Tag Archives: social change

Goal-setting like kids

It has been established that one of my favorite things about my kids, even when it’s simultaneously maddening, is their unreasonableness.

Because they are unreasonable.


Especially the youngest one, who has that toddler’s expectation that she can smack me in the face, pull my hair, and then sweetly sign “water”, and I’ll come running with it.

She dares to ask, and to anticipate, what most of us wouldn’t even dream.

And I think we need a lot more of that.

Not the smacking and hair-pulling, of course, but the rather outrageous demands: those we need more of.

What would a ridiculous goal look like in your area of work? For Room to Read, it’s every child (every) in the world learning to read. For one of my clients, it’s providing a service to every single person who contacts the organization, no exceptions. Some organizations working on homelessness have staked a claim to the goal of ending chronic homelessness, starting with specific cities.

I guess what I think, when I see my kids expecting that they can build a tower that will defy the laws of gravity or convince me to bring them yet another cup of water at 2AM, is that I’m tired of goals that are strategic, measurable, actionable, realistic, and targeted.

You know?

We need to end poverty and close gender pay gaps and ensure that every child starts school ready to learn.

And we need to do it soon.

So we don’t need more sophisticated ‘adult’ understanding of the constraints of reality.

Those voices are in our heads all the time already.

We need more outrageous goals, a focused determination to reach them no matter what, and the tenacious (read: stubborn) insistence of my children that other people drop everything and come along with us.

If you need any mentors in this field of audacious goal-setting, I have four experts in mind.

Talking failure and risk and advocacy


I was honored to be part of this conversation, with civic leaders in Kansas, about failure and risk, particularly (in my case) among nonprofit advocates.

It’s a critically important reflection, for us, about not only why we’re failing but, really, why we’re not failing more, and whether we are really striving as much as we should, given what’s at stake if we fail by default.

I’d love for you to chime in with your actual advocacy failures, and what you’ve learned, your thoughts on the extent of our failures–collectively–and your advice for leaders contemplating the risks of failure.

How do you talk about failure, at your organization or in your community? Where have you learned about failure, and when and where do you have ‘permission’ to reach and to fall short?

Thank you to the Kansas Leadership Center for sparking this.

And tell me what you think of the picture on page 39, too!

‘Balance’ and urgency

In a couple of places in Creating Room to Read, the founder/author emphasizes the need for urgent action.

“Every day we lose is a day we can’t get back” (p. 7).

It’s a feeling I share, a compulsion, really, that has prompted more than one person to tell me that I have a ‘savior complex’.

And it can be a very good thing, this urgency, if it pushes us to evaluate every organizational decision in light of the questions:

How can we reach more people, in more places, with more needs, more quickly? (p. 201)

How can we fill the vacuum around this issue before someone else–with a different agenda and different impacts on those we serve–does?

How can we do what needs to be done, as cheaply and quickly and well as is humanly possible, since the world really needed it metaphorically ‘yesterday’?

This almost-manic urgency applies, of course, to so many of the social problems on which we are working, not just to global literacy. Really, I would argue that everything worth fixing in today’s broken world is worth fixing now, and there’s always more work to be done than we can possibly clear off our desks before the end of the day.


How can we justify taking a break, even when we need one, when the need is already outpacing our abilities?

How can we care for ourselves, without using ‘self-care’ as an excuse to retreat from the desperately urgent work that needs us?

How can we prevent falling for the savior thing, when the truth is that the people we serve and assist aren’t waiting for us to swoop in and rescue anyone.

How can we approach that elusive ‘balance’ that seems to be so important for preventing burnout and sustaining our commitment–and our effectiveness–when every day that we take off is a day that we’re not getting closer to the world as it should be?

How do you answer these questions, in your own field, and in your own practice? How do you calibrate the pace of your life, given the urgency with which problems press? How do you surround yourself with a team, to prevent the temptation of thinking that we are one-person shows? How do you harness the passion and energy that comes with urgency, without slipping into the ‘busier-than-thou’ martyrdom that turns people off? How do you reflect strengths and possibility while convincing people that they need to be part of our cause–today?


Walking in their shoes, going to the ‘genba’

Photo credit Seite-3, via Flickr, Creative Commons license

One of the questions that I frequently ask clients of the social service organizations with which I’m working on advocacy is: “What do you wish that policymakers understood about your life?”

I ask something similar of staff, about what they think that policymakers need to understand about the challenges facing their clients, in order to craft effective policy responses.

