Getting to Maybe

Non-profits, charitable organizations, third-sector, helping professions, social enterprises, grassroots. Whatever you call it, the people who are drawn to working in this arena share the common intention of making a positive impact in our world. Another commonality shared by these socially-minded folk is the vast scope of the problems they set out to tackle, be it poverty, environmental degradation, social exclusion, or any other complex issue that defies a simple solution. It’s a bit of a paradox – we want to change the world, but we know that the efforts of an individual or even a group of people has a snowball’s chance in a hot place at making a difference. Perhaps it’s not a surprise that many in these helping professions face frustration, cynicism, and burnout. But – there’s always a but – history is full of examples where a small group of individuals does make a difference.

A few years ago, I serendipitously found myself at the launch of Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed. As the subtitle suggests, the book focuses on the process of change around issues of social complexity, where the “best” methods, context, and even the definition of success are amorphous and can change drastically over time. Through interviews with a number of social innovators and analysis of others’ autobiographies, the authors (Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman, and Michael Quinn Patton) identified how these individuals grapple with complex issues to bring about change. The purpose of the book is not to place the innovators on a pedestal or provide a definitive how-to guide for social change, as these topics of consideration defy such simplistic approaches by their nature. Rather, Getting to Maybe shows how people working for social change wrestle with uncertainties and tensions in their work, not to obtain a definitive end state of success, but to “reach the summit of realized possibility” – even though that accomplishment often points to “a new mountain of maybe [that] inevitably becomes visible in the distance”.

In starting Strong Roots with the purpose of helping organization build their capacity to make a difference in the world, I find myself returning to the insights from this book. In their introductory chapter, the authors list some orientating points for those starting a journey of social change, including the importance of asking questions, engaging with tensions and ambiguities, understanding relationships, and adopting a mindset of inquiry that “embraces paradoxes and tolerates multiple perspectives”. The authors admit that reflection and questioning may seem like odd activities for action-oriented change agents, yet their studies found that doing and thinking are inextricably linked for these innovators. Strong Roots’ four areas of focus likewise address both sides of the coin, with community-based research and strategic planning more on the reflection/information-gathering side and grant preparation and volunteer management lending themselves more towards action.

Over the next month or so, I’ll be re-reading Getting to Maybe and sharing any ideas that arise here on this blog, on a chapter-by-chapter basis. If you have a copy, feel free to follow along and share your own comments!


One of my sources for inspiration in launching Strong Roots is Natalie Brown, a friend and former classmate from the Community Psychology Masters’ program at WLU. Since graduating, Natalie has made use of her skills and experience in community-based research together with her energy and enthusiasm to benefit the Kitchener-Waterloo community through her consulting business, Common Thread. I had the chance to reconnect with Natalie yesterday through an hour-long phone conversation, which was a great help for someone just starting along a similar path. Learning more about the business details and potential pitfalls was really useful, but more important for me was the affirmation and encouragement that someone else was successfully doing similar work. We also realized the need for an ongoing and broader conversation about non-profit consulting work in Canada, both for sharing ideas and resources and providing mutual support: if you’re in the field and are interested in participating in these types of conversations, don’t hesitate to drop me a line.

Back to yesterday’s chat, part of our conversation focused on how to refer to ourselves. Technically, we’re consultants in that we provide certain services within a pre-defined timeframe in exchange for renumeration (though don’t let financial concerns stop you from contacting me if there’s any way I can help!) – plus, it says so on our respective websites. However, “consultants” doesn’t sit well with either of us. For me, I think the term implies a distancing between myself and the organization I’m working with, as in “I’m the consultant, you’re the client, I’ll do the work, you’ll pay me, end of story”. Rather, I hope that any new connection is the start of a relationship that focuses on how can we work together to benefit each other, yes, but more importantly, benefit our community and our world.

So, if not “consultant”, what should I call myself?
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When I started my undergraduate degree, I had only a vague idea of what I wanted to do with my life. I was studying psychology and my default career path at that time was to stay in school for 8-10 years to become a research professor or a clinical psychologist. However, I didn’t take that path; over those four years I decided instead to pursue a career working with the people and organizations dedicated to making the world a better place (full disclosure: I still ended up going to grad school for a Masters degree, but in a field more focused on community development and social change).

The experiences in university that helped shape my current path were primarily in a small basement office that was home to the psychology students association, on which I served for three years as a member of the group’s executive. Our mission of supporting our fellow students and trying to build a sense of community was not an easy one – for one thing, a high number of students who attended this large university campus were commuters and often did not want to stay around campus after class. Our lack of resources and constant volunteer turnover as students graduated also made long-term planning difficult.

Despite those challenges, our small association was able to make a difference. We developed some innovative academic and social events, we built meaningful connections with students, staff, and faculty, we even created a new organizational structure that made it easier for people to contribute to the growth and leadership of the association. We had setbacks and frustrations along the way, but when I graduated, I felt that our small group of dedicated individuals made a difference, if not in the world at large then at least our little corner of it.
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