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!