And, most of the time, I get somewhat vague answers.

Because what clients want, and what staff want for them, is just for those with power over the systems that affect their lives to know what their lives are really like.

Even if they can’t imagine how that would really happen.

They usually say something about wishing that members of Congress just had to live in their shoes for a few days, to see what it’s like to find childcare that fits the work schedule of a single mom on an odd shift, or to live in a nursing home just because you can’t find affordable housing with services to meet your mental health needs, or to ride the bus in the snow home from the grocery store with 2 kids in strollers and a 2-bag limit (really).

Remember the mental health center client who made the connection to her time as a production supervisor, and how she never could have overseen the factory operations if she wasn’t spending time on the floor?

In Creating Room to Read, I learned a new phrase for this: ‘going to the genba‘ (sometimes seen as ‘gemba’–sources are contradictory). It’s a concept from manufacturing, fittingly enough, and it means ‘the real place’–the idea that problems are visible, when we connect at the place where they happen. It captures this idea, translated in policy terms, that policymakers need to really see and live the situations in which social problems exist, if we are to have our best chance of solving them (131).

And, yet, that kind of authentic interaction is elusive, especially when we’re talking about powerful political actors and some of the most marginalized populations in our society.

Even when we bring policymakers to our organizations to talk with clients, the conversations are stilted, even scripted, and there’s certainly no true parallel to the grinding pressures of living in deprivation day in and day out, without an escape hatch.

At best, there are a few new insights, and some greater mutual understanding, and maybe some concrete ideas about ways that policies need to be changed, for them to really work on the ground.

At worst, clients feel ‘on display’, as though policymakers are using them to pretend that they are ‘close to the people’, before they go back to their comfortable lives.

So, I’m thinking, maybe we’re thinking about the wrong feet walking in the wrong shoes.

Maybe the people who need to get to the source of the problem aren’t the policymakers coming to glean wisdom from clients, in their world, but the other way around.

Maybe what we need is to help clients build the kind of power that would give them greater access to policymaking worlds, a chance to walk in those shoes for awhile, and the opportunity to see the ‘factory floor’ of policymaking and where the processes are breaking down there.

If these ‘gemba walks’ are about actually seeing the process, asking questions, and understanding the work, maybe the work that needs to be observed is that of crafting the constraints that either hinder or facilitate people’s success, not the more obvious truth: being poor, or mentally ill, or without health insurance is…hard.

Maybe instead of asking what policymakers need to understand about the lives of our clients, we should be asking what clients need to understand about policymaking, in order to shape it.

To fit their own shoes.

Advocacy in light of confirmation bias

We have the best ideas.

I mean, okay, actually, I have the best ideas.


Unfortunately, that’s sort of the way our minds work: when we believe ourselves to be right, we seek out information that, consciously or not, affirms our ‘rightness’, even when our failure to check that reality could be, in an advocacy arena, fairly epically bad.

That’s one of the most alarming insights I gleaned from Decisive: confirmation bias means that even our most diligent research may fail to illuminate weaknesses in our proposed policy solutions, or even our framing of the problem, because we’re wired to discount that which disagrees with our way of seeing the world, and to hone in on anything that affirms it.

Today’s patterns of media consumption, of course, accelerate and exacerbate this.

In my own life, I start my mornings with NPR streaming on the treadmill, see print stories specifically selected by my Facebook friends over breakfast, and scan through blog posts highlighted by my Twitter followers, all sources explicitly selected by me because they echo my concerns.

I think we mostly know this, by now, but what struck me from Decisive is that, even when we think that we are intentionally accounting for this, we’re still not very good at overcoming confirmation bias.

Just knowing that we have this tendency does not, in other words, protect us.

And, of course, we’re not the only ones thus susceptible; those we are trying to convince/lobby have their own confirmation bias at work, and it influences how they experience the arguments we present, as well.

Not incidentally, confirmation bias is particularly a concern for folks like us, since it tends to be the strongest in emotion-laden spheres, including politics (p. 95), although, certainly, some high-profile failures suggest that even such ‘technical’ fields as engineering are not immune to the dangers of seeing things as you believe them to be, instead of how they really are.

But all is not lost.

What we need, in addition to this basic awareness of our vulnerability to confirmation bias and the importance of accounting for it (because it’s really not enough for us to just believe that we are right, even when we believe it so sincerely and vehemently), are concrete steps to counteract it, and to shape our advocacy so as to help overcome others’ confirmation biases, too.

