Armchair Change Agents

Max HeadroomThis week I get to indulge in one of the most energizing parts of my work. In preparing for next week’s immersion course in Pollyanna Principled Consulting, I get to speak one-on-one with the participants, to find out what difference they want the class to make for them. I get to hear their dreams and their frustrations, knowing how different they will feel when the week is done.

In these conversations, people consistently share this:

I have been consulting to community benefit organizations for a long time. And I have been frustrated for a long time. I am really good at what I do, yet I can only bring my clients so far and no further. They are not creating the kinds of change I know they can create. Your work is the first place I have seen that says, “It can be different. We can indeed create more significant community change.”

They are not alone in their frustration. These days there is a rising cacophony of voices that see the potential of this sector and lament what it has not yet accomplished.

Most recently, this article from the Philadelphia Social Innovations Journal has been making quite a splash, yet another voice touting the newest movement to solve the sector’s woes: the “Social Investment” Movement.  This movement is the promising progeny of the Charity Watchdog Movement, which itself was the promising result of the three-headed marriage between the Measurement Movement, the Capacity Building Movement, and the Run-Like-A-Business Movement.

Just as it is in a family of talented children, none of these movements has disappeared as others have jumped on the frustration band-wagon.  Also interestingly (but not surprisingly if you are familiar with our work on Problem-Solving), none of those movements has created any change in the circumstances they sought to address.  (For an analysis of the failure of these movements to change those conditions, download this – it’s free.)

Which brings me to a realization that has swept over me as I’ve listened to the dreams of the individuals who will join us next week – people who will absolutely have their work (and their whole being) transformed into powerful agents for change:

The difference between the work we are doing, and the dictates of the pundits and the “movements,” is that our work is, in fact, work.

We are not laying blame and dictating “shoulds”. We are creating change in communities.

The consultants who have come through our courses are bringing warring factions together to aim at overall community change.  They are moving community conversations from woes and troubles to potential and possibilities. They are changing legislation to create sweeping results. They are changing the focus of organizations from “our own survival” to “engaging the community in what is possible.”

It is one thing to be an armchair activist, pointing fingers and pontificating from the sidelines.  And I guess there is a place for that.

Through this week’s conversations, though, I am realizing where our place is: actually doing the work that needs to be done.  Our place is creating real change in communities, and sharing with others how they, too, can be the change they want to see.

Let the pundits and watchdogs keep talking and pointing fingers and vying for the spotlight. We’ve got real work to do.

Change your work and change the world.  The Pollyanna Principles will show you how.

18 Responses to Armchair Change Agents

  1. Good post, Hildy! Since taking the training, I’ve found that my own thinking has changed, largely in the direction you’ve written about here. Rather than getting mired in the reasons why an organization or sector isn’t “getting the job done” effectively (which could be an Olympic-level sport among nonprofit leaders), it’s much more satisfying to ask the question, “what conditions would need to be in place to achieve your goal?”

    That question gets people right to the heart of achievement, rather than speculation, judgement and punditry.

    Which, by the way, doesn’t build or create anything.


  2. What a novel concept … it takes actual “work.”

    Imagine what could change if we gathered up all those hours of blogging, e-mailing, “sympos-ing,” caucusing, round tabling, conferencing, white papering, debating, tweeting, linking, paneling, thesis- and dissertation-writing, etc., and actually used them to apply elbow grease in the communities we know we can change for the better.

    I count myself among those who could/should definitely shift the balance of my activism from talking/writing to DOING. But I’d actually have to get my butt off this chair, pry my fingers from the keyboard, and meet every person in need — whatever need — as my peer and sibling.

    Much less difficult to ponder and pontificate, dream up new euphemisms like “philanthrocapitalism” or my own “smart generosity,” and chastise others for not keeping it real.

    Thanks, Hildy, for holding the mirror up. Not liking what I see. And it’s no one’s bad but my own.

  3. Great point Hildy, though I’m compelled to provide the other extreme – working for work’s sake can ALSO be a trap — people in an organization may want to *feel* like they are providing value and so make up work to do so – whether the work is meaningful or effective in a higher sense can take second priority. I’ve seen this “make work” tendency in many CBO’s I’ve worked with.

    Also, in response to Renata – I’d say writing/philosophizing/strategy/discussing can also be work as well – just a different form of work.

    No “right” answer in the end…although what we can do, like what you’re doing Hildy, is exposing an imbalance where we might see it. Thanks very much for the article, and the incredible material you provide us.

  4. Awesome post, Hildy! When I read your post and some of the comments, I was reminded of a concept one of our clients uses. It’s called “otherlyness” — which is simply an active focus on others or community as opposed to just self. It plays out in small and big ways, but the essence of the concept is to stop talking and start doing — if you want to make a difference, go and be the difference.

