We should be listening. Stop being condescending towards the other opinion. Find common ground and work together. We can all agree that we don’t want a nuke to be used. That can be our starting point.” E-F “Why are we all at odds with each other when we are all working on the same thing? The younger staff … view it as stemming from senior personalities. [It’s a] weird, combative relationship.” M-M “There is no real sense of community that could be sustaining through the hard times. It’s not a place where you can refill your cup. Dealing with organizations, egos—it’s draining, long-burn work. People who are supposed to be your allies are not a source of strength—that sucks. That’s why people bounce. It’s such a hard thing to work on, the funding sucks, the community is toxic, why would you stay?” M-M “[We need to] find a way to disagree more kindly with one another. Fighting gets particularly vicious.” M-M “The nuclear field eats their young. I’ve been in other fields which are much more encouraging for younger folks to stay in the field. Same people, same tools, same ideas over and over again.” M-F

Toxicity Many people used the word “toxic”—or language akin to it—in describing the field’s culture. In 2016, Liz Ryan, a former Fortune 500 SVP for human resources, published an article in Forbes called “Ten Unmistakable Signs of a Toxic Culture.” Here’s her list:

1. People don’t

6. There is little

communicate, smile, joke, or reinforce one another. Visitors to the culture can feel the “dark energy” but people inside it no longer do.

2. People in toxic

cultures are “very concerned about titles, job descriptions, and levels in the hierarchy” and these seem to be more important than their mission.

3. Fear of getting in

trouble trumps people’s ability to trust their own judgment, because rules and policies are inordinately important.

4. There is little back-

and-forth between managers and employees, who tend to stay close to their peer groups.

celebration of success, but much emphasis on failures or infractions.

7. When presented with

“impossible goals, ridiculous plans, or patently stupid ideas” people in toxic cultures save their sniping for their friends, but don’t challenge expectations publicly.

8. The informal

grapevine is many times as effective as a communications network than any type of official company communication.

9. Employees are

not rewarded for being “tall poppies” who challenge norms or bring breakthrough ideas to the table. Instead they are rewarded for following rules.

5. Everyone knows that

10. Fear is palpable as

people are unhappy, but that information is treated like a secret. Human resources professionals are either inadequate or non-existent.

people worry about whether they’re admired. They do whatever they have to do to get ahead, regardless of the cost to others.



“The nuclear field eats their young. I’ve been in other fields which are much more encouraging for younger folks to stay in the field. Same people, same tools, same ideas over and over again.” M-F



“Some people on Twitter … seem to be either borderline malicious or incredibly ignorant.... [I recently witnessed on Twitter] one of the most egregious things I’ve seen from someone in leadership in this field.” E-M “I know many people who left. I think for the vast majority of them it comes down to finally recognizing that the space is toxic. Those words have been spoken by at least four people who come to mind…. It’s part of this community’s DNA. No one person is going to be able to fix this. I mean, the real fix is for basically the whole space to just like blow up and be either taken over or to have some sort of catalyst that basically eliminates all the current organizations and the people who are doing the work and replaces it with new structures. [The toxicity] permeates everything within all the institutions that are part of it.” M-F This suggests that early- and mid-career people seem to be having a qualitatively different experience of the field than their elder counterparts. But it is also important to note that while senior leaders did not mention toxicity in their interviews, this does not necessarily tell us their views on that subject; it just tells us they didn’t mention it. However, given the importance of keeping early- and mid-career professionals around during a sea change in the field—with impending retirements and other later-in-life events—it seems risky to disregard the fact that early- and mid-career professionals prioritized these issues in their interviews while advancedlevel leaders did not.

Opposite /Aspiration: Inclusiveness + Respect The valuing of certain voices and kinds of expertise over others, and the exclusion of diverse perspectives and backgrounds from the field, limits the kinds of technical ideas and policy solutions that will emerge. What might happen if the entire field came to see diversity of thought and composition as a critical core strength? How might actively inviting new perspectives into the field change or reframe our understanding of nuclear threats and how best to combat them? What if everyone who entered the field did so with the expectation and the promise that their voice would be heard and that there were established protocols for handling conflict? What if the field was defined not just by expertise but by curiosity and compassion?

This is not to say that people in the field feel entirely unsupported. In their interviews, early-, mid-career, and advanced-level professionals all described feeling some measure of support by some people. In fact, a gross pattern emerged from the interviews, with early-career professionals feeling supported by their peers but less often by their mid-career and advanced-level colleagues; mid-career professionals feeling support by their organization but not by the field; and advancedlevel professionals feeling broad support by field (staff, funders, peers, bosses, colleagues, organizations, field) but ignored by the media and the public.

E-F: Early-Career Female; E-M: Early-Career Male; M-F: Mid-Career Female; M-M: Mid-Career Male; A-F: Advanced-Career Female; A-M: Advanced-Career Male



You’ve read or listened to all of the interviews. What stood out for you?

Notes on Trauma Dr. Fiona Hovenden, an accomplished researcher with advanced degrees in ethnography, artificial intelligence, and psychotherapy, helped to design our research protocol and interview rubric. She also worked with N Square to pull out patterns and insights from the field interviews. Here, she shares a few of her key insights—honing in on the ways in which chronic traumatic stress may be impacting practitioners in the nuclear field.

One observation I had was that many people reported feeling their humanity was not being recognized by their colleagues or in their work. The nuclear threat field is highly intellectualized; it seems to be part of the culture for people to value the intellectual challenge. This makes sense, because the field relies on a lot of technical information. But my hypothesis is that this intellectualization can also serve as a defense. That is, it can be a largely unconscious way of dissociating from the overwhelming nature of the nuclear threat: “We’re not going to recognize the human aspect of this, because we won’t be able to do our work otherwise.” It’s a defense against acknowledging and feeling the full terror of nuclear weapons. And that defense is impeding the ability of people in the field to truly see and recognize one another. By cloaking everything in the language of expertise, they risk dehumanizing the issue while also dehumanizing one another. Also, dissociation doesn’t only block what you want it to block. It blocks all kinds of things, which is true of any defense. What this suggests to me is that in this field dynamism might also be blocked. Dissociation may be blocking people’s ability to relate to one another and bring their whole selves to their work, which means in turn blocking their creativity.

combat. The trauma is something that happened in the past, and now we’re trying to help somebody heal from it in the present. With chronic traumatic stress, the stressor is ever-present. It doesn’t go away. This certainly seems to describe the situation for people working on nuclear weapons issues—not just because of the grotesqueness and persistence of the threat (living with nuclear weapons means we live with a form of terror) but because progress is so elusive and hard to maintain. Dissociation sounds like it has benefits, though. It helps people get their work done. Yes, there are benefits. People can get through their day. But we have natural processes in our bodies to get past trauma. When we dissociate, it pauses those processes so that the trauma stays in the body. With post traumatic stress, people need a safe way to deal with the trauma so that they can metabolize it. But with chronic traumatic stress, it’s still an open question about whether that’s possible, because we continue to live with the source of the trauma everyday. Dissociating also has cultural or even professional implications. People who don’t want to dissociate or can’t dissociate or can’t do it all the time will tend to be the ones pushed out or ostracized from a group for not being able to “take it.” When you dissociate, you push

Dissociation may be blocking people’s ability to relate to one another and bring their whole selves to their work, which means in turn blocking their creativity. Is there a name for this kind of defense mechanism? What I think we’re seeing in this field is chronic traumatic stress, which is a newer field in trauma studies. Most people have heard of post traumatic stress, or PTSD—a medically recognized condition that impacts a person’s ability to resume their life after a traumatic event, whether it’s a childhood event or a dangerous accident or time in

away people who remind you of the things you don’t want to be reminded of. Anyone who is not agreeing to your social contract— in this case, avoiding complex human implications—is at risk of being ostracized. Those who refuse, in whatever way, would be likely to be shunned because they threaten this field-wide defense.

The general public is also likely dissociated because of this huge existential terror—even if they’re not conscious of it.... If the public is also dissociated, then more information is not going to help. There might be people who don’t agree with that assessment. “What is she talking about? We’re not traumatized.” I would think a lot of the people who have been in the field for a while might not see this at all. Their defenses have worked well for them and they might be completely unaware of feeling the effects of chronic trauma. If people are highly dissociated and you mention it to them, sometimes they realize, “Oh, yeah, I am doing that.” But a lot of the time they don’t. I think the people who feel as though they’ve been forced out or shunned might recognize it more readily, but the younger people that we heard from wouldn’t necessarily see what they’re experiencing in these terms either. But maybe this is an interpretation that is helpful for them to consider, to open up that question, and to see if there is any recognition. This is a field that values the ability to reach a broader public. How does dissociation impact that effort? If you’re in a highly intellectualized field, then you might believe that what people really need is more information. But the general public is also likely dissociated because of this huge existential terror— even if they’re not conscious of it. There’s never been a time in human history prior to the invention of nuclear weapons that had that quality of total annihilation; even religious beliefs about the end of times involve salvation for some. If the public is also dissociated, then more information is not going to help. If you’re doing clinical work around trauma, you don’t push on

the trauma. You don’t try to give people more information to make them deal with it. The more you do that, the more likely people are to reinforce their defenses and dissociate even more. Clinically, when you’re working with individuals, you’ll try to help them rebuild a sense of trust and a sense of autonomy. They might not be able to protect themselves completely from something in the future, but ideally they come away from that healing work with a sense that they have more autonomy than they felt in the beginning. That’s a different kind of work than pushing information at people. I don’t know how that works in a big national or international group process, except that community likely helps. But even saying something like, “This is really terrifying, we’re all terrified, but we are doing work everyday to make the situation better and here’s what you can do,” could help. It’s a different message than “there are this many warheads, and this law, and this treaty.” How can people experiencing chronic traumatic stress take better care of themselves, and one another? Acknowledgment is usually the first step. Sometimes we are going to dissociate because otherwise we couldn’t do some of this work—but let’s know we’re doing that. It’s also good for people to realize that continual chronic stress takes a great toll on the body, and to know that they have to snap out of this system periodically to support their physical health. Efforts to make sure people don’t feel alone and to build in time and space for them to take care of themselves would be very helpful. Building a sense of community could also help build a sense of safety (even if safety from the source of the trauma is not possible).

Some people will think this is completely irrelevant rubbish. But I suspect some will recognize some of these observations and will want to find the humanity in themselves and in each other to build resilience and a sense of community. Nationwide we are beginning to recognize that many people are working with chronic trauma, including educators having to do active shooter drills with students; frontline workers such as medical personnel, firefighters, and police officers; people working on climate change; and our military. This leads me to believe that we are also on the verge of figuring out new ways to manage that chronic traumatic stress. Things like meditation, mindfulness, making informal time to be together will help. Physical practices are important because trauma and stress get locked in the body. When intellectualization is part of the defense, the body is cut off from the mind and holds the stress unacknowledged. Mindfulness practices are a great start because they calm the entire person, body and mind. There are bound to be skeptics who find it hard to believe that dealing with these human issues will lead to progress toward high-stakes, real-world goals. We can’t prove or show that attending to trauma will increase impact, but we can guarantee that it will be better for the people involved. I think part of our hypothesis would also be that if everybody can bring their whole selves to a project or a problem, the better able they will be to connect with each other and with their constituents—all of which will improve the odds of achieving policy goals. Of course, not everyone will agree with that hypothesis. At the very least, if people in the field are open to considering it, open to having conversations about trauma, then there is an opportunity to test out whether approaching this differently might also release some energy and creativity around new ways to address the work of the field.







Interviewees almost universally described a field where well-defined advancement pathways don’t exist and career progressions are marked by haphazard hops from one organization to the next. Not surprisingly, many early- and mid-career professionals noted the lack of clarity about how to rise up within an organization or within the field as a whole—or whether good opportunities for doing so even existed.

