Why Change is Difficult (especially if you’re a changemaker)

credit: Schick at Morguefile

credit: Schick at Morguefile

My new year’s tradition involves reflecting on what transpired during the previous year and making plans for the new one. I enjoy the satisfaction that comes from listing my accomplishments over the past 12 months and setting new BHAGs (big, hairy audacious goals). Less enjoyable, however, is evaluating my performance according to benchmarks I set for my business, especially if my results missed the mark. While it’s natural to feel disappointed, I choose to focus on the lessons learned and what can be done better the next time around. 

The point here is not to endorse or criticize new years’ resolutions since it’s up to each of us to figure out what works best. Instead it’s about recognizing what makes change difficult and what we can do to better navigate this process. While the level of complexity may vary, from modifying a personal habit to transforming a social institution so that is more inclusive and just, there are certain factors that contribute to successful change efforts.   


As Alfred Einstein famously said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” To put a finer point on this statement, my organization development colleagues and I are often fond of saying: “How is that working for you?” If the answer is not so well, perhaps it’s time to consider who or what is preventing you from getting the results you want and try a new approach. Through personal experience I’ve learned that when I set an intention and clearly articulate it in the written and spoken word that it is more likely to come to fruition.

One challenge that can get in the way of setting intentions is being on automatic. This is a state where our thoughts and actions are governed by established patterns of behavior, such as a routine. Automatic behavior is often useful in our daily activities in that it can save time and free up our minds to focus on other things. However, being on automatic can also prevent us from being aware of the choices we’ve made or from realizing that there are other options. Alternatively, conscious use of self requires being fully aware of our choices and selecting those that are aligned with our intentions. For example, I consulted with a nonprofit that developed a culture that manifested the problem they sought to address. When I pointed out the contradiction between their behavior and mission, it prompted a conversation with the staff and board about the desire for change.


One experience that contributed to my decision to transition careers from international aid to social change occurred during a field posting in a post-conflict region. I was working on a project that was funded by an international donor and was intended to support the re-integration of ethnic groups that had a long history of conflict. The goal was to resettle families in their original homes in ethnically mixed communities. While the nonprofit I worked for may have met its target for helping to return a certain number of families, the project ultimately failed. This was primarily because younger returning families were not convinced that conditions were conducive for remaining in their communities of origin and subsequently returned to displacement. 

In our enthusiasm to address a problem we may overlook the needs of those who are directly impacted by the change we’re seeking to bring about. Even when we take the time to involve others who are affected in the change process, it’s important to make sure that we have sound and current data. This refers to obtaining information that is accurate, reliable, and timely from everyone involved, and not just the key players. It also means challenging our assumptions about what we think we know and operating from the basis of new information rather than past experiences. In this example, my colleagues and I were so focused on meeting the donor’s expectations that we neglected to fully engage returning and receiving populations in a meaningful conversation about the kind of future they wanted and their willingness to bring it about. 


An important part of change is sustaining the momentum to see it through to completion. Launching straight into task without taking the time to make sure that goals, roles, and responsibilities are clearly defined and accepted by everyone involved can cause change efforts to grind to a halt. 

I was once hired to facilitate a team building process for a social enterprise that had a newly formed group. The business owner understood that building effective working relationships was essential for completing the project and agreed that one of the first steps was to develop a charter that explained the goal and how everyone would work together to accomplish it. I also helped the team establish a timeline and an accountability mechanism for completing tasks where commitments were made and progress was reported on in front of the whole group. 


To sustain change intentions, commitment, and accountability are insufficient without a support system in place. This is especially true when it comes to changing our behaviors. In my work with changemakers I’ve often found a tendency to take on too much responsibility and as a consequence their personal life suffers. In an extreme case this can lead to burn out.

Not too long ago I had a conversation with a social entrepreneur that I had helped to launch nonprofit. While a board had been put in place it was clear that the founder was still doing almost all of the work. Factors that contributed to this situation were a lack of clarity among board members about expectations and responsibilities as well as members who were not necessarily the right fit. However, what was most concerning was the founder’s unsubstantiated belief that support from the board was contingent upon reaching a certain level of success rather than inviting members to be part of achieving it. 