  5. Thanks, Hildy. Like you, I spend my days surrounded by people who *are* effectively creating positive change. So when I read some of the critics … well, we just seem to live in different worlds.

    Bringing new ideas to the table — writing, teaching, talking — is extremely valuable work. That’s why I’ve devoted myself to it.

    But there are different ways to go about it. One approach is to critique, and seek to regulate or dictate. I suppose that has some utility, but it holds little energy for me.

    Like you, I prefer to build on the strengths and successes I see all around us. There are so many … this is a remarkable sector of society.

    Best regards,

  6. Anyone who considers David Hunter an “armchair change agent” clearly does not know him. David Hunter works every day to help organizations create socially valuable outcomes for the people they serve, and in my experience, he does so with a great deal more success than most of the consultants I know.

    I find amazing your post’s implication that the “real work” to which you refer does not involve performance management. You talk about “real change” and “sweeping results,” but if you are opposed to the view that results must be measured and acted upon – which appears to be an implication of your post – on what basis are you claiming that what you and the people you work with do is so effective?

    It sounds like participants feel inspired after your workshops, which is a good thing, but are you seriously arguing that nonprofits should NOT be held accountable for results? RKT is right to comment that work for work’s sake is also a trap. Do you truly believe that all nonprofits are effective by their nature and that we should therefore continue to fund organizations based on stories and anecdotes – channeling the most money to the organizations that are best at marketing themselves? That change is not needed?

    Fortunately, the social investment movement which you believe to be unnecessary is not an “armchair” movement. It is supported by more and more nonprofits, who believe it is their responsibility to the vulnerable populations they serve to make sure that they manage performance, continuously improve and actually make a difference to the people who rely on them. They would like to see money channeled more rationally.

    You are defending nonprofits in general; David Hunter is arguing for putting first the people who desperately need meaningful results to materialize. That means supporting nonprofits which are high performing or willing to work towards that end, which is far from all.

    This is not the funders and pundits against nonprofits, as you imply – it is everyone who truly cares about making a meaningful difference (social investors and nonprofits alike) working to make that happen. And those who care more about feeling good than helping people are pushing back.

  7. Thanks, all, for the great comments. And thank you, Ingvild, for providing the opportunity for me to clarify. I do not believe I noted anywhere in my post (nor anywhere else in any of my writings) that community organizations should not hold themselves accountable for the results they provide. In fact, the first and most critical of the principles in my book, The Pollyanna Principles, is indeed that “We accomplish what we hold ourselves accountable for.”

    That is why, in teaching our classes, we hold ourselves accountable for ensuring the consultants who come through those courses leave as catalysts for community change. Yes, as you note, they leave inspired, but that is not the most important part. The most important part is that they immediately begin creating community change. The video here shares just a few stories of the measurable difference these individuals are making:

    My point is not that one or another movement didn’t stem from a seemingly good idea. My point is also not that the sector does not need serious transformation. (Again, I refer you to The Pollyanna Principles, which is a practical guide to reinventing the entire “nonprofit” sector, to aim our work at the kinds of visionary change of which organizations are indeed capable.)

    My point is that none of the well-intentioned movements I mention in my post has made a significant difference in communities. And unfortunately, I foresee that a focus on “investing in effective organizations” will fall to the same fate. That is because the emphasis on competition will almost ensure we have one-off efforts, all competing with each other, rather than linking arms to create the kinds of change that only can happen cooperatively.

    What none of the movements (including the social investment movement) contemplate is wholesale reconsideration of the entire service delivery / social change system. Without changing the assumptions that guide the work this sector does, I sadly believe we will be looking back 10 years from now, wondering why we are still not seeing a whole lot of social change.

  8. Thanks for your reply, Hildy. I am glad to learn that you do believe in accountability for creating social change. Since I have not read your book, however, your alternative to social investing is unclear.

    Do you refute the need to invest in organizations that are or plan to become high performing, and by implication accept that organizations that are not and will never be accountable for improving lives continue to be funded? David Hunter has proposed a clear strategy to push accountability and thereby improve lives. Since you don’t think it will work, can you explain your alternative approach?

    I am a bit puzzled by the opposition to the expression of opinion by a man who is a consultant like you, works with nonprofits like you, and has a wealth of experience to build on. Instead of suggesting that he should not contribute to the debate about how to improve the nonprofit sector, like you do, let’s make this a conversation about substance. I look forward to learning more about your views on how to improve the sector.

  9. As Hildy says, the work of the Community Driven Institute is all about accountability for irmproving lives. However, it is trying to move us beyond looking at each organization in isolation towards the interdependence and inter-connectedness it takes to truly transform a community rather than just address a problem or need.

    I am delighted to read that David recognizes how poorly many funders have allocated resources in the past, and is encouraging them to focus on real outcomes. Such enlightened funders are also critical. I was not familiar with his work until I read the article Hildy linked to.