“There should be more clearly defined pathways for how to rise up within an organization or within the field as a whole. Fill in that gap in the pipeline.” E-M “[There is] not a lot of upward mobility opportunity because we are smaller. You have to wait for someone to leave. To get growth experience, you have to leave.” E-F “People are jumping from organization to organization. That’s what you have to do…. It puts us all into not very friendly positions, poaching from one another all the time.” M-F “I don’t think there is a career progression. It’s the nature of the beast. In the NGO world, what you’re looking for is someone who has name recognition and who can raise money.” A-F “There has to be something other than the meandering path.” A-M “We are still trying to build this career path. It’s a work in progress.” A-F “You should change organizations otherwise you get stuck. Opinions and viewpoints don’t evolve or change. You need to sit in different places to get a well-rounded view of the field.” E-F

There was also significant commentary about the lack of opportunities for mid-career professionals specifically. Many described a field that is more an hourglass than a pipeline, with mid-career professionals feeling that squeeze. Mid-career is usually a time when people double down on their commitment to a field, when experience begins to pay off and expertise is valued. But in this field, that pattern has been disrupted. “[There are] lots of senior and junior positions— not a lot in the middle. If young folks want to move up, they often move to other issues. [This is] not unique to the nuclear community, but it’s at another level in this community.” M-F “I feel like there are a lot of groups with one to two chiefs, and a whole bunch of Indians, and no junior chiefs, or deputy chiefs. That creates a problem as the NGO space is a feeder community for the government space. We are not growing a lot of mid-level managers—that’s a problem.” A-F “Mid-career people are really expensive. How do you pay them as they’re learning?” A-F

“An opening opens up—especially in DC—based around election cycles. In periods of no elections, it stagnates, which is a problem. We need to underscore the fact that it’s not necessarily a political job, [but] that election cycles do have an effect on job mobility.” M-M “The older generation that are taking up massive salaries need to move to part-time positions to build up a new wave of leadership. How can funders incentivize mid-level positions to provide new leaders in the field?” M-M As careers become more networked and branching (like a web) than linear (like a pipeline) not just in this field but in many others beyond it, what career advancement might look like in the future remains an open question.

Some of what we heard calls into question whether having a “job” or “career” in nuclear threat reduction is even a sustainable paradigm. As one advanced-career female put it: “Jobs in these think tanks, they’re not jobs, they’re platforms. You can’t think about them as jobs. That’s why it suits more established people [rather than young], who don’t need that affiliation so much, because they have a name independent of the affiliation.” This prompts a question about the range of expertise and/or quantity of positions that are required (now and in the future) for this field to perform optimally. Should the field (and, by extension, its funders) be expected to sustain as many careers as it does now?

Leadership, Mentorship, and Management Interviewees also vocally described a field in which many of the career supports that other professions take for granted—including strong managerial and leadership training and career mentorship—largely don’t exist. Early- and mid-career professionals called out a need for greater managerial and leadership training in the field—particularly for senior leadership. In this field, senior leaders often see themselves more as subject matter experts than as managers and organizational leaders, with the role of expert requiring a more outward-facing (toward funders and government) than inward-facing (toward staff and colleagues) stance. Leadership may therefore be regarded as more about emulation—follow my style and in my footsteps— than about supporting growth and development



in others. But people with subject matter expertise and long experience in the field do not necessarily make good managers or leaders, as early- and mid-career interviewees noted. Interviewees also called out a lack of consistent career mentorship in the field. And earlyand mid-career professionals also expressed considerable, even emotional, frustration with a field where senior leaders are often unwilling to step down or step aside to allow a more diverse leadership to take the helm, and where there are no structures or supports in place to shepherd this transition—nor a culture that encourages this kind of turnover. Professional Development “Senior leadership who are making hiring decisions aren’t thinking about how these positions develop. [There is] no plan for professional development. Who has time for that? Most people are killing themselves to do the job they’re doing.” M-M “[We need] opportunity to learn soft skills: courses/ retreats that help you learn management skills, financial skills, that empower you to become a leader…. How to lead a meeting, how to react to criticism, how to have open discussion, how to be responsible for others…. People are often thrown into it, learn the skills on the job, to the detriment of their colleagues. How can you be a leader of an org without these skills? Organizations should offer these experiences to people—that would be career development/professional growth.” M-F

A Serendipitous Start The number of people who described their entry into the field as almost accidental was startling. People rarely come into the field as activists (i.e., choosing courses of study or career path because they are already interested in the subject), but often because they took a course or heard a lecture from a professor that intrigued them. “By mistake” A-F “Not by design” A-M “I came to it through broader social issues” A-F

“By chance” A-M “Didn’t really have this as a dream career” A-F “A series of serendipities” A-F

“I fell into it” 2x M-F, 1x M-M, 1x E-M, 1x E-F

“You need to have ... a director and a board of directors who values the professional development of their staff.” A-M Ossified Leadership “[The] whole top level of leadership within the space right now does not look like the people we’re trying to engage, both in terms of activists as well as staff.” M-F “Women of color in leadership positions. We need folks to step down and we need board members. We need other people in the community to come together and call that out.” M-F

“By accident” E-F “I fell into the field by happenstance” 1x E-F, 1x E-M

“It was so random” E-F “I fumbled into it” E-M “I fell into it through the back door” 2x A-M

“White folks, mostly dudes in the space who cling to power—nobody’s calling them out. No one’s going to say the hard things. There’s no consequences. So we need some sort of mechanism for accountability.” M-F

“I have a problem with the way the senior cohort is recruited. Cycling in and out of administrations is a very ineffective part of the field. They don’t have the vision, management experience, people skills to run their own NGO. They’re not in it for the long term. I see a lot of ineffective leadership.” E-F “We need to stop perpetuating leadership that has zero proven track record for training the next generation and passing on knowledge. Just because you were an assistant secretary doesn’t make you a good manager. This field is going to die if you don’t value and cultivate talent when you see it. People shouldn’t be leaving because they’re not being taught.” E-F Mentorship and Management “There’s no real mentorship. Nothing ever happens when people say they will pursue being a mentor. I say this harshly because I’ve been exposed to other communities where I see how they empower younger career people, women, minorities.” M-F “You should know how to run a good meeting. How to have a good check in. People not having annual reviews ... This should all be mandated. What is your retention rate? Do you do exit interviews?” M-F “Senior people should get training in managing people. Just because you bring in funding doesn’t mean you are good at managing people. If they can’t manage people, they shouldn’t be in charge of people. If you move up to a senior position, you should be ready and capable of managing people. Make sure you don’t have rapid turnover beneath it.” E-M “Emphasize training for managers, professional development resources for employees, training of different kinds for employees. Emphasize diversity, equity, and inclusion training and coaching … practices for all organizations.” M-F

Compensation, Benefits, and HR Function Of paramount importance to a majority of the early- to mid-career professionals we spoke to was compensation—not just sufficient base pay to prevent them from having to get a second job to make ends meet now, but benefits packages (e.g., parental leave, 401(k) plans, healthcare coverage) that would enable them to imagine staying in the field. Interviewees also raised more prosaic— but still important—human resource management issues, including overwork, poor organizational culture, and workplace conflicts that need an outlet.

E-F: Early-Career Female; E-M: Early-Career Male; M-F: Mid-Career Female; M-M: Mid-Career Male; A-F: Advanced-Career Female; A-M: Advanced-Career Male





Compensation “Organizations can say they value you, but when they have to put a number on it, a lot of them will say, ‘We don’t have the money.’ Good pay is a key marker. People who say otherwise should try living on our salaries!” E-M “You have people who are just doing impossibly hard work on an issue that nobody cares about, that’s really underfunded and you don’t have the resources you need and you get paid like crap to do it.” M-F “People have to get second jobs, live with tons of roommates, paying off student loans.” E-M “If there could be agreements across organizations about salary, etc., that would be helpful.” M-F “Pay them for their worth. If you want people to stay, provide them money, benefits, a livable wage, give them the respect and support in the workplace, a sense of purpose, and maybe they’ll fucking stick around.” M-F “[I’m] personally aware that men are being paid more than women in the same role. We should have pay transparency which will empower people to negotiate for a raise and/or leave an organization.” E-F

“It’s almost criminal how low the pay is, even at the internship level…. Heads of organizations genuinely don’t know how much people are getting paid. Those at the top say they don’t have enough money to pay their interns or better pay their staff. They should factor this in their funding proposals. Maybe don’t hire the tenth senior fellow at your institution who doesn’t bring in any money, who doesn’t have responsibilities, doesn’t publish, etc. Use that extra money to boost the pay of five to seven lower-level people. If they pay better, they can demand the best workers from the field. They can recruit more people this way.” E-M Benefits “Where I work, we don’t have maternity leave. You have to leave to maintain your dignity in the field otherwise everything gets personal.” E-F “We need more capacity and the money equals capacity, people, and job security, right? And benefit packages that can sustain someone over the course of a career.” A-F “Offering standard benefits like 401k and matching.” E-F

The Cost of Living in DC: 1975 vs. Today People entering the field today face an eye-opening economic reality: their salaries may not cover the costs of living in one of the country’s most expensive cities. Some of the field’s advanced leaders embarked on their careers in the 1970s, when the cost of living in DC was far different than it is today. But how different? We took a look at some of the leading cost of living indicators from 1975 and 2015, adjusting all 1975 figures to 2015 dollars for the purpose of comparison. Source:






Years of Income





Years of Income



In other words, the adjusted median income has declined by 6.48 percent over those 40 years.

If you earned the median national income, you would have been able to buy a house about 1.5 years sooner in 1975. Yes, the size of many homes today is greater than it was in 1975, so what you get for your dollar may be greater. But the bottom line is that for people looking to put down roots, the relative cost of home-buying is significantly steeper than it was 40 years ago.








The average cost of a new car has nearly doubled.



The cost of sending a child to public college has increased dramatically since 1975. (Based on median income.)



In relative terms, a dozen eggs purchased in 2015 cost twice what they did in 1975.



“You need to have ... a director and a board of directors who value the professional development of their staff.” A-M

“People are jumping from organization to organization. That’s what you have to do…. It puts us all into not very friendly positions, poaching from one another all the time.” M-F

“People have to get second jobs, live with tons of roommates, paying off student loans.” E-M



Balance “The five-day work week, eight-hour work day, minimum wage … people fought for [them], sometimes at the cost of their own lives…. These things we have now came because of demands. I don’t see anything wrong with demanding more money now, more clear career paths, less abusive management.… If we don’t see change, the field is going to die off because the older people will literally die, and the younger folk will leave the field.” E-M “We need to stop expecting young people to just work [beyond the 40-hour work week]. If you don’t have kids, families, significant others, then what [could you possibly be doing that’s more important]? We need to stop with those expectations.” E-F “Flexibility in terms of letting people work where they get their best work done.” E-F Finally, the fact that many NGOs and smaller organizations have no trained HR professionals on staff—and that no incident database exists to track harassment and/or abuse—has effects in this field that are annoying in the best circumstances and malignant in the worst.

Absent any consistent professional channels for addressing grievances, there are no formal consequences for bad behavior. This lack of professional human resource management—designed to protect and support workers in any field—sends a disturbing message about the degree to which the wellbeing of talented human beings who have committed themselves to this cause is being looked after and valued. “Exit interviews in our space at NGOs are not the norm because no one wants to hear what didn’t work for them, what’s not working for the organization, and why.” A-M “There are no consequences really for people who are problematic… No one’s going to say the hard things. So we need some sort of mechanism for accountability. And we need to support folks who are taking risks to do the things, say the things that need to be said.” M-F

“There are things that I have not said about sexism, harassment, just really inappropriate stuff… And I would say what holds me back is because they’ve got a lot more power, it doesn’t feel worth it. It feels like there’s a ‘he said, she said’ element to it and it’s just exhausting.” M-F “I know so many people who were sexually harassed but had no HR to report it to. We need an incidents database. I really dislike people (mainly other women) telling me I get meetings because I am young and attractive. Belittling junior staff is inappropriate.” E-F “Everybody has to do a lot of jobs that [are] not in their job description…. When you don’t have a dedicated HR person, work-life balance with the health and sustainability of your enterprise gets neglected. Very capable people in the field can act clueless or even petulant, completely inappropriately and childishly, when confronted with this difficult human relations type work. When you don’t have that support, you burn out.” E-F “There is no accountability for mistakes leadership makes (e.g., losing staff, etc.).” M-F “Specific cases are difficult to address because, especially in small organizations with no HR, there is no path to accountability or the reporting process is unlikely to result in meaningful accountability. The chances of retribution are a deterrent to reporting.” E-F

Opposite /Aspiration: Clear Career Pathways + Intentional Redesign The nuclear threat field sprang up organically, without the benefit of intentional design. This has led to a situation where the field does not take care of its own—and many question whether having a “job” or “career” in nuclear threat reduction is even a sustainable paradigm. What if the field entered a period of intentional redesign? In that effort, how might we prioritize and show value for the well-being of our colleagues? What might career advancement look like in a field where career pathways are clear and professional support is universal?