At this point you may be wondering, given all of the difficulties in leading and facilitating change, why would anyone choose this as a career? For me, the answer is with risk comes reward. It’s more than the satisfaction of a job well done. In helping social entrepreneurs lead change within their organizations they are better positioned to do the same in their communities.    

What have been your experiences with leading or participating in change processes? Let me know what you’ve learned from using these or other approaches. 

This post was published by SEE Change Magazine on January 14, 2015



Being the Change We Seek through Sustainable Practices

credit: JDurham at Morguefile

credit: JDurham at Morguefile

Election Day is around the corner. Like most Americans, I’m not excited about this year’s crop of candidates. Unfortunately, when it comes to civic engagement, disengagement seems to be a norm among a population that is increasingly disenchanted with our government. I’m especially troubled by what appears to be a viral spread of apathy among Millennials who represent the newest generation of changemakers. 

This was the topic of an event I recently attended in Washington, DC. “Still Bowling Alone: Trends in Millennial Political Participation and Engagement” that was co-hosted by Raise Your City, Impact Hub DC, and One DC. Inspired by Robert Putnam’s best-selling book, Bowling Alone about the linkage between declining social capital and increasing disengagement, this event explored the challenges the nation’s capital faces in engaging a Millennial population that is often challenged to identify with a city that has a higher cost of living and may serve as a pit stop in their careers.  

As I listened to the views of local politicians and civil society activists, I was reminded that there are no spectators in a democracy. By this I mean that civic engagement is more than casting a vote during an election. It’s the actions we take everyday to create the kind of society we want. Whether it’s signing a petition, joining a march, or volunteering for a cause we believe in, our daily activities speak volumes about our values. 

The same is true for other matters that impact our daily lives. Oftentimes when we hear the word “sustainability” we automatically think of the environment. While this is certainly true, there is more to this concept than how we go about inhabiting this planet. My own definition encompasses having a positive impact on society (sustaining our relationships with the people who matter) and earning a living (sustaining the ability to provide for ourselves and our families) in addition to the environment (sustaining the planet).    

As the owner of a newly certified B Corporation, these multiple dimensions of sustainability are woven into the fabric of my company. As a consultant I work closely with changemakers, typically social enterprises and social justice organizations, to help them obtain funding and develop the people and process capabilities needed to achieve their social change goals. In essence, my work involves helping clients become financially and organizationally sustainable so that my services are no longer needed. Helping my clients become sustainable also prepares them to have a lasting positive impact on society whether it’s mobilizing a community to turnaround underperforming schools or promoting healthy fitness behaviors among people who do not have access to exercise facilities.

My effectiveness as a consultant also depends on having a sustainable business behind me. This means paying attention to the backend of my business by choosing vendors, such as a bank, an accountant, and an office supplier that walk the triple bottom line talk. One thing that is particularly troubling is the misalignment I often see between espoused values and actions. For example, it doesn’t seem fair or even make sense to work with an organization that helps disadvantaged women achieve self-sufficiency and then use some of the earnings from that assignment to purchase a product made by a company that exploits women. What is the net impact of my actions? Whose values am I ultimately supporting?

Profitability is also essential to sustainability. Failing to provide sufficient value to my clients makes it likely that my business will cease to exist. As a small business, it’s difficult to maintain socially and environmentally conscious values and minimize costs. One way this plays out is a willingness to pay a slightly higher price for a product that is sustainably produced. It also involves making a conscious effort to financially support other B Corps and keep informed about the practices of businesses that don’t already have this certification. 

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges of applying a multi-dimensional approach to sustainability is questioning my assumptions. This is easier said than done since it involves making a conscious effort to consider the consequences of my actions before making a decision instead of being on autopilot. A good example is resisting the temptation to propose a solution before fully understanding the situation, which often leads to better communication and stronger working relationships with my clients.  Most of all, applying a multi-dimensional approach to sustainability requires having a clear intention to consistently do right by my clients, the environment, and my company. That’s not to say that there isn’t room for improvement, especially as mistakes offer learning opportunities and new practices are developed that evolve into higher standards for sustainability. 

If your organization is already using similar sustainability practices perhaps it’s time to consider them from a broader perspective. Challenge yourself to come up with new and better ways of applying sustainability practices within and outside the workplace. If you’re not already doing so, I encourage you to start giving it a try. Let me know what you learn from this experience and if there are new ideas that you come up with.