Some ideas from Decisive that I think apply particularly well to policy advocacy:

  • Intentionally reality-test our assumptions, ideally with some small-scale experiments
  • Seek out partnerships and mentors with decidedly different ways of seeing the world, explicitly to challenge our thinking when necessary–I have seen, in my own advocacy, how important this is in the field of immigration advocacy, where our messages and tactics are decidedly improved through our collaborations (delicate as they are) with business groups and others who approach immigration reform slightly (or more than slightly) differently
  • Develop processes designed to lead us to the right questions–one of my favorites is a sort of counter-factual that asks ‘what would have to be true?’ for a given position to be true, or for a particular approach to be desirable. This can help us to explore alternative possibilities and test our own assumptions, but it can also expose ways in which slight changes in the fact assumptions could surface some new options from which we can then choose (p. 100). For example, prior to the deinstitutionalization of people with mental illnesses, what would have to be true for it to be possible to close most of the institutions providing them with service? It would have to be possible for people to manage their symptoms effectively with outpatient treatment. With the arrival of sophisticated pharmaceuticals, this set of facts emerged, and a radically new option became viable, in ways unimagined by those closest to the issue.
  • Doubt your own knowledge and question your own process–what if we asked, as a part of any policy research, “What’s the most likely way I could fail to get the right information in this situation?” What if we used this same thinking to point out to policymakers (gently) that they may not be getting the information they need, either, as a way of easing the path towards their acceptance of some of our information, over the objections of their own confirmation bias?

Where do you see, once you’re looking for it, confirmation bias in your own policy advocacy? What alternatives do you disregard out of hand, because they don’t fit your way of seeing the world, or at least your issue? How do you account for this tendency in your own analysis? How do you break through others’ confirmation bias, in your advocacy?

Admitting we’re stumped

Photo credit, Adrian Midgley, via Flickr Creative Commons license

Photo credit, Adrian Midgley, via Flickr Creative Commons license

We are so sure that we are right.

Even when we are so completely not.

My kids are like this, often.

My youngest son, in particular, almost never says ‘maybe’.

He is very, very confident. Even when he is very, very wrong.

And, apparently, he is not alone.

Decisive discusses this at length, describing the phenomenon this way: “A remarkable aspect of your mental life is that you are rarely stumped” (2).

Even lacking crucial pieces of information that we would need to make informed decisions doesn’t stop us from feeling quite sure that we have everything we need to proceed. We are even certain in our own predictions, despite the obvious fact that we don’t even know very much about the current reality, let alone the future (17).

And our confidence, of course, can be very misleading.

I see this (of course, I would) in our policymaking, and, really, in how we advocate, too.

We face challenges that we truly don’t know how to solve. Acknowledging the uncertainty that surrounds them and the implications of those doubts for successfully approaching them is a critical step in building a process that will take us to a sound resolution, but, instead, we tend to plow right through.

And, here, I really do mean ‘we’. It’s not just members of Congress or state legislators who are loathe to admit when they’re perplexed, when they might need some help to assemble the right information and consult with the best advisers and just reflect a while.

As advocates, I believe that we often perceive expressions of uncertainty as signs of weakness instead of honest recognition of complexity and unavoidable limitations of knowledge.

In one of my projects, I am constantly having to force myself to say that certain outcomes ‘may’ result, or that particular advantages ‘might’ be realized. It’s not natural to me, having spent most of my career asserting in the most compelling way possible the near-certain gains to be secured if we just follow my policy prescriptions.

If this was all just a matter of ensuring that we are being intellectually honest and ethically responsible, that would be one thing. Instead, it’s quite clear that failing to admit when we’re stumped leads to worse decisions.

We are literally suffering from our false certainty.

So, I believe, if we are to succeed in equipping ourselves to take on the big challenges, we have to create spaces in which we can admit our questioning, own our uncertainty, and actively seek out the additional knowledge and insights we need to craft the best decisions, as well as build structures that allow us to choose different paths if new information points us in another direction.

It will mean getting a lot more comfortable with hedging, and leaving room for asking and wondering.

But this culture shift can help us avoid some bad decisions and change the conversation about the limits of our own omnipotence.

No doubt.

Acts of conscience and resistance

We need to find examples of humanity amidst suffering.

We need them.