“There aren’t avenues to discuss abuse of power, sexual assault, etc.” E-F



I know of no other business that does not support its best talent and instead requires it to compete with no safety net. (A) e biggest One of th clusivity ex drivers of e v ryone is is that e the field pulled into me few sa from the s/ anization rg o r e d fee re h s whic a universitie osed of mp largely co white men. ss la c ruppe (E)

The fact that those quotes are from real people suggests a problem, even if they are only a sample. (M) I observe cons iderable innovation in m ost NGOs in this field. It’ s not clear whether “stasis ” applies to theory or polic y. (A)

I like the suggestion that funders might ask their grantees to think more creatively.


The lack of communication, awareness, and coordination between orgs and individuals in the field is a real problem. (m)

ople young pe I think ing each support is this field d e other in e n light we a bright ain. (E) to sust


Thoughts on Dissatisfaction Comments From Workshop Participants in October 2019 42



mun ity s it s y it a lway oung, s ha s . (M eat

d xpecte at I e h w much early Pr etty r among ally fea especi t d u n o ab e, a peopl ut. ( a ) car eer speaking o es femal

There is stasis in the field, competition among the various levels, and extreme competition among organizations. (A)



What surprises me is the number of senior people who feel immune to risks and yet that does not seem to correspond to a major push for innovation and/or reinvention of the field. (A)

It’s not enough to say that risk-taking is not welcome. What kinds of risk? More specific examples needed. (A)


POCKETS OF RISK-TAKING AND INNOVATION The constraints on risk-taking are different in different types of organizations (government, higher education, NGO, IGO, etc.). (M)

Some elements of the field are static while others are dynamic. I wouldn’t characterize the entire field as static. (A) There are organizations where risk aversion is very low and interest in breaking the status quo is high. We should be looking to identify what makes the spaces where this innovation is happening tick. (M)

I was disheartened by the level of gender discrimination that was expressed in the quotes. This has not been my experience and it can be difficult to see these things when they aren’t directly impacting you. (M)

I would like to emphasize the very gendered reality that this community operates on. (A) For a field that aims at championing females, the females, especially early- and mid-career, seem to be the most hesitant and risk averse. How can we reconcile these two realities? (E)

The comments about gender discrimination seem to be mostly from mid-career women. They have stuck around but they cannot speak openly about their experiences without paying a price for it. (A)




There are pockets of innovation and experimentation and increasing funding for new ideas or approaches. (E) I agree wholeheartedly that the field is stuck and has not kept pace with a changing world, particularly with regard to communication, political activism, and public engagement. (M)


I’m surprised by the emphasis on looking at other movements or communities of advocacy/research; there is something inherently distinct about the nuclear field that limits the parallels between it and other movements. (M) I THINK THERE IS A TENSION BETWEEN THE NEED FOR MORE DIVERSE VOICES AND HOW THIS INHERENTLY MEANS SOME CURRENT VOICES MUST STEP DOWN. (E)

Surprised by the call from a mid-career to do more collaboration with Black Lives Matter and other social justice orgs. Wasn’t expecting that (but totally agree!). (E)

The field definitely is not stuck. Look at the advent and expansion of sanctions as a nonproliferation tool; the new involvement of the UN Security Council; the complexities of managing a ruptured JCPOA; the advent of the Ban Treaty, etc. etc. etc. (A)




It’s accurate that there is widespread cognitive dissonance. Everyone wants some form of change but any attempts at change are largely seen as dangerous and therefore are not proposed, particularly by younger people.(E)

Too dichotomous. Should not be about innovation vs. perpetuating what has been done before, but about deciding what should be preserved, what types of changes would be valuable, how experience and fresh ideas/energy can work together to best advantage. (A)


No focus on the lack of funding, which is the key to many of these other issues. (A)

I think it’s a good analysis, but we have to assess the extent to which external features (funding, the political environment) bound our ability to bring about change. (A)

The connection between risk aversion and funding concerns is really poignant. Some funders seem less risk averse until the risk backfires. This is an important distinction between actual risk aversion and lip service. (M)

PERSPECTIVES ON COMPETITION It is tribal because unknowns about each other’s work leads to unease. A large part of this is funder driven and ego driven. (E)

I agree that there is tribalism and competition, but don’t think it’s necessarily bad if it leads to innovation. (M)

Some players not only compete with each other or exclude others from their “club,” but also actively denigrate some other parts of the community. There’s a lot of belittling what others do as unimportant or counterproductive. (A)

Competition for resources is a serious problem in the field, not only because it is perceived as pitting groups against each other for money, but because you have to spend so much time trying to raise money that you have less time to think creatively, holistically, and strategically about the work itself. (A) E: Early-Career; M: Mid-Career; A: Advanced-Career



FRAGMENTATION & COMPETITION I’m surprised to hear this level of anxiety and a level of distrust among people within the space. Every meeting that I have participated in has been warm, friendly, and constructive, and that is not the case with the other issues I work on. (A) Having worked in other spaces, there is SIGNIFICANTLY more collaboration in the nuclear space than elsewhere. That doesn’t mean we don’t have work to do—we absolutely do. But, I think it would be helpful to acknowledge the successes we’ve had, if only to make the problem feel more solvable. (M)


There is a lot of tension and unspoken anger in these quotes. (M) The problem within this community is its disconnect from actual policy. It can do terrific work, publish papers, convene meetings, etc., but if it doesn’t change (especially) the US govt’s actual nuclear posture, then all that effort is wasted. The real danger, then, is people becoming demoralized and leaving the field entirely. (A)

I suspect that resistance to change will be great, particularly with regard to fragmentation. Collaboration can be encouraged, but who takes the lead? Who is doing the work that should lead us into the future, and who is doing the work that needs to be phased out? (M)

The competition for resources is key, especially when talking about bringing in new voices and disciplines. (M)

There is extreme competition and narcissism in this field. Much of which is laughable given the lack of attention to the agenda by the media and the culture more generally. (A)


I guess I thought I was the only one who found the field toxic. I have coped by keeping my personal life completely separate from my professional life. (A)

I’m still left unclear what a “toxic” work environment means. So a clearer explanation on that would be useful. (M)

Our organization has had success in recruiting a diverse staff and our work environment is among the most positive I have experienced in my career. But, much of that is because our leadership—myself included—have come from backgrounds that were very toxic and are committed to avoiding that now. (M)

I was surprised that it seemed to be mid-career folks who felt the toxicity the most poignantly. Though, I think that comes down to the younger generations not being willing to put up with it and the older generations not feeling it because they are above that fray. (M) 44


Only surprise is that others have seen the same thing: lip service to collaboration. (A) Anyone who wants to work in the field of policy where the stakes are high should expect it to be back-stabbing. Unfortunately, that’s just politics. (A)

I think that the call for collaborative action is a good one, and I have had some experiences where collaboration has been positive, but more where collaboration has been negative. (A)


I think the analysis overstates the problem a bit; yes, the field is competitive but I don’t think it’s any more or less competitive than other fields in public policy. (M)

THE ROLE OF FUNDERS It is all true and much of it is related to the lack of funding and the gladiatorial competition created by the foundations’ approach to funding. (A) In the end, if funders wanted better coordination, they could force it. (M)

The funders also are siloed, thus have difficulties providing support for multi-disciplinary ideas/cross pollination. (A)

One of the best things that funders could do would be to require joint planning in advance of grant decisions AND joint planning of related deliverables prior to disbursement. (M)

DIFFERING REALITIES NGOs and think tanks hold up a holier than thou pretense about public service. In my experience, DC think tanks are hypocritical and more sexist than the commercial sector (but not than Capitol Hill). (A) BENCHMARKING


What is the toxicity? This is a self-selection of a career. People in this business tend to have very strange personalities and are not well socialized. (A)

I’d like to see whether women feel they can collaborate better with each other than with men. (A)


I think you have correctly identified the fragmentation problem, and that competition (and selfinterest) drives some of that. One missing piece is the “institutional imperatives” that drive each individual’s and each institution’s work. We all have boards and funders that we have to answer to and their priorities and goals are not always aligned with prospective partners’ or funders’ goals. This is a serious structural impediment that limits (but doesn’t prevent) collaboration. (A)


Territorialism is real. (A)


I think there are a lot of blindspots in our collaborations. It is a work in progress, but it almost seems that some in the space are having trouble taking change efforts and successes seriously. The cynicism is high. (M)



Is toxicity a synonym for heavy competition and if so, is the nuclear space more or less like other heavily competitive spaces? (A)


Many senior people seem to be talking about paying livable wages, but what actions corroborate their concern? (E)

Get out of your policy wonk head and talk to real people. Pay them their worth. (E)

That the field is still not paying interns and not offering competitive benefits…. All the talk about not being able to afford that is bullshit. It’s not that much money. You just have to make it a priority. (A)



There is no structure for advancement. Everyone has to wing it. And the point about unpaid internships is real. It cuts out so many people. Think of how much young talent we could have if there were opportunities for everyone. (E)


This analysis seems to imply that this is a problem specific to this space, whereas I think it is actually more closely related to the 21st century professional environment, particularly change spaces. (M)

I also feel like the older people think openly complaining is the same as fixing. It is not. (E)

Many organizations would like to offer the structural supports and better pay we all need. The money just isn’t there. Lack of general support funds has stripped organizations’ ability to do anything that isn’t projectbased. And project-based work often requires hiring more underpaid staff so as not to work current staff to the bone. (M)

I’d like to see funder perspectives, and also perhaps more information on HR structures. (E)

PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT AND CAREER PATHWAYS I actually think folks moving from one org to another to grow their career is not inherently bad. Nor is it something unique to our field. (A)

It is a dog-eat-dog field and the gatekeepers vary in their ability to assess or willingness to develop talent. (A)

Would help to differentiate between “paying your dues” in the sense of working for free/peanuts versus recognizing the need to work hard to develop the knowledge/skills/experience to take on more responsibility and have your recommendations carry more weight. (A)


Is this a larger trend because younger generations are entering careers with more debt and less optimism about the economic future? Are their expectations for the NGO sector (vs. private sector and government) inflated? (A)

What assumptions are we making about career certainty? Do we expect young staff to stay in the NGO world their entire career? At the same organization? Or do we expect 2 years? 3? 5? 10? (A)

I do think we should incentivize mid-level positions and management training. (M)

“Hella tribal.” That’s it. That’s the perfect definition. (E)

I am a little shocked how people think there isn’t a real sense of community. In my work and groups I work with I do feel a sense of camaraderie, however it’s taken me years of learning how to build a strong network to get here. (E)

The lack of diversity piece is critical and a real problem. There is a need to reach beyond the typical career pipelines to identify individuals who bring unique perspectives and experiences. (M)



The point that nuclear dangers are indiscriminate but the field is exclusive is a keen insight. Also, I would not have described it as toxic, but rather misogynist. I think toxicity wasn’t a term that was used during my early career, but it is fitting. (A)

This field is and should be driven by actual knowledge of the subject matter. The color or a person’s skin and/or the gender doesn’t and shouldn’t matter. If a person can string together a coherent argument, present evidence, etc., that’s all that matters. BUT obtaining that level of knowledge usually requires service in government and that is not evenly distributed. It is elitist, limited to a small number of privileged schools and programs. (A)

We spend a lot of time talking about policy collaboration, but I can’t remember a single group conversation about improving our culture. (M)



It’s not always a happy family/ community, but there is a lot of support and appreciation among established orgs and individuals. Bringing in younger professionals and finding new ways to express and strengthen cohesion would help. (M)

It is frustrating how senior staff blame funders and lack of resources instead of being personally accountability. (E)

E: Early-Career; M: Mid-Career; A: Advanced-Career






Now that we have better shared insight into what dissatisfaction in the field looks like, where do we go from here? Moving out of dissatisfaction requires knowing what we are moving toward—it requires a vision for a better way of operating. We heard the beginnings of this vision in our interviews. Indeed, they overflowed with sound ideas for what the field might look like in the future and how we might begin to get there. We looked at all of these “vision moments” in the interview transcripts, along with interviewees’ answers to questions about what qualities they most admire in their colleagues and their responses to a “from/to” exercise—where are we now, and where must we go? We then used these inputs to create six personas—fictional people who embody the traits that interviewees told us are needed in the field. We also crafted four scenarios that tell stories of how the tensions shared in the “D” section could begin to flip through bold action on the part of people in the field right now. We tested both personas and scenarios in the November workshop, edited them based on feedback, and then identified existing “bright spots” that give us confidence that the seeds of this change have already been planted. We share all of these elements now, as interrelated pieces of a field-wide vision for change that is beginning to take shape. What could it look like to successfully move from the dissatisfaction of the present to a bold new vision for the future?