It’s been said that we get the government that we deserve. The same applies to changemakers—when our values and actions are closely aligned we’re more likely to get the results that match our intentions.

This post was published by CSRwire on October 28, 2014.



Transitioning to Social Enterprise 2.0

credit: Hotblack at Morguefile

credit: Hotblack at Morguefile

What else needs to happen for social enterprises to move in the direction of networks? This provocative question, posed by Elisa Birnbaum, Co-Founder, Publisher and Editor of See Change Magazine, during the publication of my previous post, “Linking the Future of Social Change to Networks,” prompted me to think more deeply about the evolution underway in social enterprise and my role in this transition. Elisa had a good point; it’s one thing to predict a future where the formation and expansion of networks to advance social change goals is commonplace, and entirely another to explain what needs to happen in order to bring this future about. 

To answer this question I’ve drawn inspiration from the words of an ethicist, a poet, and an African proverb.

“Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone” – Reinhold Niebuhr

1)  Shift from Silo to Systems Thinking: Niebuhr’s words remind us that change at any level requires support. In working on large-scale challenges, such as environmental sustainability or increasing access to economic opportunities, there is a tendency to function within mental and socially constructed barriers. This includes viewing a situation from a single perspective or neglecting to take into account how solutions impact the broader system. System thinking offers an opportunity to overcome these limitations. In The Art of Systems Thinking, Joseph O’Connor and Ian McDermott view this process as “seeing beyond isolated and independent incidents to recognize deeper patterns.” It is this ability that enables us to better understand and influence events. 

A good example is Partnership for Possibility, the flagship program of Symphonia for South Africa, which is addressing the country’s education crisis by placing schools at the center of community. This unique model, which I came to better understand during a short-term assignment, helps improve learning outcomes for South African children by partnering school principals with business leaders to mobilize youth, parents, teachers, businesses, civil society, and government to work together to improve the education environment. By broadening the focus of education to include what occurs outside as well as inside the classroom and extending the commitment for achieving positive results into the community, Partnership for Possibility has succeeded in spreading its model to nearly 200 schools across South Africa.   

“Unity is strength… when there is teamwork and collaboration, wonderful things can happen” – Mattie Stepanek

2)  Build a Sustainable Network: Beyond the considerations of whether and how to form a network, some of which are addressed in my previous post, new networks are more likely to emerge when existing ones are sustainable. A dilemma that has occurred in my efforts to strengthen a mature network is where to draw the line between investing in the organizational capacity of members that are struggling to survive and letting go of those destined to fail. While it is tempting to triage members according to their capacity for survival, deliberations with the network’s leadership have prompted an examination of its mission and values in relation to capacity building. As this organization charts a path forward solutions to this dilemma can be found in good practices for network strengthening, such as setting clear expectations of all members, holding members accountable for meeting these expectations, ensuring that the network’s values are aligned with its mission and operations, creating a structure and securing resources for supporting the work of the network, and providing incentives (like capacity building grants) for members to improve their operations.

“It takes a village to raise a child” – African proverb

3)  Cultivating a Supportive Ecosystem: For networks (especially ones intended to tackle the magnitude and complexities of social change) to thrive, a supportive environment is needed. In addition to capacity building, which takes place inside the network, there is also a need for an ecosystem that can foster the conditions within which new networks emerge and existing ones can be sustained. A supportive ecosystem includes forums where changemakers and stakeholders can meet to discuss the interconnections between the issues they are working on and take collective action, regulatory frameworks that make it easier for networks to operate and share resources, allocation of resources (like the Social Innovation Fund) that are dedicated to the development of networks, and impact accelerators that provide business development guidance and access to investors. 

A good example of an emerging ecosystem is groups of impact accelerators that are meeting to discuss ways to support social enterprises. I recently attended one such meeting that took place during a conference for early stage social enterprises. In addition to exploring opportunities for collaboration participants discussed balancing the demands for rigor in demonstrating results with the resource intensive nature of data collection.  

Transitioning to social enterprise 2.0 where networks are ubiquitous in bringing about social change requires shifting how we approach social challenges, strengthening the capacity of networks to operate effectively, and creating a supportive ecosystem where they can thrive.

This post was published by SEE Change Magazine on September 17, 2014.



