Category Archives: strategic planning

Shhh… We may be talking about social change

In my work as a consultant, I often encounter non-profits that seem surprised when I start talking about social change. Social change suggests revolution, taking a blunt knife to a societal problem when all we really need is a scalpel.

Yet more non-profits than we think are working for a permanent solution to some problem rather than a short term fix.  Finding the will to end cancer, making the arts an integrated element in our lives, alleviating poverty, creating sustainable ways to educate our children about the world, and protecting the environment all involve making a permanent change in how our society currently operates.  They all involve some level of social change, or changing the balance of power and money to allow a different way of doing business.

One way to think about the relevance of social change to any non-profit organization is whether that organization’s mission is about changing behavior or about providing something simply nice to have.  On one extreme, you have an organization like Out2Play mentioned in the New York Times story about nonprofits going out of business upon meeting their mission.  Out2Play set out to create 40 playgrounds near housing projects, “nice to have” spaces for children, and then closed shop when they reached that goal.  They weren’t out to change the circumstances that cause children to live in housing projects in the first place.

On the other extreme are poverty alleviation projects that bore down into root causes of hopelessness and address the capacity building that needs to take place so that local people can address their own most pressing problems.  They look at the interwoven complexity of economics, power, and culture and try pull at the threads of education, social support, and fair wage work in order to shift the context in which poor people live.

Between playgrounds and poverty, however, lie a whole lot of other non-profits that are doing important work.  Arts organizations, public affairs institutions, disease awareness and research funds, etc. address aspects of our society that are important for our collective well-being.  Looking at them through a lens of social change challenges us to think deeply about their purpose and whether or not they are about changing long term behavior or simply about adding something nice to have if resources allow.  While few of these non-profits talk in terms of social change, their ability to think in terms of social change may make the difference between surviving and thriving.

Three reasons why more non-profits should think in terms of social change:

1. If you know where you are going, you are more likely to get there.  Buried deep within strategic plans and staff agendas is some notion that begins: “What we really want to happen is….”  A local symphony isn’t just about performing symphonic music for people who buy tickets.  It really wants to expand the role that music plays in the lives of diverse audiences, including those who never otherwise would have been exposed to a symphony.  A public affairs organization isn’t about lectures and meetings.  It really wants to make knowledge about the world a critical aspect of every citizen’s decision-making, thereby building the foundation for a more respectful and peaceful world.  By closing our eyes and thinking big, and we achieve a level of focus that makes more happen.

2. Focusing on society as a whole forces you to expand your community.  Many of these middle ground nonprofits have a certain following that cares about its programs.  Arts organizations have subscribers or patrons; public affairs organizations have people who come to them because they care about world affairs or public policy; disease funds attract individuals with family members affected by that disease.  Once you focus on society as a whole, however, you have unique opportunities to get creative in drawing in sectors of society who never would have bought tickets or seen themselves in your cause.

3. Expanding your view gives you a better case for raising money.  Times are tough, and each and every organization is up against each other for charitable dollars.  As more and more donors direct their dollars to human service organizations both locally and internationally, non-profits outside of human services need to tell their stories in ways that demonstrate how their work builds a foundation for a better world in the long term.  “Nice to have” activities rely on continual charity to keep them running.  “Must haves” must be funded in ways that are sustainable over the long run.

Non-profit leaders are used to living in two worlds, one defined by the reality of raising money from generous donors who have benefited from society as it is, and the other constructed within our imagination, exploring the kind of society or world required in order for our non-profit to declare mission accomplished and need not exist.  Thinking in terms of social change—or deciding not to—allows for critical conversations at all levels of an organization.