Where are we now? These words were taken verbatim from responses to a question about how people view the field today and how they would describe it in the future if certain challenges had been addressed.



Where must we go?



Personas: Fictional people who embody the traits that interviewees told us are needed in the field



Ulrich is a multilingual nuclear policy analyst with particular interest in Eastern Europe (he lived in Estonia as a child). He’s held his position at a small Washington nuclear arms control initiative for several years, yet people in the field generally know very little about him.

Understated Ulrich


uiet, dedicated, thorough, Ulrich is a committed conservationist who eschews air travel because of the carbon footprint and walks nearly everywhere. A shrewd and strategic thinker, he seems constitutionally uncompetitive and shares the spotlight almost to a fault. Despite his exceptional foreign policy insight, Ulrich gets overlooked for opportunities that would advance his career. What almost no one knows is that since the fall of 2023, Ulrich has been collaborating with a writing partner on a screenplay, based on a true story about Estonian cab drivers

smuggling nuclear materials. Encouraged by a recent meeting with a freelance producer, he and his partner are now looking for development funds. Ulrich is the go-to guy that young colleagues come to when they need advice on navigating tricky office dynamics. His natural, understated ability to connect with people across generations and backgrounds makes him a frequent sounding board for senior staff, too. While he’s glad to be of service, some of the stories he hears about sticky organizational conflicts

make him anxious. Recently a female colleague confided that she had been harassed by a board member, leaving him in a troubling position, given that their small organization has no professional HR staff with whom to discuss the situation, and he has no real mentor from whom to seek help. Partly because he feels poorly equipped to manage organizational dynamics, Ulrich wonders if he should quit his job in order to focus on writing. On the other hand, he knows he has more to contribute on policy matters about which he cares deeply, and quitting would feel like a failure. GREATER THAN | DECEMBER 2019


Fearless Frances An Alexandria, VA, native with a BA in philosophy and an MS in mechanical engineering, Frances began her career like many Stanford grads—she headed to Silicon Valley.


t X, Google’s so-called moonshot factory, she worked on stealth machine learning projects aimed at improving the lives of billions. Five years later, Frances co-founded a generously funded startup, where she ran a 30-person engineering team. There she stayed, despite a growing lack of fulfillment from her work, until the fateful summer of 2022—when the 8.2 Tri-Valley earthquake, centered near Livermore, CA, caused worrying radiation leaks at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The earthquake and its aftermath had a profound impact on Frances’s worldview. She resigned from her business and returned home to Virginia to consider her next steps. In what she’d later think of as kismet, a former professor who had co-led the Stanford Peace Innovation Lab was now teaching at Georgetown. Through him, Frances learned of an opening at a DC-based NGO, where her skills as an engineer, a leader of creative teams, and an entrepreneur could be put to use helping the nuclear nonproliferation field take calculated risks and learn from failure. It was exactly the right opportunity at the right time. Now a program director, Frances is admired by early-career nuclear professionals for her ability to remain authentically herself in all situations and—as a relatively young woman of color—to hold her own in a room full of white men. She’s a supportive colleague, is willing to say what others are afraid to say, and is dogged in pursuit of promising new ideas. Established leaders in the field admire her ability to analyze problems, offering multiple options along with her recommendation. Frances is considered brilliant by her colleagues—a fast study and bold risktaker dedicated to improving the field.



Mentor Matthew Matthew might be the bestknown leader in the field. He’s also one of the longest-lived, having worked on nuclear threats since the 1970s.


fter a stint in management consulting, Matthew built the successful think tank he’s now run for 30 years. He did leave for six years to serve in the administration of a much-admired progressive president, where his skills at high-level technical negotiation coupled with his down-toearth communication style also worked well with public audiences. But Matthew was disappointed that during his time in office he wasn’t able to make more progress on nuclear policy change.

Now back at the institution he founded, Matthew is nearing retirement but isn’t quite ready to make the break. He’s worried that he won’t know what to do with his extra time, and afraid that his organization is not ready for new leadership. For decades, Matthew has successfully navigated conservative and progressive administrations alike, working unusually well with both parties and making great inroads in Congress. Matthew broke a lot of new ground in his career; the fact that younger

colleagues see him as being part of the “establishment” is a little unsettling. However, he knows they appreciate his efforts to shine light on the “nuclear priesthood” and to poke fun at the egotists in the field. Matthew is probably the only person around who can get away with that unscathed. And he doesn’t need to blow his own horn. He gets much more satisfaction from having authentic connections with people, and treating people with dignity. He’s a class act.



Penny’s reputation is flawless. Colleagues see her as an exemplary, bipartisan public servant with a strong moral compass.

Persevering Penny


enny is highly regarded by government officials and NGOs alike as being a loyal nuclear security advocate who can reach across the political chasm irrespective of who is in the White House. In 2024 Penny marked a decade in her role as senior research associate. She’s spent the last seven years of that decade at a widely respected nonproliferation think tank. As an “heir apparent” to the leadership position at her organization, Penny prides herself on her ability to connect lessons from the past to challenges in the present.


Her relationships span generations and she is staunchly loyal, with longstanding professional relationships. However, Penny is most pleased by opportunities to champion the work of young people in the field. Penny has done groundbreaking work at the nexus of emerging technology and nuclear security, forging unconventional partnerships with private-sector tech companies and their funders. As a result, she has developed an extraordinary international network with innovators in the public and private sectors and in


civil society. Her partners value her skillfulness in navigating these different arenas to find mutual benefit. Penny always seems to know where the power is in a room, yet somehow she uses it not for her own gain but to advance the most important or strategic idea. She’s a natural mentor who enjoys helping colleagues navigate their careers. Penny is pretty much indefatigable, persevering in service of her organization’s mission even though she privately describes the field as being “embedded in iron.”

If Callum were not so engaging to be around, he might be overwhelming. He is unafraid to look at things in unconventional ways and to take risks.

Clever Callum


allum is fearless about breaking rules for the right cause and an excellent spokesperson about nuclear threats in the media. In nuclear nonproliferation circles, he is considered a high-flyer. While Callum was a dedicated nuclear disarmament activist at university in England, when he began his career as a journalist in 2012 he put nuclear interests on the back burner. Instead, he covered Middle East conflicts for an online open source investigative journalism site.

Callum later came to the United States by way of New York, where he joined a news team specializing in innovative storytelling techniques. He distinguished himself as having a quirky, intelligent, and unusually perceptive voice, able to communicate complex global issues both to “influencers” and the general public. When Callum’s life partner was offered a DC-based position running a small peace and security foundation in 2021, he tapped his network to find interesting professional options in Washington. In no time he found himself running the communications department for a large,

influential NGO working on nuclear, cyber, and climate security that had recently received an enormous bequest. Callum became known as a great boss who brought out the best in people. Colleagues described him as being a “visionary and a problem-solver,” unafraid to take a provocative position or to lead publicly on important issues—and he quickly advanced to a position as executive vice president. Callum now wonders how he can use his perch to advance innovative approaches that inspire audiences—much larger audiences—to take action on issues of existential concern.



Inspirational Ilena When the founding director of a nuclear disarmament 501(c)4 retired in 2022, the board spent several weeks talking with staff and with other organizations in the field to inform their thinking about the initiative’s future.



rmed with data about gaps in the field, opportunities for collaboration, and the vision of their highly regarded staff, the board set out to find a new leader— someone who could reinvigorate the organization’s esprit de corps and navigate personality politics to build bridges with other organizations. As the search began, Ilena, a second-term board member, unexpectedly asked the search team if she could throw her hat in the ring. While she wasn’t a career “nuclear person”—she’d spent the last 15 years running a national arts initiative, and before that worked in philanthropy—Ilena knew the staff well and felt energized by the challenge. Her colleagues on the


board knew that she was admired in her field, adept at navigating political challenges, and had a reputation for rising above personality politics to advance the organization’s mission. Ilena quickly became the leading candidate, and began her tenure as the second executive director in the organization’s history in 2024. In her first year, she proved herself. She got up to speed on complex issues with alacrity, and seems to bring out the best in her team. Ilena has addressed long-standing organizational tensions and has built trust, not only internally but with other executive directors and CEOs in Washington. Always civil and graceful under pressure, her easygoing style and sense of humor have disarmed critics and endeared her to colleagues.

Dwindling Brothers The De La Salle Christian Brothers are one of the largest teaching orders in the Catholic Church, operating hundreds of schools, universities, and other institutions in more than 80 countries. For years, though, their numbers had been declining. Older brothers were retiring, and there weren’t enough young recruits to replace them. In 2002, Christian Brother leaders in Australia, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea started asking themselves a strategic question: How could they ensure the continued vitality of their work into the future, given these dwindling numbers? In their region, they were down to just 79 active brothers operating 18 schools. They wanted all the brothers to become aware of the problem and involved in brainstorming solutions. Fountain monument to Jean-Baptiste de La Salle at Place Saint-Clément, Rouen, France. Built in 1875. (vintage engraving)

So they played a game—literally, a board game, with three teams of eight players each. The game board was a map showing every school and organization across the district where brothers worked. The game pieces were miniaturized cardboard versions of the 79 active brothers themselves, each with an estimated retirement date written near his feet. Each team studied their map and the retirement dates and formed a plan. When the bell rang, they had to remove all brothers who were retiring in 2003. After another few minutes of talking and planning, the bell rang again, and all 2004 retirees were removed. Teams shuffled brothers from place to place on the board, trying to cover empty

positions and think ahead. The bell rang again and again—and faster each time—until they’d reached the year 2010. The brothers had fun with the game. They also became acutely aware that great change was needed to keep their mission alive. Said one brother: “The game shocked everybody. It captured everyone’s imagination and freed up the situation. Once you get into the domain of play, there’s an opportunity to break through how people normally think about their challenges.” As a collective, they realized that they needed to stop spreading themselves thin and to prioritize; that the sooner they acted, the better the outcome would be; and that without a game

plan, getting hit by surprises was inevitable. The game launched the brothers into an important strategic planning process. Incredibly, since then, the scale and scope of their work has not shrunk but expanded. The brothers decided to embrace a shift to lay leadership, training a new set of people who, while not brothers themselves, could help carry on their legacy and mission. Summarized from a story shared in Moments of Impact: How to Design Strategic Conversations That Accelerate Change, by Chris Ertel and Lisa Kay Solomon (Simon & Schuster, 2014).