Why the Future of Social Change May Depend on Networks

credit: PSchubert at Morguefile

credit: PSchubert at Morguefile

Like many entrepreneurs I’m cautious when it comes to taking risks, which means I don’t make a habit of predicting the future. However, I’m going to go out on a limb and state what I believe is the future of social enterprise based on my experience and identified trends: As the field grows and matures we will see a shift from social enterprises working individually and through one-off partnerships to innovate solutions to large-scale social and environmental challenges to strategically spreading the adoption of proven approaches through networks.

“Go slow to go fast” is a well-known adage in my profession. In the context of organization development it refers to building relationships with the people you work with and figuring out how the work will get done before doing the task. In other words, taking a step back to figure out the best process can help improve performance. Similarly, social enterprises are better positioned to pursue transformative and lasting change when they take the time build longer-term relationships with organizations that share a common purpose and act in collaboration. 

In this sense, a network is akin to a coalition or alliance where members agree to work together to advance common goals. Developing a network is a complex process that requires a significant investment of time, labor, money, and other resources. Forming a network requires thoughtful consideration as to whether this approach is best suited for what the social enterprise wants to accomplish and assessing preparedness to fulfill the commitments of a collaborative relationship. Once a decision is made to move forward with forming a network, the next steps are to identify organizations that are critical for achieving collective objectives, bring them together to discuss establishing a network, and create structures and processes for collaborative action. After the network is up and running members will need to work together to carry out jointly planned activities, ensure commitments are fulfilled, maintain relationships, and assess performance. 

My involvement in collaborative relationships has spanned different stages of the development process from deliberating whether to form one, to maintaining an existing network, and merging coalitions. Earlier this year I was invited to a meeting that brought together advisors for an early stage social enterprise to review its mission and think through opportunities for carrying it out. An opportunity that was discussed was how to support civil society groups, activists, and businesses engaged in collaborative action, such as raising the minimum wage or preventing fracking in their community. It was agreed that there are benefits to collectively acting on a single issue, such as having a clear purpose and attracting people who care enough to get involved. However, for actions involving a longer timeline there is the risk that the movement will dissipate early on if there is insufficient momentum or resources to continue to drive it forward. To extend its impact beyond a single issue and ensure consistent support to groups that are limited in their ability to participate due to other obligations, the social enterprise is considering the possibility of becoming a backbone organization that fulfills operating functions and orchestrates the work of the movement.   

I have also worked with a more mature social justice network that is figuring out how to grow and support the work of its members while financially sustaining itself. As it begins to diversify its sources of funding, the network is considering how to attract donors that are willing to invest in strengthening the organizational capabilities of its members. Attention is also being given to ways in which to support members that are at various stages of maturity depending on when they were formed, level of funding, and ability of their boards to govern effectively. Although it’s an exciting time for this network as it transitions from surviving to thriving, success will depend on balancing the demands of its own operations, addressing the needs of its members, and ensuring steady growth without sacrificing the quality of social services provided and advocacy efforts. 

I once worked with a coalition that began as an initiative of its parent organization, became an independent nonprofit, and later came full circle when the board decided that it was in its best interests to merge with a larger advocacy organization. In this case, the narrow focus of the coalition’s mission and an environment of fiscal austerity made it difficult to retain existing and attract new members. Exacerbating this situation were challenges related to board engagement. As senior leaders of organizations that were members of the coalition, getting and sustaining board members’ attention proved to be an arduous task given the demanding schedules of their day-to-day jobs. These factors contributed to delays in making critical decisions about the coalition’s governance and missed opportunities to adjust its operations to new realities. Since networks may not be able to survive independently over the longer-term it’s important to recognize the warning signs and plan for transitions in organizational structure and operations.   

Beyond these examples there is other evidence of the growing frequency of networks as collaborative approaches for achieving social impact. “How the Hub Found its Center,” a case study by Michel Bachmann in the Winter 2014 edition of the Stanford Social Innovation Review chronicles the transition of the Impact Hub from an informal ad hoc structure to a more formal network that blends business with a social innovation movement with over 50 hubs on six continents. In March 2014, FSG and the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions launched the Collective Impact Forum as a global online community that supports organizations practicing collective impact, which is an approach used by organizations across social sectors to solve a specific social challenge, such as affordable community housing. Forum members include funders, backbone organizations, and partners.