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Being Wrong

“To err is to wander, and wandering is the way we discover the world; and lost in thought, it is also the way we discover ourselves.  Being right might be gratifying, but in the end it is static, a mere statement.  Being wrong is hard and humbling, and sometimes even dangerous, but in the end it is a journey, and a story.” Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz (p.42)

I may be wrong, but there seems to be a growing trend around explorations of being wrong and ways to be right more of the time.  “Wrongology,” a term introduced by Kathryn Schulz terms in her excellent book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, is the study of being wrong in order to increase our chances of being right.  As Schulz describes in detail, the complexity of society combined with our own filters guiding what we believe has one result: the reality that we are going to be wrong more than we will be right.  How we handle being wrong speaks volumes about our values, our organizational cultures, and our ability to learn from our mistakes.  By embracing our errors and developing a belief in the inevitability of our wrongness, we stand a better chance of improving our service to the people our organizations are intended to serve.

Being Wrong speaks to so many issues that non-profit leaders deal with on a daily basis.  My thoughts center around three main questions that address the potential for individual, institutional, and cross-cultural wrongness.  Every problem begs a solution, so I end with idea to help swing the balance towards being right more of the time.

First my questions:

1. Which approaches to poverty alleviation today will be proven wrong tomorrow?

So many of yesterday’s theories have been proven wrong.  From the “education” of native children in Christian schools to free market enterprises that have undermined local educational systems to large infrastructure projects like roads and dams, the development field has tried a range of actions in the quest to address poverty.  All evidence shows that a good portion of what we are doing now is going to be proven wrong sometime in the future.  What can we do today to mitigate today’s errors, thereby speeding up right approaches to our world’s most pressing problems?

  • Given the power of social conformity and need for certainty, how do we shift our culture to give space to those with different beliefs, to consideration of new evidence, and to the development of solutions that acknowledge complexity over simple answers?
  • There is a moral aspect to being wrong; people judge you and your character.  How do we distinguish the ways that erring leaders handle their mistakes as evidence of their values from the simple fact of their wrongness?

2. How do we create public accountability that allows for error?

To get anything done, a community leader has to bring so many people along with him or her—staff, board members, donors, constituents—engaging in a marketing effort that makes it hard to admit later on that the idea, program, or cause was somehow flawed.  Once a non-profit leader takes over a cause, that leader needs to convince a range of stakeholders that their solution is the best, most effective, most efficient solution among many.   All efforts go into the full court press towards organization survival with little room for honest assessment.

  • How can boards of directors instill within an organization a culture that allows for error and learning from those errors?
  • How can grantmakers provide an honest forum for the sharing of error or uncertainty that doesn’t threaten future funding?
  • How can executive directors integrate an acceptance of mistakes into their organizational culture and provide learning opportunities for staff members?

3. How do we allow for error across cultures?

In working across cultures, there may come times when two leaders working in a relationship of equality are in a state of disagreement in which both are right within their cultures.  Cultural relativity can make a mess out of a traditional management structures, and yet simply proclaiming rightness on both sides creates a stalemate of leadership.

  • How do we use our shared values to guide discussion about possible future disagreement so to avoid cultural misinterpretation later on?
  • How do we better understand the social landscape of risk in either partner admitting wrongness?
  • How do we acknowledge the role of power in who is determined wrong?

And a possible solution:

Schulz’s book reminded me of Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right.  If we as community leaders get things wrong so often, how do we improve our chances of getting things right?  I believe Gawande is on to something, that we can create a few key checklists that keep us on track in how we engage our partners and honor our mission and values for the long term.  Using a term borrowed from the Shuttleworth Foundation, we can create a system of “radical transparency” that allows for optimal sharing of ideas and learning.

I took a first stab at a Collaborative Social Change Checklist, which includes what I loosely termed an “Organizational Pre-Nup Agreement” that bi-cultural organizations might consider either upon starting their relationship or as soon as such an agreement occurs to them.  My checklist looks nothing like Gawande’s checklists for ensuring that a surgeon doesn’t chop off the wrong arm, but it may be helpful in thinking about ways that we can embed discussions about our errors into our daily social change activities.

As Schulz described, admitting our errors allows us to be a part of a dynamic journey of discovery rather than a static, didactic monologue about our rightness.  We build organizations that are learning communities as much as they are service providers.  That seems like the right way to work for a better world.

What do you think?