Scenarios: Stories of how dissatisfaction could begin to flip through bold action on the part of people in the field right now


n May 2020, a group of respected leaders and funders met for half a day and dinner to talk about what they now saw as an undeniable issue—the nuclear field needed a jumpstart. Frustrated by policy stalemates and a lack of progress in international nuclear affairs, they spent their time together puzzling over one key question: How might we incentivize and reward risk-taking as part of a larger field-building initiative? As the conversation grew deeper, one of the leaders, Ilena, pulled out her smartphone and called up a Nonproliferation Review article that she couldn’t stop thinking about. She read one paragraph aloud:

“By 2023, nearly 40 percent of NNSA’s employees will be eligible for retirement. Within the next decade, 80 percent of the State Department leadership could be drawing a pension. Meanwhile, the number of Americans who took the foreign-service exam in June 2017 was down 26 percent from the previous year and fell 22 percent from October 2017 to October 2018. If a new generation of experts cannot be recruited to replace those who are stepping down, the branches of government responsible for nonproliferation and disarmament will be unable to do their work.” They’d all read that article, it turned out. Callum had even invited the author to speak to his board. The field needed to attract new energy while at the same time reinvesting in the early- and mid-career colleagues already in it, they asserted. What if the answer to both questions—how to incentivize risk-taking and how to attract and retain good talent—were the same? By the end of the evening, the group had a plan. They also had a catchy name: “The Gang of

Nine.” A month later, they introduced their new project by publishing a graphic-novel style manifesto on Inkstick. It began with this:

The world around us is changing. In this field, we are not adapting quickly enough to take advantage of promising new ideas and tools, nor are we nimble enough to respond to threats as they evolve. Making meaningful progress in our lifetime will involve disruption in the way we do business. We need to interrogate how we think and how we operate if we are to remain relevant. We need resources that will support that kind of renewal. We know we need to take risks in how we work if we are going to achieve our goals. And that’s where you come in….


The announcement of the project, nicknamed “FRESH Start,” met with some blowback from established colleagues who saw things differently. The tweets were a little depressing:

A Fresh Start

“We can’t afford to encourage new ideas that draw funding away from our core mission or attention away from the issues.”

From Stasis + Risk Aversion to Reinvention + Reinvigoration

“We’ve made a lot of progress but because of political dynamics our legacy is uncertain. Now we’re going to be distracted by the next ‘bright shiny object’? Great.” “We know exactly what to do; we just need the public to wake up to the threat and we need more funding to get the job done.” “The nature of this work is risky enough. We need to stay the course.” Unperturbed, the Gang of Nine went ahead with their plans. First, Ilena—informal spokesperson for the FRESH Start project—announced the formation of a new kind of learning community designed to facilitate conversations about



“It’s been so much fun working in new ways with my colleagues. I never thought I’d say that about working on nuclear issues.” —MATTHEW

what does and doesn’t work in the field (and why); creating pathways for practitioners in the field to share and learn from best practices; and even hosting a “Failure Forum” where field members could share stories of things they’d tried (internal projects, public campaigns, etc.) that hadn’t worked. Being part of the learning community and the “Failure Forum” became a condition of FRESH Start funding, which was being made available to organizations interested in piloting innovative new approaches. FRESH Start generated quite a buzz. By 2025, the program had become both a recruitment tool —talented young professionals were attracted by the notion they would learn transferable skills from FRESH Start while building relationships, both with peers and with “elders”—and a conduit for field-wide renewal. Organizations vied to bring their challenges to FRESH Start, finding value in a process that accelerated understanding of why certain programs, policies, and procedures were less successful than they might be. Many elected to take the next step, asking FRESH Start alumni to design and test unconventional solutions to see if they might produce better results.



The Gang of Nine still periodically gets together to review the program’s outcomes and to reflect on the cultural changes that have resulted in the field. One member, who now holds a senior position in the State Department and will likely retire from there, recently piloted FRESH Start with his department. Another is currently running for Senate, and others act as program mentors. At their latest get-together— at the same restaurant where they had conceived their joint project—Matthew made an announcement. “I’m thinking about writing a book about FRESH Start,” he said. “If we can reinvigorate this field, then there’s every reason to think that what we’ve learned will be helpful elsewhere.” His enthusiasm was contagious as he pointed out the difference this group had already made together. “It’s been so much fun working in new ways with my colleagues,” he added, wine glass raised high. “I never thought I’d say that about working on nuclear issues; in fact, I was one of the people who encouraged some really good people to leave the field for better opportunities. I guess it’s been a ‘fresh start’ in more ways than one.”

BRIGHT SPOTS Existing strengths we can leverage in this scenario “A lot of people have dedicated themselves to a policy that we’re trying to change. We’re in this to change policy, and not to get money. We genuinely are trying to make a difference.” A-M “We haven’t seen the use of a nuclear weapon since Japan. Being able to talk about hard issues … is what matters.” E-F “The fascinating nature of the field has the capacity to draw in new minds. There are always young bright minds, mid-career bright minds that devote some of their lives to these topics.” M-F

“[There is] incredible research coming out of this field, emerging research that has the potential to shape future policy.” E-F “There are a lot of highly motivated missiondriven individuals in this field that truly do care about nuclear policy and preventing nuclear catastrophe. That passion is working.” M-F “A lot of passionate people in this field want to make this work…. There’s a real potential for engagement…. Compared to a lot of other sectors, we have very good relationships.” M-F

The Spinoff From Fragmentation + Competition to Coordination + Collaboration

P Callum is one of three mid-career leaders who formed the nucleus of Project Spinoff.

articipants in workshops during the 2019 N Square listening tour could scarcely have dreamed of the headline that greeted them in the October 4, 2025, edition of The New York Times. The article, titled ”Spinoff Leads to Astounding Rebirth of the Anti-Nuclear Movement,” told the story of a dogged group of change agents working within the Washington, DC, nuclear nonproliferation, disarmament, and arms control arena. Inspired by the idea that they had the power to bring new vigor and progress to the nuclear field, these change agents had formed a quirky, unconventional skunkworks

(codename: Project Spinoff) to do just that. By employing a potent combination of systems theory and design, this unlikely team prototyped and eventually scaled a new mechanism for coordination and collaboration in a field previously known for fragmentation and competition. “Little did they know back in 2019 that the concerns they raised, and the ideas they suggested, would lay the groundwork for profound change in the way our field operates,” said Ilena, a recently appointed mid-career president of a prominent NGO. “This is a community that had many successes over the years,

but we were at a low point. We had some major setbacks; the landscape for progress on nuclear threat reduction goals was honestly grim, and there was a culture of discontent.” During those 2019 workshops, consensus had formed around the need for a systems-level view of the DC-based nuclear threat reduction community and how it was functioning. Three mid-career leaders decided to take on this task, forming the nucleus of Project Spinoff. Callum was one of these leaders. He had been deeply influenced by the work of systems scientists at the MIT Sloan School of Management and Peter Senge’s

E-F: Early-Career Female; E-M: Early-Career Male; M-F: Mid-Career Female; M-M: Mid-Career Male; A-F: Advanced-Career Female; A-M: Advanced-Career Male



For more on this collective impact model, see John Kania and Mark Kramer, “Collective Impact,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter 2011.






seminal book on systems theory, The Fifth Discipline. So with a small planning grant, Callum and the other members of the task force invited Dr. Senge to Washington to explore opportunities for collaboration. This exploration became a series of roundtable discussions among a cross-section of the nuclear threat reduction field, Dr. Senge, and two of his colleagues. A turning point came when the group learned that characteristics of the nuclear field reflected what Senge’s research described as the “prevailing system of management” that governed many modern institutions— but that no longer served their aims. Characteristics of that system included:

BRIGHT SPOTS Existing strengths we can leverage in this scenario




Compliance-Based Cultures Getting ahead by pleasing the boss; management by fear Managing Outcomes Management sets targets; people are held accountable for meeting them regardless of whether they are possible “Right” Answers vs. “Wrong” Answers Technical problem-solving is emphasized; diverging problems are discounted Excessive Competitiveness and Distrust Competition between people is essential to achieve desired performance; without competition among people there is no innovation Loss of the Whole Fragmentation; local innovations do not spread

“People do want to work together.... [There is] a lot of talk about collaboration from funders and the community, but I don’t see a lot of supportive behaviors. I’ve heard that this community is a lot more coordinated than other policy issues.” A-F


The challenge was on: How might the nuclear field buck prevailing management culture to build greater esprit de corps and an ethos of collaboration? Building on insights gained from the first phase of exploration, the team dived into the literature about organizational development and systems design. They learned about the behavioral science behind change management, which they came to think of as planned, system-wide change to improve strategic outcomes while building capacity to adapt to ongoing shifts in the operating environment. A major “aha” came when the team investigated collective impact research, which gave them a thorough overview of the conditions in which collective impact efforts succeed— particularly in reference to issues of equity and diversity. Across the board, the data told the same story: Some of the fragmentation and competition in the nuclear community was being driven by structural barriers that could be addressed. Sure, funding was limited, but more money wasn’t necessarily the solution. The solution might just be rethinking the design of the field itself, and there were tools for that. Project Spinoff started to take on real momentum. Soon, a group of 80 people were involved

“I’ve never seen so much ferment. The connection between academics, NGOs, political folks— that’s extraordinary.” A-F “The coalition building aspect of this field is very strong. They’re always thinking of how to bring everyone together.” E-F

“Everyone in this small niche group, we are all fighting together. There’s this closeness and special feeling that we are in this small close-knit group working on important issues.” M-F

in an ambitious program to use principles of systems design and collective impact to improve coordination and collaboration while boosting workplace satisfaction. Ilena put it this way: “When I first heard about Project Spinoff I was skeptical. We were very focused on our organization’s outcomes— and even if we did collaborate I felt we just didn’t have the resources necessary to bring a critical mass of organizations into alignment on strategy and mission. The notion of consolidation was frankly undiscussable.” She continued: “Yet here we are. Just today we had a thoughtful, field-wide conversation about our collective vision and the outcomes we want. Maybe we’re not all exactly on the same page, but the conversation is different now. We are each more willing to make concessions for the common good.” The essential shift, she continued, was one of mental models. ”Whether we think about it or not, we are already working in a system. Before we didn’t have the tools to see the system (or our roles in it) clearly, so we couldn’t talk together about how we might work or organize differently to produce better outcomes. I think the culture has really changed— now there’s a sense that yes, all options should be explored to improve field-level outcomes.”

“[It’s a] very close community, which is good and bad. Everyone gets to know each other on a personal level. It feels like a big family. Everyone needs each other to promote the common goals that everyone shares.” E-M

“Little did they know back in 2019 that the concerns they raised, and the ideas they suggested, would lay the groundwork for profound change in the way our field operates.”

“Everyone in this field truly believes in what they’re doing. When the public isn’t motivated, someone needs to be motivated, and humans motivate each other.” E-M

“Compared to environmental groups, our field is actually functional. People show up to meetings. There is


some capacity to set aside ego, and we can work towards a shared idea. It’s not as bad here as it is in other policy areas. A recent bright spot, the young professionals and some mid-career folks are stepping into their own. They’re speaking up.” M-M

Heroic Qualities The heroes people identify, and the reasons they give for selecting those heroes, tell us what they value and point to their own aspirations. We asked interviewees: Who is your hero in this space, and why? What traits make them heroic? They offered a range of responses. But the quality they mentioned the most was fearlessness (15/129). There was also a cluster of qualities related to bridge-building (9), breaking new ground (9), championship (9), and collaboration (8), followed by mentions of modesty (7) and persistence (6). Overall there is a sense that heroes in this field are fearless, modest, and collaborative champions of both the cause and their colleagues.