I look forward to the time when we not only celebrate social entrepreneurs for coming up with game changing ideas, but also laud networks for their role in carrying the ball further down the field in advancing social change.
This post was published by SEE Change Magazine on May 29, 2014



Getting Ahead By Investing From Within

“Keep your eye on the prize” is a common catch phrase that for the social enterprise community has come to mean staying focused on achieving your social change goal. Oftentimes the decision to become a changemaker, and accept all of the sacrifices that come along with this choice, is driven by a life-changing experience that has altered how social entrepreneurs see the world and prompted them to take action. From this perspective, it is understandable why social entrepreneurs are so passionate about their cause and devote so much of their attention to it. However, there is a downside to being so strongly focused on achieving social change goals. 

I recently became involved with a social movement whose mission is to transform the city where I live into a vibrant, thriving community where all residents have a better quality of life. An important part of this work is reaching out to marginalized populations to enlist their participation and support. The movement has been fortunate to attract members and other resources in support of its cause. Despite this good fortune, leaders have not demonstrated a willingness to widen their focus beyond the immediate goals to address communication challenges that have been raised. An inattention to process issues that affect how work gets done have led to missed opportunities to build a stronger team and effectively plug volunteers into the network. Unfortunately, this is a situation often encountered in my work with changemakers where social change activities become the dominant priority, and the needs of the organization and the people who work for it tend to fall by the wayside.

There’s no denying that social change work is and should remain a high priority. However, paying attention to the people and processes within the social enterprise is just as important. This raises the challenge of giving sufficient attention to what is happening within and outside the social enterprise without losing sight of the social purpose that drives this work. As my experience with the social movement illustrates, it’s easy to become so focused on goals and the day-to-day work that supports their accomplishment that issues that aren’t seen as being directly related are crowded out from this narrow focus. There are a number of reasons why this happens, such as a passion for doing social change work that pulls attention outside the organization, work-related deadlines, the urgency of providing sustainable solutions that address the needs of the population served, pressure from financial supporters and other stakeholders to show results, and a lack of resources extending beyond social change activities.

Savvy social enterprises understand the importance of investing in the organization behind the social change mission. Blessed Coffee, which is a company that sells premium, single origin organic coffee and supports coffee growing regions and communities where coffee is sold, incorporated organization development services into the development of its Brewing Change crowdfunding campaign to open a local café. I worked closely with Tebabu Assefa and Sara Mussie, husband and wife Co-Founders, as well as other Brewing Change members to provide backbone support. Having a dedicated resource for team development, information flow, meeting facilitation, and task monitoring enabled Brewing Change members to concentrate on the design and execution of the campaign. Each campaign meeting began with a check-in and ended with a checkout as a way for team members to feel supported and get to know each other better. In addition to directly benefitting from this experience, Blessed Coffee’s Founders have shared what they’ve learned with other community groups, such as facilitating effective meetings. 

Investing in organizational capacity is not only limited to businesses. LDI Africa is a nonprofit social enterprise that builds the capacity of African organizations to compete in the global marketplace through the service of young professional volunteers. Gbenga Ogunjimi, LDI Africa’s Founder and CEO, understood from the outset the importance of building a solid foundation that would enable him to bring his idea to fruition. This involved working together to prepare a social impact strategy and develop a nonprofit board and partnerships. Although Gbenga was eager to begin LDI Africa’s pilot fellowship program, he recognized the importance of taking the time to think through the resources needed to carry out the program, how success would be defined and measured, and preparing a solid pitch to partners and financial supporters. A detailed planning process and support from the board has enabled LDI Africa to implement a successful pilot program, develop partnerships with major investment firms on the African continent, and expand its fellowship program to send African professionals to the United States.

Establishing the conditions to operate effectively better prepared both social enterprises to pursue their social change goals. In the case of Blessed Coffee, attention was given to the organization of the Brewing Change Campaign and creating an environment where members felt supported. For LDI Africa, thinking through its operations and establishing an internal support system positioned it for a successful launch. The benefits of these investments have extended beyond the founders and their social enterprises to also include the communities where they work. Tebabu, Sara, and Gbenga exemplify what it means to be a change agent by taking the responsibility that comes with creating a better life for themselves to help members of their African communities of origin tap into their personal power to do the same.

