Making social change requires flexibility, tenacity and a willingness to be in it for the long haul.
By Ron Schultz
Part of the Creating Good Work series.
Taking the Long View
Implementing social innovation is not for the faint of heart. In Creating Good Work – The World’s Leading Social Entrepreneurs Show How to Build a Healthy Economy, Karen Tse recounts the years it took her to get International Bridges to Justice, which stops torture of detained prisoners, up and running, successfully.
Perhaps the world just wasn’t ready to stop torture. Really? We weren’t ready to stop torture? Fortunately, Karen was not deterred by the task in front of her and fought on. After over a dozen years of tireless effort, Karen’s work is now ending the torture of arrestees in over 30 countries.
Billy Shore, whose organization, Share Our Strength, is dedicated to ending childhood hunger wrote in his book, The Cathedral Within, that those of us engaged in the process of social innovation need to view our work as being something akin to that of a cathedral builder. It might take centuries to complete the social challenge we are trying to right. Centuries?
Knowing Our Limits
Perseverance is defined as the steady persistence of a course of action. Unlike ‘get rich quick’ schemes, social innovation is a course littered with the great and often failed efforts of those who, for all the right reasons, could not carry on and see their work to fruition. Family pressures, financial pressures, financial and family pressures are very real limitations on our ability to fulfill our vision and mission.
So, how do we know when enough is enough? How do we know when, in the disquieting vernacular of the non-profit world, we have to do the unthinkable and “kill the puppy.”
There’s an old expression, “when two people tell you you’re drunk, lie down.”
Does that dictum apply when you’re trying to end torture or childhood hunger? It’s not easy to have family members say to you, perhaps it’s time to do something else. Perhaps seven years is enough. It’s clear that their interest is well-intended. It’s also clear that their patience has run out. But tell that to the social innovator who believes that it takes just a little more effort and thousands might be served.
Perseverance and Persistence
When I teach entrepreneurship and social innovation, perseverance and persistence comes up time and again. There are some who at the first blush of resistance are on to something new. One questioning comment from someone who doesn’t see things as they do and they’re ready to pack it in and go on.
Then there are those who know that what they are doing cannot be abandoned just because the walls seem impenetrable. There are some for whom the idea of intransigence is not a challenge, but a sign that this cannot continue.
Adjust Your Idea
I once had a fabulously successful entrepreneur speak to my students, and his advices… don’t give up. Adjust your idea. The key to shifting intransigence was not being more intransigent, but being willing to change.
The principle, what we strive to accomplish, doesn’t have to change. Rather, we have to realize the “how” is infinite. There are a multitude of models available that can be implemented that will achieve the same objective. Making social change happen requires our ability to change and change and change.
It should be noted that perseverance doesn’t have to become a Bataan death march. It also doesn’t mean that enduring the well-meaning “suggestions” of family isn’t strenuous and stressful. The veiled and not so veiled threats to get a “real” job that will actually pay “real” money don’t fall on deaf ears. The pained concern that perhaps it is time to “kill the puppy,” rings as a continual doubt.
Common Sense and Common Good
Why continue? Because in this business of social innovation, the needs of others seem to so far outweigh the personal; it’s hard to differentiate between common sense and common good. The consequences of getting that wrong can be painful and irreparable. That does not make for any easy choice.
It is clear that in this arena of social innovation there are rarely over-night successes. There is indifference even to torture. But thankfully there are people like Karen Tse, Billy Shore, and Dorothy Stoneman, who has grown YouthBuild to over 250 communities and redirected thousands of lives destined for poverty.
Bart Weetjens, whose highly-trained rats sniff out landmines and save lives and limbs with every detection; Jim Fruchterman, who creates technology that benefits the most unfortunate; Willy Foote, who improves the lives of coffee growers in developing countries; and Rebecca Onie who is revolutionizing health care one doctor’s prescription for food at a time.
The perseverance of people like these are not a testament to those unwilling to change what they are doing, but rather to those who are dedicated to changing how they do things, so they can continue to get it done. Craig Dunn from Western Washington University describes the job of social innovators as being one of deliberately disrupting design. Jeff Trexler deepens that by saying every social innovator must be willing to apply that idea to themselves and the work they are doing, over and over.
The ancient Taoist prognosticator, the I Ching, counsels when appropriate, Perseverance furthers. Trusting in that advice is not often easy, but sometimes the wait is worth the leap, and the world finally recognizes, torture really does have to stop and no child should go hungry.
The warning on the social innovation label should probably read, “Beware, this work could outlast your lifetime.”