    Social enterprizes and social investment have a place in making our communities much better places to live, but as a part of a greater movement led by the community. That’s what I see happening in my community, where the social innovation/enterprise people are heavily involved in many community initiatives.

    Hildy encourages all funders to model the collaborative approach they often say they want in their fundees, rather than continue to force a competitive approach. Some are changing. As true partners, funders must recognize that their money is fully balanced by local knowledge and sweat equity (such thinking has already transformed the international development community; it’s time it was applied locally too).

    I’ve been a funder; the best ideas come from the community and community benefit organizations, not the funders. And many funders want to measure and evaluate the wrong things; we are supporters of good evaluation. Communities are complex and it is critical to use measures that deal with complexity, not ones that deal with the sort of complicated issues that most businesses face (along with The Pollyanna Principles, I also always recommend Getting To Maybe: How the World is Changed, a wonderful book on understanding complexity).

    Ingvild, I encourage you to watch the videos on Hildy’s web site to get a better understanding of the principles behind our work. I suspect you and Hildy (and perhaps David) would find lots of common ground.

  10. I have been reading, with great interest, this evolving discussion, particularly the points that Ingvild has raised and the responses from Hildy and Jane.

    I agree with Jane that Ingvild, Hildy and David, probably have more common ground than not. I see shared goals of wanting to create true change in communities and hold organizations and communities responsible for that change. Social investing (as I read in the article) starts from the premise that funders make NPO’s what they are. My understanding of Hildy’s philosophy is that lasting change results from a vision of what communities can be and their interdependence in creating that reality. The differences I see between Hildy and David then lie more in the best way to accomplish what is possible in creating stronger, healthier and more vibrant communities.

    These discussions also mirror many I’ve seen recently on Twitter, various blogs and LinkedIn discussion groups regarding how organizations are evaluated by funders and watchdog groups. These are sensitive and sometimes contentious subjects as ultimately they will affect the survival of many organizations.

    I believe Hildy hoped that this blog would provide an opening for exactly the kind of discussion we are now having. These are discussions our sector needs to continue to have even when the answers are not simple or there is disagreement in the approach.

    If we start with the premise that we all are committed to creating true change that will result in healthier, stronger communities (states, nations or world for those who think on a large scale), then the next steps are less about pointing fingers and more about how we come together.

    What would happen if Hildy and David had a direct conversation about their vision, ideas and where their commonalities are? I for one would love to see what might be accomplished

  11. Hildy,
    Your blog implies that David Hunter is an “armchair change agent.” You obviously don’t know David Hunter. David spends most of his time working with direct service providers helping them to run more effective programs. He has deep knowledge of what it takes to run an effective social program and has worked with literally hundreds of organizations. Whatever you may want to say about David, suggesting that he is not engaged in “real work” to bring about social change is simply false.

    About David’s article, I think your focus on David’s opinion regarding the production of social value is the wrong one. David’s article offers some solid advice about how we may be able to improve the flow of funds that come into the sector – which is currently flawed. Today, most private funding comes from individuals and the information that these donations are based on is not indicative of an orgs ability to perform or of the level of risk associated. David’s suggestions for how this can be improved seem to be sensible and realistic.

    I know that Charity Navigator (CN claims to influence $10 billion in funding annually) is looking at implementing some of David’s concepts in the next iteration of their rating system. This would put more emphasis on an organizations ability to manage their performance – understanding which of their efforts are working and which are not and then making appropriate changes to continuously improve. It’s only with this knowledge that an organization can intentionally reach their goals. Otherwise you are working blind and just hoping for the best.

  12. Let’s pause a moment here, to look at the language we have been using…
    unpleasant truths
    warring factions
    armchair activist or change agent
    make-work tendency
    living in different worlds
    seriously arguing or refuting
    vulnerable populations
    seemingly good ideas
    pushing accountability
    opposition of opinion
    funders poorly allocating funds
    evaluating or focusing on the wrong things

    I for one agree in principle with David Hunter’s point that funders need to be a part of the equation. To paraphrase and to be more specific, for funders and corporate philanthropists for that matter to engage together in a cooperative and collaborative fashion (i.e. through the community engagement process and together with those on the front lines) to make change through the way we are doing business.

    I wouldn’t go so far as to say that funders make NPO’s what they are as Nancy mentions; because I believe that even within a system that may or may not be perceived as being as life-giving as it could be, we still at our core, have a choice as to how we participate in that system.

    Nor do I believe that any one movement or model is an answer to our prayers. And for us to judge each other’s passion and efforts whether directly or implied, does not serve any of us. Again, it is not about the movement or the model, of which community engagement is neither… it is about the principles and process – the thought and beliefs which undergird the models and tools we use.

    May I suggest then, that the elbow grease that Renata so eloquently wrote of is as personal as it is professional?