Blessed Coffee and LDI Africa were fortunate in recognizing the need to strengthen their organizational capacity and obtaining the support to do so. Recognizing the need for organizational support is only half the battle; the other half involves taking action. Some of the reasons why social entrepreneurs fail to invest in strengthening their organizational capabilities are not viewing it as a significant priority as well as lack of time, money, and human resources. Social entrepreneurs who choose to make this investment may wish to consult with a skilled organization development professional to better understand challenges faced and options for addressing them. Social enterprises that do not have the resources to hire a paid organization development professional can consider approaching financial supporters for capacity building funds, entering into a bartering arrangement, or recruiting a pro bono consultant.

For social entrepreneurs, the “prize” ultimately goes beyond the joy of working on a meaningful cause and making a positive difference in the lives of marginalized populations. It also includes a social enterprise that is well-resourced, operates efficiently, and offers a place where staff are motivated to give their best effort because they are making a meaningful impact in terms of advancing the cause they believe in and the organization they work for.  

This post was published by SEE Change Magazine on March 10, 2014.    


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Increasing Your Chances of Being Heard: What it Means to be a Change Agent

Not too long ago, I met with the leadership staff of a nonprofit that strives for excellence in providing disadvantaged community members with the knowledge and skills to provide for themselves by offering “a hand up rather than a hand out.” At the end of the meeting, a staff member asked me what the organization needed to do to reach their ambitious funding goals. Rather than giving a pep talk or fundraising advice, I chose to say what was at the heart of their resource mobilization challenge. The essence of my message was that although it was commendable that the organization was committed to improving the quality of their services and obtaining the resources to do so, strategic planning efforts would only get them so far as long as they continued to operate within a mindset similar to the people they served, which is being satisfied with whatever support they could get. It was difficult for the group to be confronted with a significantly different perception of their identity than the image they intended to project. However, from the initial response of everyone in the room this comment appeared to be valid and was worth considering despite, in the words of one staff member, “giving them a good shake.” 

During our next meeting about a month later, the Executive Director mentioned that she shared this feedback with all of the nonprofit staff and officers of the board of directors, but was not met with a response. She also added a comment about how their parent organization had a history of under-valuing the social service mission of the nonprofit. This helped her colleagues in the room better understand the organization’s culture (values, beliefs, and expectations that are shared, but tend to be taken-for-granted) and provided an opportunity for additional reflection. As the staff continue to consider this disconnect between the internal (values and behaviors) and external (image, brand, and reputation) facets of their collective identity, it is unclear where this process will lead them. However, there is interest in taking a closer look at their culture to determine how it can be modified to better support the nonprofit in achieving its goals.

The point of this story is that being a change agent doesn’t have to mean being a social entrepreneur or working for a social enterprise. In fact, we all have the capacity to be changemakers, particularly when we have the courage to speak our minds about what truly matters and are empowered to do so within an environment of mutual trust, respect, and honesty. Organizations, particularly those seeking lasting transformational betterment for marginalized groups, can benefit from developing and maintaining an environment where a conversation about the disconnection between intentions and impact can take place. Within this context, what we do and how we do it are just as important as how do the people we serve and our stakeholders perceive us as well as what kind of an impact are we really making? An environment where these kinds of conversations can take place can be developed in a variety of ways, such as having an open door policy, soliciting feedback from staff, encouraging people to question work processes and unwritten rules of behavior for the purpose of improving how things are done, allocating time in meetings for an open discussion of issues of concern, and, perhaps most importantly, ensuring that staff feel heard by acknowledging and addressing what is said. To maintain this environment, the organization’s culture needs to be aligned with its strategy, structure, talent, and operations. 

As changemakers, social entrepreneurs have the courage to tackle the root causes of seemingly intractable social and environmental problems. Similarly, regardless of our status as employees, consultants, or volunteers, we owe it to ourselves as well as our colleagues to “speak truth to power” when we encounter disconnects between what is said and what is actually done. Being a change agent means having the courage to step outside of our comfort zones to express these kinds of inconsistencies. It also means not taking the easy way out by pushing nagging thoughts to the back of our minds for fear of the consequences of verbalizing perceived truths that the people we work with may not be ready or willing to confront. When we choose to say what is on our minds, we increase our chances of being heard when we meet others where they are. This means taking the time to find out what is on the other person’s mind and whether they are prepared to listen. “Speaking truth to power” is not merely the act of speaking up. It is also about the ability to influence others to take action that is consistent with their own aims.  