Detox From Exclusivity + Toxicity to Inclusiveness + Respect


ooking back from 2025, it’s hard to believe that all the culture change we’ve seen in the nuclear field began with a fierce tweetstorm. Some of the field’s newer members were appalled by the kinds of behavior they were seeing from their “elders” on Twitter—the grandstanding, the shaming, the condescension. But then some of the field’s younger members let loose and returned fire, unleashing a series of tirades about what was wrong with the field—and it was clear why some said they were entitled and whiny. It seemed like a civil war was brewing. Maybe it was down to generational differences —the people who started their careers in the 1970s and 1980s had very different expectations about workplace culture and career advancement than those who’d joined the field in the early 2020s. In the end, though, all that tension served a purpose. In 2021, a group of the field’s younger members—who worked in several different organizations—hatched a bold plan. At Ulrich’s suggestion, they asked a few particularly



well-respected senior leaders to partner with them on a project to address what felt like a pretty toxic culture. “Weary of the tension themselves, the leaders agreed,” said Frances, one of the young leaders behind the plan. Not only did funders support the effort but Penny and Callum provided much-needed technical support in the form of organizational development consultants. The consultants introduced new tools and techniques for leading change, then did a train-the-trainer program that enabled everyone participating to act as coaches themselves. Meanwhile, senior leaders including both Matthew and Ilena (sponsors of the project) agreed to go through professional development to hone their leadership skills. The engagement of senior leaders had been critical from the outset. Without their buyin and support, the funding might not have emerged and the program would have been more challenging. What the group achieved was nothing less than a radical shift in mental models—as Ulrich

says, the shift from “we are in a battle” to “we are building a community.” Before, there had been a sense that while practitioners in the field said that their primary concern was achieving field goals, a combination of resource scarcity, egotism, and insularity often got in the way of successful collective action. Now it feels like there’s general consensus that unless this community and its members attend to the field’s health and well-being, our common goals will be nearly impossible to achieve. Recasting how people in the field think about status has not been easy, and there is still more work to do. Nuclear threat reduction depends on policy change, which means that those who most successfully influence policymakers—or, for that matter, those experts who are particularly good on television— have always had a certain status, regardless of how they behaved with colleagues. But now we’ve made progress toward elevating those who build and maintain coalitions, knowing how important they are to our collective success. That shift is

BRIGHT SPOTS Existing strengths we can leverage in this scenario

“[This field has] A lot of well-versed individuals, and people who care. A lot of people have devoted their lifetime to these issues. It’s their life’s work. We’re interested in answers and solutions.” A-M

helping to reinforce just how valuable it can be to attend to the field’s collective capacity. And there has been a huge shift in attitudes and language. You rarely hear the old rhetoric about how tough you have to be to make it in this field or in DC. That attitude, which drove a lot of the sheer meanness that played out on social media (and sometimes in the office), had effectively discouraged new or nontraditional voices from staying in the field. It also extended to how we thought about and talked to the public— there was a lot of “this isn’t an issue the general public understands or cares about, so we have to shock them out of their complacent slumber.” Now there’s widespread recognition that we can’t use intimidating language or behavior with our colleagues OR with the public. If our goal is to reduce or eliminate weapons of terror partly because we believe terrorizing people is wrong, then by extension we had to eliminate intimidation from our language with one another. We want to draw people in (not just to the issue, but to the

“The people who are working in this field are not doing it because they happen to be here. People don’t accidentally land here. They usually come here because

they care and they have a vision. There is something they see that they want to be involved in, something they want to change.” A-F “This is a really difficult time and I am impressed that there are as many

people as there are who are still trying to make a difference. I am impressed that there has been a lot of willingness to try some new things…. It’s easy to focus on the frustrating things.” A-F

profession), not scare them away, rewarding them for their contributions rather than advancing them just because they could stick it out in challenging circumstances. But of all the changes, the most gratifying relates to the composition of this field. By purposefully shifting what we look for in new recruits (for instance, not all our people need to have the academic pedigree we used to focus on in hiring) we have changed the way the field thinks. By seeking out people who have traditionally been beyond the margins of this community—some of whom have firsthand experience of the consequences of producing or maintaining nuclear weapons, some of whom have experience in race relations, climate change, human rights, and other analogous challenges—we have actually changed what this field is. As Frances explained to friends, “Yes, the field is less white and male than it used to be, but it’s more than that: It’s culturally and cognitively richer and broader, giving our work new life.”

“Yes, the field is less white and male than it used to be, but it’s more than that: It’s culturally and cognitively richer and broader, giving our work new life.” —FRANCES




Evolution From Career Uncertainty + Lack of Structural Support to Clear Career Pathways + Intentional Redesign

BRIGHT SPOTS Existing strengths we can leverage in this scenario


“It’s positive that the field is trying to reach out and train the next generation. That’s a good thing. A lot more programs in grad schools exist these days on this topic than say 20 years ago.” E-F

hile the shift had been anticipated for years, 2021 still came as a shock to the system—the year, it seemed, when everything changed at once. Just as the US welcomed a new administration, the leadership of “our field” suddenly looked very different, with turnover in senior leadership positions at over a dozen NGOs and think tanks working on nuclear threat reduction. Sure, some people retired and some left to take jobs in the administration, but others took a different route, voluntarily stepping away from their official positions to create space for new leadership. By 2025, the effects were fascinating. Emeritus leaders had been folded into a new learning community supported by philanthropy and facilitated by trained systems thinkers who introduced the use of “learning histories”—that is, reflections about what leaders have learned over the course of running (and, in many cases, building) their institutions. By engaging in structured dialogue with one another, the participants developed new insights into the field itself and into the nature of the problems it is meant to address. “Initially, I was worried about my legacy,” said Matthew, a highly respected, long-time figurehead in the field, “because my own identity was so deeply intertwined with the accomplishments of the organization I ran. But I also realize that a new generation of leadership will see and know things I could not.”

“There are some really good people in the field making strides to try and change it.” E-F “We need room in the field to communicate different skill sets. It can’t just be one thing. You need to combine deep research [with] the ability to communicate and contextualize your perspective.” A-M


The willingness of boards and hiring committees to separate subject matter expertise from leadership ability was also a game-changer. Some of the leaders who had stepped into positions vacated by now-emeritus leaders were not nuclear experts at all. Instead, they came from other fields but had established track records of leading highly effective and highly diverse teams. “We’re finding that age or subject matter expertise are not correlated to leadership ability,” said the board chair of a nuclear NGO board, who came to that role from her position as president of a global media company. “What makes a powerful leader is that he or she finds meaningful ways to channel the contributions of a staff with varying levels of expertise, modeling the cultural attributes we value as they do so.” Case in point was Manuel Pleist. A civil engineer at the Coast Guard who had come to nuclear nonproliferation issues only recently, Pleist had beaten out internal applicants with decades of experience in the field to assume the senior leadership position at a prominent nonproliferation organization. He had impressed the board with his thorough description of how he would implement effective strategies for professional development from the board level down to the most junior people in the community.

“I have a great group of horizontal peers. My best work comes from learning from them. We don’t agree on everything and we have some great discussions. That has pushed me to do better work.” E-F

“A good marker of success which we haven’t explored is collaboration, trading notes. That doesn’t happen because we’re competing. That’s very self serving.” M-F “I’ve had opportunities to build close positive relationships with peers, and a lot of those have turned into robust friendships.” E-F

“Our job should be to humanize the workplace, to unleash the potential of every contributor, and to make sure every member of this community is authentically valued,” Pleist told them. “I will not lead an organization that does not pay its interns while paying senior leaders disproportionately large salaries. I’d like to establish a reasonable salary ratio between the most senior and most junior members of our team, and I’d like there to be transparency about how specific skills and competencies are valued in salary negotiations.” The energy that Pleist brought with him to his role—and to the field—was infectious. Pleist wrote a piece in Inkstick about his new practice of taking the most seasoned experts in his organization out of the office to build relationships over a game of pool, or a beer, or a ballgame. During these outings, he told them they could ask him anything they liked about himself. He also let them know he realized that he would never have the knowledge or experience they had, but that wasn’t his job. His job, which he intended to do well, was to make sure that experts were freed up to do the most gratifying work of their lives in service of their shared mission. Pleist’s practice spread like wildfire.

“We need to at this point focus on the health of the community. Not everyone is going to be happy, but our young people shouldn’t be quite so angry. Getting to a slightly lower level of anger would be a big marker of success. If we could have them feeling more supported.” M-F

Soon, a group of senior leaders and their board chairs launched a conversation about human resource management across the field. They discussed everything from standardizing compensation and benefits packages for certain competencies/positions to abolishing unpaid internships. One colleague proposed that smaller nonprofits and NGOs could save money and improve workplace satisfaction by contracting with a third party to centralize HR and other back-office functions. This idea was met with enthusiasm, with two board chairs agreeing to collaborate on due diligence. Another sub-team formed around the question of career pathways in the field, agreeing to look at examples of career “lattices,” “webs,” and “pipelines” as articulated in other fields to see if useful analogies could be drawn for the DC nuclear arena. Mentorship also became a pillar of the field, thanks to the foundation laid by a career development task force launched back in 2020. Comprising a diverse group of professionals

“[We need to focus on] the health of the field itself as opposed to the effect of the field itself. When there is good communication between the various parties, there is a sense of camaraderie, joint purpose. [It is good] when people can

Co-leaders of the Career Development Task Force: Ulrich, Penny, and Matthew (from top)

co-led by Ulrich, Penny, and Matthew (to ensure that the interests of early-, mid-, and advanced-career colleagues were represented), the task force conducted research both inside and outside the field before developing a mentorship model that is now widely used by NGOs and government agencies alike. Mentorship takes place at all phases of the professional lifecycle. Sometimes mentors are professional peers from other organizations; sometimes they are retirees; and sometimes they are provided as part of a field-wide professional development program made possible by a major funder. Through these efforts, organizations in the field were discovering for the first time the enormous untapped potential in their organizations. Figuring out how to access it became the gold standard for creative problem solving on international nuclear issues. And by modeling a new kind of workplace and a new culture for the field, Pleist and other leaders ensured that younger professionals could see themselves in his shoes someday—and that they wanted to be in them.

ask stupid questions, challenge what was previously considered well-trodden or settled territory.” M-M “I think broader-based coalitions work better. I think those that have reached out to other sectors have clearly proven more successful than those that have not.”

“I would love the community to come together and say we are collectively going to work to try and track how many people we are actively engaging on this issue. I would love organizations to come together and say,

let’s start viewing this as though we’re in it together and come up with mechanisms for tracking how much support we’ve got and how we can get more.” M-F




Reactions to the Scenarios What You Liked About Them

C ulture

Regenerative approach; opportunity to lead change Better working community leads to less politics

Mentorship and Career Advancement

Communi ty

Innovative use of social media New culture of creativity Meritocracy of ideas Cross-sector engagement

There is a broader definition of what “success” looks like in this field It’s not necessary to seek public appearances to be acknowledged Consistent, institutionalized intergenerational mentorship across organizations makes transitions easier; provides trust and space for young people to move up and lead projects I could have the support I need in my new role despite not being a career “nuclear person”! A systematic approach to building capacity Opportunities for advancement, continued learning, development of transferable skills Train the trainer to ensure ongoing change

Community building in order to achieve our common goals “Energizing” approaches, shared vision Mental model of “community” and coalition building New support networks and relationships, particularly in Hollywood and media Collaborative approaches Appreciation and recognition for building and maintaining coalitions Less competition over resources Connecting with peers from other sectors with diverse backgrounds keeps fresh ideas coming in


Listening to young professionals Unconventional approaches DISSATISFACTION > VISION > FIRST STEPS > RESISTANCE

Be willing to separate leadership role from subject matter expertise to ensure leadership excellence Include diverse leaders and new approaches to leadership Make sure managers and leaders get training and support Standardized compensation and benefits

The room for innovation

Third-party HR management to ensure process for handling workplace issues and concerns

Shift in mindset

Ombudsman role

Start small and grow

Paid interns

Greater risk tolerance

Level playing field based on skills and competencies (not generalized” dues paying”)

Opportunity to break rules for the right cause Unconventional approaches Learning from failures (through “Failure Forum”) More diverse and mutually respectful field Love having new voices, new “experts” with different experience Mutual respect

Culturally and cognitively richer/more diverse field leading to a new vision


Space for ideas that haven’t been laundered and vetted by the DC nuclear policy establishment

Leadership and Management

Shared value of elders leaving a secure legacy while elevating the work of earlyand mid-career folks

Agency: I have an active stake in decision making I love the non-hierarchical team approach and shake up in culture

Vision / Shared Goals

Elders feel respected by a new generation, can pass torch knowing organizations are in good hands

Potential for greater impact through alignment of goals; easier to define a vision and collective aims and to identify shared interests and values

Inclusive intergenerational teams with mentorship opportunities

Communication skills lend themselves to coordination efforts

What You Wanted to Know More About Metrics

Will smaller organizations be able to or want to opt in to these changes? What about larger, more influential organizations? How will we have the time and energy required to make change? The deficits we’ve identified aren’t just solved with more money

Rationale / Proof

Does community-building actually help this field achieve its policy (and other) goals? What evidence do we have that is true? What examples/comparators are we looking at to support this perspective? How will these changes lead to international impact?