    For all of us as leaders to engage in and take action from a place of our own personal presence and belief systems in tandem with crafting a larger “foundational” (no pun intended) organizational or corporate presence?

    …A larger presence which, as Jane pointed out, works interdependently in a synergy of the principled shared use of resources instead of independently?

    RKT and Kris have good points. Revealing the imbalance in our tendencies to bring focus to what others are, or are not doing, is invaluable. And it’s how we do it… that is what is coming up at issue here. I don’t believe this is a conversation about anyone being right or wrong in their perception. Perception is simply that, perception, and a choice.

    What I do believe is that how we are “being” in the sector, in the way we do business – as Hildy has asked us … to engage in wholesale reconsideration of the entire service delivery / social change system – and in fact how we are being in our lives, is what is truly at the heart of all that we dream, flourishing.

    Nancy is right (if in fact I believe in a right or a wrong…). This Blog provides a wonderful opening for these kinds of discussions. And I am equally grateful to Ingvild for initiating this one.

    May I ask of all of us then, including myself, to give attention to and be aware of the implied judgement we are using in our language by default? Maybe then, our sectors leaders, and those who share our vision, can enter into the larger conversation vs. a debate, from a place of “modeling the building” vs. “building another model”.

    Respectfully In Spirit,
    Tracey L. Sisson
    Belief Re-patterning™ Practitioner and Facilitator
    Community Engagement Coach

  13. Thank you all for such a spirited discussion. I’ve been having the same conversation with Laura Deaton on her blog, and we just discovered that we’re not that far apart after all.

    We agree that if social investors would invest both in high performing organizations and in helping organizations to become high performing (such investment is not always easy to come by), it would be significant.

    And since David Hunter works to help organizations become high performing, I’m sure this is indeed common ground. Our common interest is in program effectiveness and life improvements for the people served.

    It seems that Nancy and others are right to point out that the differences may lie more in how to get there than the end point. Hopefully, that important conversation can continue.

  14. I am inspired by the comments made thus far with what solutions and results can evolve from these schools of thoughts.
    Let me then share an example of how non- profits can both manage performance and interconnect. I am the Quality Assurance Director for Our Piece of the Pie (OPP). OPP is a non-profit youth development organization helping at-risk youth in Hartford CT achieve the long-term outcomes of a college degree, vocational certification and/or employment in their field of choice.

    OPP has worked with David Hunter, both as an evaluator and consultant since 2005, and strongly supports his thoughts on Social Investing and the importance of Performance Management.

    Performance Management:
    We hold ourselves accountable by having specific roles for Board members, giving them a better focus and ability to lead.(ALL Participate in org. based Sub Committees) We have a performance management system in place to track our progress giving us the ability to use the data to improve, and share that information with other CBO’s and the City of Hartford Office of Youth Services. This allows us to communicate effectively with other agencies to improve the lives of all young people in our city. Based on our success, there are numerous community service networks across the country working to duplicate this model.

    Building a culture of performance management such as the one implemented in Hartford will certainly be beneficial as agencies work with others to improve services to their clients. Organizations with strong performance management systems in place can show true results and deserve investment. At OPP, we are seeing results with thousands of young people already on track to reach their long-term goals.

    Forming Concepts based on OPP’s Data and Community need, the leader of our organization Our Piece of the Pie®, and Capital Workforce Partners with additional funding support from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation and Connecticut Office of Workforce Competitiveness together commissioned a report on The Economic, Social, Civic and Fiscal Consequences of Dropping Out of High School: Findings for Connecticut Adults in the 21st Century. The research was done by Andrew Sum Center for Labor Market Studies Northeastern University and presented at the Governor’s Drop Out Prevention Summit.

    I intended to provide some examples of how our non profit has and continues to do the hard work. I venture to say if we were not managing performance we could not say with certainty the programs and outcomes which we are really great at providing and attaining, and those which could use improvement. Because we have a performance management system, now we can say it with certainty and demonstrate it too. If we can do it anyone can do it.

  15. 3 years ago David Hunter visited WINGS for kids and helped us develop our Theory of Change and 5 year plan. I sat there and became very nervous thinking “How are we going to do all of this??? We don’t have the time!!” Now, we are able to manage our performance on a daily basis and the best part is that it is easy. I now go to sleep easier knowing we are doing the best job possible for our kids. I hope all non-profits can get the tools to do and feel the same.

    Because of David’s help and work, we are on track to achieve our very serious outcomes. Thanks David for directly impacting our organization.

  16. I am blown away by the thoughtfulness of this discussion, and feeling quite guilty that I have been immersed in our immersion course this week and unable to participate. I have gained insights from all of you, though, and will likely put all that together in a follow-up post next week.

    Until then, thank you all for the treat of my coming back and finding this rich discussion here. Can’t wait to see what twists and turns it has taken by the time I return!