As change agents, social entrepreneur or not, we have the greatest impact when our words and actions cause a ripple effect at the individual, organizational, and society levels. Going back to the story at the beginning of this article, the act of verbalizing an uncomfortable truth affected me on a personal level by providing greater insight into my role as a consultant and the impact of my efforts to facilitate organizational change. This incident strengthened my relationship with this client by deepening the trust and authentic communication that was already established. The staff and board members have also benefitted from a better understanding of how the nonprofit is perceived. Re-aligning an organization’s culture and mission with its image is not a decision that should be entered into lightly considering the significant investment of time, money, and other resources in a long-term change process. As the nonprofit decides whether this is a commitment worth taking on, one factor to consider is the opportunity to push the needle further in generating social change, which comes from being organizationally and financially equipped to support community members in tapping into their potential to care for themselves.

This post was published by CSRwire on February 4, 2014.

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The Cobbler’s Dilemma: Three Ways to Do Right by Your Customers AND Yourself

As entrepreneurs it’s easy to fall into the trap of being the cobbler whose children go around without shoes. This is particularly the case when we’re faced with the dilemma of how much of our time do we give to addressing the needs of the people we serve and how much time do we reserve for ourselves and our families. The stakes are even higher for social entrepreneurs where there is an imperative to not only do right by your customers and yourself, but also by the people who work for you, vendors, stakeholders, and the environment. 

As a new entrepreneur and the owner of a socially responsible business I encountered this dilemma. At the time, I was fortunate in having several consulting assignments at the same time. Initially, I was excited by my good fortune and didn’t think that it would be a problem to manage this workload by myself considering that I was well organized, productive, and good at managing my time. As time went on, I inadvertently put all of the pieces in place to generate a crisis that would not only have a profound impact on me, but also alter how I do business.

One morning towards the end of a particularly challenging week I was so stressed about how much work I had to do and how little time there was to get things done that I almost cancelled a meeting with my coach. Fortunately, I kept the appointment and my predicament became the focus of our conversation. With the help of my coach I realized that in my zeal to build a positive track record as a consultant and earn enough money to pay my bills, I had completely neglected myself to the point where work was virtually the only activity that I had time for. What was once solid terrain had become a slippery slope where I became hooked on the praise I received from my clients for a job well done. The problem was that I had let this become my primary source of motivation. I soon learned that if I wanted to maintain my business and a healthy lifestyle that I needed to give greater attention to my own needs, redefine with my clients what success looks like, and expand my business beyond myself.

From this experience I learned some valuable lessons:

  • Get Your Needs Met: In every relationship, it’s important to make sure that you’re deriving value from it. While the primary benefits may be financial, there are other factors that can be considered, such as the quality of the relationship, reputation, and quality of life. While we would all prefer an arrangement that meets all of our needs, it is more likely that we will need to negotiate to ensure that our most important needs are met. Don’t feel pressured to accept a deal that isn’t in your best interests. Sometimes turning down a bad offer can pave the way for a better opportunity later on.
  • Set Boundaries: Regardless of your type or stage of relationship, there are boundaries that place limits on how we interact with each other. Setting boundaries is closely related to getting your needs met. It involves ensuring that the other party understands and is willing to comply with your expectations. If you’re providing a product or service to a customer, you’ll want to have an agreement in place that defines each party’s expectations. Even after an agreement is in place, explore the possibility of redefining the terms if circumstances change and they are no longer favorable.
  • Reach Out for Help: Remember that the best cobblers have an apprentice. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, find a way to get the help you need. This could involve hiring paid staff, a short-term consultant, or a volunteer. Sometimes the emotional support of our family and friends is what helps us get through a difficult day.

In building your social change career, keep in mind that the home you inhabit, in terms of your relationship with yourself, your profession, and the people you live and work with is just as valuable as the products and services you produce for your customers.
This post was published by UnSectored for its Martyrdom in Social Change series on January 31, 2014.