Redesigning for Change In their book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, Chip Health and Dan Heath share numerous examples of companies and systems that have faced dissatisfaction head-on and embraced the change process. Here are two top examples:

Missing F rom the S cenarios

We still need help learning how to promote or advocate for ourselves professionally We need a better pipeline strategy What are our metrics of success? What governmental or other problems will the change process address? Will these changes reduce our influence in Congress? How will we have international impact with the changes described here?

Capacity f or C hange

Will our organizations have increased scrutiny and/or responsibility for additional/new/different deliverables if we make the shifts described here?

Lovelace Hospital Lovelace Hospital in Albuquerque, New Mexico, was experiencing high turnover among its nurses. To address the issue, hospital administrators didn’t study why their nurses were leaving in droves. Instead, they started investigating why other nurses were staying. Nearly all the nurses they spoke with felt dispirited and overworked. But when asked about what they were good at, their demeanor changed. They said they found identity in their work, and saw their jobs as profoundly meaningful. So the hospital redesigned a bunch of its core practices around helping to foster this identity. They started recognizing nurses for outstanding work; emphasizing the values and sacrifices of nursing in a new onboarding program; and created mentorships so that newer nurses could boost their knowledge and skills. Within a year, nurse turnover had plummeted by 30 percent—and patient satisfaction took a big swing upward.

Brasilata Brasilata, a Brazilian company that manufactures steel cans, has been dubbed one of the most innovative companies in South America. Years ago, the company launched an innovation program modeled on ones run by Honda and Toyota. They began calling employees “inventors,” actively soliciting (and making it easy to submit) innovation ideas. New employees signed an innovation contract and rapidly embraced their new identity. One year they submitted 134,846 ideas, an average of 145.2 per inventor. Many ideas led to the development of new products and efficiencies. In 2001, when a severe energy crisis hit Brazil and electricity was being rationed, the company’s “inventors” submitted hundreds of powersaving ideas. Within weeks, Brasilata had reduced its energy consumption by 35 percent, falling below its quota. Helping employees self-identify as innovators changed their perception of work—and advanced the company far beyond what it could have achieved otherwise.




Moving from dissatisfaction to vision requires taking first steps. If this is the vision we want, then how might we pragmatically get there? Based on all the ideas we heard during the interviews and workshops, we created a catalog of feasible first steps for further discussion.



“Vanguards” are established leaders who have recognized the need for innovative approaches and partners


“Heirs” are up-and-coming nuclear professionals who value collaboration and intersectionality, are passionate about the issues, and are eager to make change


“Funders” are those with financial and other resources who want to help strengthen the field’s capacity to innovate and solve problems

We’ve broken out the first steps with a few key stakeholders in mind: vanguards, heirs, and funders. In recognition of the community’s desire for greater collaboration and coordination, we suggest some possible configurations for discussions about first steps:

How might we... Discussions About Reinvention and Reinvigoration Countering Stasis and Risk Aversion

Vanguards and Funders

Vanguards and Heirs

Heirs and Funders

• Invite risky or dissenting ideas and encourage testing; foster transparency and learning (#failforward, #postmortem)

• Rethink the culture of work: How, when, where, and with whom it can most effectively support creativity, risk-taking, and cooperation

• Develop a richer and more culturally and cognitively diverse field

• Encourage more publications on culture and new ideas • Regularly solicit, value, and implement ideas from earlycareer staff

• Encourage cross-sector engagement

• Make space for ideas that haven’t been laundered and vetted by the DC nuclear policy establishment • Create more opportunities for innovation

Vanguards, Heirs, Funders Together • Publish high-priority areas for innovation and new thinking; identify opportunities for early- to mid-career people to work on them • Support innovative projects or projects with less clear deliverables



How might we... Discussions About Coordination and Collaboration Countering Fragmentation and Competition

Vanguards and Funders

Vanguards and Heirs

Heirs and Funders

• Enable like-minded leaders to collaborate to build esprit de corps, address core challenges, and/or reshape the culture of the field

• Regularly scan the field to see who is new and how we can proactively establish mentorship relationships

• Regularly share/publish what each organization is doing/ getting funded to do, and where they need partners

• Create greater awareness of what each organization is working on and getting funded to do, to avoid uncoordinated duplication of effort

• Identify projects to be led by early-career colleagues • Provide regular feedback • Create a forum for earlycareer people to provide their perspective and ideas— and implement them

Vanguards, Heirs, Funders Together • Build the field’s capacity to think and operate as a cooperative system to improve outcomes • Create or enable an existing organization to act as a “backbone organization” to support collective impact, facilitating shared vision and goals and coordinating efforts across the DC-based nuclear threat community



• Establish shared principles and practices for collective learning and improvement • Consider consolidation for a more sustainable and effective community • Build a culture of collaboration by creating (and training) cross-organization, crossfunction teams to work together on projects

• Understand how rising leaders (“heirs”) think about the external operating environment—the social, technological, political, environmental, and economic forces that will inform nuclear threats in coming decades • Report regularly and publicly on progress toward shared goals

How might we... Discussions About Inclusiveness and Respect Countering Exclusivity and Toxicity

Vanguards and Funders

Vanguards and Heirs

Heirs and Funders

• Enable like-minded leaders to collaborate to build esprit de corps, address core challenges, and/or reshape the culture of the field

• Improve intergenerational relationships and build community, examining the way we interact both in person and in digital media

• Better understand the value of, and develop shared principles about, intersectionality

• Learn from the experience of —and secure the legacies of—longtime leaders while elevating the work of earlyand mid-career colleagues • Think intersectionally in hiring and advancement, valuing new and different types of professional and cultural competencies

Vanguards, Heirs, Funders Together • Better understand how issues related to generational bias, gender, and power play out in the field • Cultivate field-wide diversity in all its forms • Understand different mental models about community and coalition-building



How might we... Discussions About Clear Career Pathways and Intentional Redesign

Vanguards and Funders

Vanguards and Heirs

Heirs and Funders

• Pilot centralized HR and other back-office functions for smaller NGOs to professionalize and standardize how the field supports and develops its people and handles abuses

• Explore how best to acknowledge and reward those who excel at building and maintaining coalitions

• Create RFPs geared to early- and midcareer professionals doing innovative projects

Countering Career Uncertainty and Lack of Structural Support

• Establish peer-to-peer mentorship • Conduct a review of professional development opportunities and needs at their organizations

Vanguards, Heirs, Funders Together


• Cooperatively design viable career “webs” or “pathways” —including externships, secondments, and other mechanisms to broaden people’s networks, knowledge, and skill sets

• Develop comprehensive and standardized professional development programs

• Create transparent pathways for young people to lead projects and move up

• Encourage leaders (both formal and informal) to act as stewards for the health of the whole system

• Cultivate and invest in rising leaders

• Provide consistent, institutionalized, data-based mentorship at all career stages

• Ensure that organizations have excellent leadership, recognizing that subject matter expertise does not equate to skillful leadership


Additional Thoughts by Segment


1. Reorganize budget priorities in order to compensate people appropriately (e.g., interns) 2. Hold conversations for governing boards, senior leadership teams, and the full staff • How might we use these findings to accelerate achievement of our organization’s goals? The field’s broader goals? • How might these findings influence the evolution of our organization’s culture in regard to risk-taking, tolerance for failure, and/or cooperation? 3. Establish a systematic approach to capacitybuilding • How might we think differently about the roles of leaders in light of this report? • What skills, competencies, and dispositions are most valuable for rising leaders in this field to develop? 4. Professionalize human resource management • What data do we collect about employee satisfaction, and how does it inform our decisions? • What data do we use to understand why employees leave? • How might we benefit from sharing centralized HR and other back-office

functions with other organizations in the field? • How might we learn more about the types of mentorship our colleagues need and value? • What would need to change in order for our organization to provide appropriate compensation and benefits for all staff, including interns? • Might the field benefit from creating a transparent, competency- based pay scale? • How might we create standardized compensation and benefits? • How might we collectively develop opportunities for early- to-mid-career professionals to advance in the field and to continue learning while developing transferable skills?


• How do we define success in this field now? In what ways might we redefine it? 3. Build networks • What do rising leaders need/want from networks? • How might broader networks advance our goals? • What types of experience and/or expertise are we looking for in new networks?

• Based on the findings in this report and our own experiences, how might heirs ensure a role in conversations about next steps? • How might heirs best exercise leadership in such discussions?


• Could funders collectively communicate priorities for innovation—and related funding decisions—to encourage transparency and cohesion?

• Would this field make greater progress toward its goals if existing and emerging leaders were better equipped to see and think about the whole system in which they work: the individual organizations/initiatives, the ways they interact (or don’t), and the outcomes the system collectively produces (or doesn’t)?

• How might funders use their influence to encourage standardized, professional human resource management to support professional development and ensure excellent care for employees?

2. Leadership • Might standardized leadership training for vanguards and heirs improve the field by building shared practices, culture, and values?

• With culture change in mind, what kinds of behaviors and dispositions should we acknowledge, elevate, or reward? Why?

5. Commitment to cooperation

6. Human resources

• How might early- to mid career professionals use their particular cultural sensibilities to design new organizational practices?

2. Redefine success

• Mentorship: How might funders support mentorship at all levels of the system?

1. Systems thinking

1. Shape culture

• In what concrete ways might new culture or practices lead to better field-level outcomes?

• What would early- and mid-career colleagues need to know about the funding process to increase the likelihood that they’ll step forward with great ideas?

• Could funders fund innovative projects that require collaboration, gearing some RFPs specifically to early- and mid-career colleagues (accompanied by training on how to apply for awards)?

4. Lead change

4. Grantseeking

3. Communication, collaboration, innovation • In what ways might the field be more effective if standardized training in communication, collaboration, and innovation were available to all grantees?

• Might five foundations’ recent commitment to increase funding for overhead imply a role for funders to ensure their dollars are used for ethical human resource management (e.g., transparent, competency- based paygrades; paid internships; prompt and appropriate attention to harassment and other abuses)? • What is the funding community’s role in cultivating rising leaders and creating the conditions for their success? And how might we better communicate that role to existing leaders?



The Generational Brain What does brain science tell us about what a more mature brain is good at and where a relatively young brain thrives—and what does this imply about the value of intergenerational teams? We talked to neuroscientist Brie Linkenhoker to find out.

We know that young brains and older brains are different in lots of ways. What’s a good example of how different they are and why? I’d go right to dopamine—a neurotransmitter that’s important in the processing of risk and the anticipation of reward. Older people in general have declining dopamine levels. Behaviorally, they tend to be more interested in smaller potential gains with lower risk and are less likely to choose risky gambles for higher rewards. And this plays out in all aspects of their lives—you see it in everything from financial planning to their choices about driving through yellow lights. By contrast, younger people have higher dopamine levels and are well known for being very motivated by high-risk, high-reward gambles. Of course, you can have three people who are all age 33 who have radically different risk profiles. Certainly there are going to be distributional differences across the generations. But the distributions do pull apart when you compare younger brains to older brains.

Is one risk profile better than the other? There’s nothing good or bad about either. And you can imagine that if you could find a way to harness both, you would have a better situation. You don’t want to just have a group of elders sitting around talking about the

If you can acknowledge that these differences exist, recognize that they both have value, and then try not to dismiss them in conversation as being silly, backward, useless, etcetera, you can get somewhere. The key, I think, is to de-emotionalize these risk postures in order to have less inflamed conversation.

If you can acknowledge that these differences exist, recognize that they both have value, and then try not to dismiss them in conversation as being silly, backward, useless, etcetera, you can get somewhere. sure thing, nor do you want the young people throwing all of their effort into something that has a very low probability of payoff, though if it did work it would be a high reward. Both of these fundamental orientations toward risk and reward are valuable. The challenge is how to recognize these differences without assigning negative emotional value to either side. Just using the language of risk and reward can be a helpful way to have those conversations.

There seems to be a need for that in the nuclear field. We humans are great post hoc rationalizers of our own and others’ behavior. So elders might say “That’s crazy” or “There’s no way that would work” or “They don’t understand.” And the younger folks might say “We’ve got to try something different” or “Go big

or go home” or “OK, Boomer.” But it’s really important to recognize that we are essentially telling stories when we do this. It may be just the physiology of our brains, frankly, that can give us the orientations we have.

The elders know the long history of where the group’s been successful in the past. In a crisis, they might remember how the group survived a drought or famine in the past, and help the group draw on those lessons. That’s really valuable.

Stereotyping across generations is every bit as much of a problem as it is for gender or race. Do we know anything about how different generations complement each other, or even create stronger teams? There are a few useful lessons from organizational psychology, where researchers have studied the way generations interact within the workforce. One is just to call out generational stereotypes for what they are. They’re biases, they’re unsubstantiated, they’re unverified, and they’re largely not true. But especially in situations of conflict or scarcity, stereotypes of all kinds quickly become derisory or defensive. So I think it’s important to remind people that stereotyping across generations is every bit as much of a problem as it is for gender or race. Going back to risk and reward, it’s useful to point out these differences and that they do change with age, but they’re not everything. The key thing is to help people start articulating their risk/ reward orientation. That can help even with two people who are the same age and living with each other. As in, “Hey, there’s this axis along which we differ, and we’d have less conflict that turned interpersonal and emotional if we were just able to articulate some of these differences, respect them, and live with them.” Doing that offers a new way of seeing one another. Do other species cooperate intergenerationally? And if so what’s a good example? Social mammals like elephants, whales, and bonobos live in multigenerational social groups and are better off for it. Take foraging behavior, for example.

But the younger members have something to contribute, too. They will be more willing to go out and try something no one’s ever tried before. They’ll invest energy in exploring a totally new area that the elders might not be willing to look at. So the optimal foraging model in times of uncertainty has this balance between going with the sure thing that gives you a low payoff, revisiting old strategies resurrected from history, and occasionally exploring totally new directions with promises of a higher payoff, even if the probability of finding that reward is low. An intergenerational group can find that balance. What other things about the brain might be helpful to be for this field to be thinking about? I’d think it would also be critical to understand one another’s mindsets about nuclear threats. People who are from my parents’ generation

and what we predict about the future. They’re so deeply ingrained in our experience of reality that it’s hard for us to give voice to them and describe them to someone else; it’s even hard to be aware of our own mindsets. But the world has changed dramatically over the last 30 to 40 years. This isn’t to say that anybody has an outdated mindset. It’s just that our mindsets were formed in different periods of time, and through different experiences, so that now we may have radically different narratives about the world. We’re not even attending to the same stimuli or even remembering the same events. And we certainly don’t have the same kind of predictive equations about how X might lead to Y or to Z. How might nuclear experts get better at articulating their own mindset and understanding the mindsets of others? One way is by sharing their own stories. Stories about how they came to be interested in this threat, what is rewarding about participating in this field, about what success looks like. If I were going to tell my own story about what I think or know about nuclear weapons, it would be built around the experience of watching several movies in the early ‘80s. Those movies—Testament, Threads,

Our mindsets literally change what we see, what we experience, what we remember, and what we predict about the future. They’re deeply ingrained in our experience of reality. through my generation grew up with the real specter of statefostered total nuclear annihilation. I understood the concept of mutual assured destruction as an eightor nine-year-old. Those early experiences obviously shape our mindsets, which in turn influence what we pay attention to in the world. Our mindsets literally change what we see, what we experience, what we remember,

Wargames—shaped my entire outlook on these weapons and their potential implications for the world. You can’t understand someone’s outlook on the world without understanding the experiences that shaped it. That’s true for young people and it’s true for elders too.

RESISTANCE —AND A CALL TO ACTION As we stated at the beginning, this listening tour was driven by the same provocative question that guides all of N Square’s work: How might this field become one of the brightest sources of creativity and innovation on the planet? Everything you’ve read here, all of the conversations and analysis, all of the creative visioning work, were efforts to enlist the field itself in surfacing answers to this question.



If we were to reduce everything we heard down to two things, it would be these. First, that some fundamental issues are preventing the field from turning up its capacity for innovation and even trusting that doing so could open exciting pathways forward. Second, that this mission-driven field has real hunger to do more together to tackle nuclear threat, and significant imagination about what that could look like. We heard these two things, side by side, again and again, throughout this process. Frustration and aspiration. A sense of feeling held back but the energy to move forward in bold new ways. We wanted this work to reflect your voices, not ours. But in looking both deeply and broadly across all the information gleaned from the interviews and workshops, higher-level themes or patterns did jump out. We wanted to share a few of these insights from our own systems analysis, and what we think it means for setting a new vision for the field’s future.

1 2 3 4

This is just the right moment for systemic redesign. If we had greater agreement about desired outcomes, we could be more purposeful in our critical analysis of how the various parts of the DC-based nuclear threat reduction system interact. We could more readily identify inefficiencies, eliminate unnecessary duplication of effort, and amplify opportunities for collaboration. While current circumstances make progress toward policy goals difficult, this is a perfect time to address internal challenges, readying the field to cooperate more productively when conditions change. The globalness of the threat is not reflected in the strategy for addressing it. There is an irony in the fact that such a global, existential question is being handled by a relatively insular, self-referential field. The more the field mirrors the diversity of the world around it, embracing multiple forms of knowledge and insight, the greater the likelihood for collective impact. A sense of humanity seems to be missing— both in our interactions and in the language we use to communicate nuclear threats. There’s a discomfort in the field with making human beings as important as technical expertise at multiple levels of the system. It shows up in the way we talk about the issues, and it shows up when we struggle to pay our interns, provide reasonable benefits, or confront abuses. We seem to think that we should be able to rise above human considerations in order to address the extraordinary threats at the heart of our work. What we know from the practice of universal design is that an environment, system, or service is successful once it meets the diverse needs and abilities of everyone who participates in it. The listening tour has highlighted significant differences in the lived experience and cultural expectations of professionals of all ages and experience levels. Optimizing the field will require attention to and understanding of their diverse needs; one group’s needs cannot trump another’s.



As several people pointed out over the course of this work, many of the challenges facing the nuclear field—generational tension, stasis, cultural and organizational issues, the desire for greater diversity, the urgency to tackle evolving problems in new ways—are not unique to this field. But that doesn’t mean we have to accept things the way they are. At N Square, our perspective is that this is a field built by visionaries and populated by heroes. The accomplishments of people working on nuclear threat reduction—some of whom have done so for decades—are extraordinary.

If any field can buck the trend to become a positive deviant— a pathbreaker—in regard to cultural challenges we think it’s this one. We really do think this can be the place where people come to do the best, most innovative, and most fulfilling work of their lives. But it will require dedication and commitment to tackle the issues that currently stand in the way of greater creativity, alignment, and impact.

Negativity Bias Negativity bias is a term for the brain’s tendency to put greater weight on negative experiences and associations than positive ones. Negativity bias is great for helping us suss out threat and avoid danger. But it also means we are, as a species, extremely sensitive to negative stimuli of all sorts—so sensitive, in fact, that we need up to five times as many positive experiences (or comments) to offset each negative one. When we’re faced with complex tasks or problems requiring groups to work creatively together, this bias extends into something called the “creativity-negativity bias.” Even though we think we want breakthrough solutions, and we say we value creativity, we tend to defer to the most critical voice. Why? Because of an unconscious sense that criticism equals competence. The person finding fault with the nascent idea seems smarter than the enthusiast encouraging us to explore “crazy” options. In other words, we equate fault-finding with superior intelligence, and we let it shut down exploration. Yet research shows that pervasive criticism and negativity get in the way of productive group problem-solving.



Greeting Resistance The final variable in the change equation is resistance—all the ideas, feelings, fears, and attitudes that prevent change. This work has already surfaced some of that resistance, even around the very notion that change is necessary at all. That resistance sounded like this: It won’t work.

I lack the energy to do what I have to do everyday and be a change agent.

I worry that my legacy will be devalued. I’m not ready for the responsibility that comes with getting what I thought I wanted. We will be distracted from critical geopolitical concerns while we navel-gaze. It will be important to anticipate the ways that resistance will manifest itself for different stakeholders; after all, we are all “triggered” by different things. From what we can tell, where there is field-specific resistance to change it stems from beliefs about funding, control, and focus. Funding-related resistance is evident in the worries shared by some colleagues that any funds used for “field building” would increase tension in an already resource-constrained, fraught environment. On the contrary, some shared that while they felt this work was essential they believe that funders could not or would not use their influence to advance field-level improvement efforts.

It’s just overwhelming and we don’t feel confident in our ability to take it on effectively. I fear the unknown, and I fear that my organization will be subsumed, replaced, fossilized. Control-related resistance was expressed in comments that described existing leaders losing influence, or younger professionals—or those with less subject matter expertise—being given opportunities they hadn’t “earned.” Focus-based resistance showed up in fears that time and energy spent on field dynamics come at the cost of more important work, or in questions about whether there is sufficient evidence to prove that changing how we work will improve our outcomes. And, as is nearly always the case, there is generalized resistance in the form of complacency: “The status quo is good enough for me, so it should be good enough for others too” or “Changing the field’s cultures and practices might be important but it’s not urgent.”



Will D x V x F > R? In the November workshop, in an admittedly brief exercise to surface priorities for addressing resistance to change (in the event that the community agrees that change is indeed beneficial), these were the top recommendations in descending order of popularity: 1. Get funders on board to use their influence,

tying funding to change goals.

2. Attain critical mass in pushing for these changes. 3. Be very transparent about the challenge(s)

we are working to address.

4. Make this work an institutional priority. 5. Define metrics of success of goals, ensure

continuity across age cohorts, and continue to share goals with the community at large.

6. Look for talent in other communities

At the end of the day, however, it will be up to this community to do the math. Will your determination to address critical dissatisfactions and the power of an emerging vision be enough to overcome resistance to change?

and disciplines.

7. Build trust. 8. Practice true servant leadership. 9. Create leadership unity. 10. Understand, then let go of, generational biases

Throughout our research, we spoke with many people who are eager for change. We also learned that there were nuances to people’s perceptions of the issues and variability about the degree to which they felt it important to take them on. We focused on the “bright spots”— those existing strengths that provide critical building blocks and tell us something about what invigorates and emboldens this small but mighty field—and wove those into stories about the future that allow the field to consider its options and to explore the best expression of values as a community.

around one another and around successful organizational models.

We hope the findings from this effort are useful now and in the future as this field prepares itself for the increasingly complex road ahead. N Square remains focused on creating the best climate for people in this field to do innovative work and productive problem-solving with a bias toward cooperation. We can think of many paths forward from here, and will be happy to support the journey ahead. We expect to add more voices to this research by interviewing funders and members of the field in other geographies, and we plan to hold community conversations about our findings both in person at N Square’s DC Hub and in webinars.

But the next step is yours. Will D x V x F > R?



Will your determination to address critical dissatisfactions and the power of an emerging vision be enough to overcome resistance to change? Will D x V x F > R?



The DC Hub Is Here for You Stay tuned for our slate of programs and news about our partnership with PopTech!



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