That’s why I love the story, related in The Forger, about Christians who put their identity passes in the offering plates at church in Nazi Germany, which forgers then turned into lifesaving documents for Jews targeted for deportations (p. 98).

What I find so compelling about this particular story of resistance and acts of conscience, though, is how ordinary it is.

It illustrates what I believe is a critical point about these opportunities to exert moral courage:

We seldom have as much to lose as others have to gain.

Especially when we are willing to leverage our relative power–that afforded by our education, perhaps, or our social class, or even our race–we can often stand up with those threatened with comparably little at stake.

It makes all the more indefensible the many, many occasions when we fail to exercise even this limited risk, when we fail to look for opportunities to resist.

Last week, when I raised the uncomfortable issue of inequities in school finance among neighboring counties–a sensitive issue in my privileged district and one that usually doesn’t go over well with my peers–I thought of those identity passes in the collection plates.

Not flashy or particularly daring, but principled and, ultimately, collectively, huge.

What are your acts of conscience and resistance? How do you measure them, sustain them, multiply them?

How do they define you?

Always worth a try

In Kansas these days, there’s a lot of resignation.

Our tax system has been denounced from all corners as the worst in the nation.

Nonprofit advocates perceive swift retribution from the Administration when they criticize state policy actions.

Our Attorney General has requested more than $1 million in supplemental appropriations to finance the defense of the unconstitutional bills (opting out of federal gun laws, anyone?) passed by the legislature last session.

I have heard more than a few times in the past few months:

“What’s the use?”

And, you know, I get it.

We have really important work to do, helping kids get ready for kindergarten and seniors find housing and parents get back to work.

If advocacy increasingly feels like yelling into the wind, maybe it’s a waste of our (very) precious time.

Until I read Auschwitz: A New History this summer and figured out that we have a lot to learn about seemingly-hopeless situations and how they aren’t, after all, so hopeless.

The book included several examples (see, for example, p. 139) of when Nazis were vulnerable to public protest, which begs the question: if more people and more governments had protested deportations and decried cruel treatment of Jews, what would have happened?

What are we missing out on, because we have convinced ourselves that it’s foolish to even try?

The book also relates stories of those who protested their own role in the killing but were seldom punished, reminding us that we often exaggerate the negative consequences for ourselves and minimize the likelihood of our advocacy success.

Again, if those lessons are true even in one of the darkest periods in all of human history, surely it’s true today, when what we’re dealing with is a failed economic policy and zealously ideological policymakers.

Righting wrongs is always, always worth a try.

And even yelling into the wind is better than nothing.

If it’s true in the shadow of Auschwitz, it’s true everywhere.

Self-fulfilling prophecies

I have spent much of my summer working on my advocacy around educational equities, particularly regarding policy innovations to improve post-secondary outcomes for low-income students.

It’s pretty clear that our educational system–from the expectations we set for children to the resources they encounter in the classroom to the incentives presented to their parents to how students fare once they leave school–works differently for disadvantaged students than for advantaged ones.

And the result is that, instead of being an equalizing agent in our society, education tends to reinforce patterns of relative privilege.

It works insidiously, of course, so that these mechanisms are nearly invisible.

We end up, then, with something that looks almost like a ‘natural’ phenomenon:

Low-income students of color just don’t do as well in school.

As if that is, somehow, just to be expected.

And that’s a theme–this idea that our policies can produce inequitable outcomes in a way that makes them look inevitable, instead of distinctly and unjustly orchestrated–that I reflected on during some of my non-professional reading this summer, too.

Like how, around the world today, many nations and cultures believe that girls don’t deserve an education, so they make it difficult or even impossible for girls to go to school…and then their relative lack of education is used as ‘evidence’ of the reality of girls’ inferior academic abilities.

Or, even more tragically, when Nazis did not permit Jews to work and then used their ‘idleness’ as part of the rationale for their subsequent deportation.

Of course, these beliefs and practices aren’t just found in literature.

What about when mothers receiving welfare do not receive enough financial support to provide well for their children, and then we point to their kids’ inadequate nutrition and ill-fitting clothes as ‘proof’ that they are not well cared for?

Or when we enact strict penalties for those who have disabilities and work (in many states, they can still lose their health care and benefits, if they earn too much money) and then lament their lack of ‘work initiative’?

Or when we forbid people from using SNAP benefits to buy diapers at the grocery store and then incarcerate a mom for stealing diapers for her baby (really), and cite that as, somehow ‘proving’ the inherent untrustworthiness of people in poverty?

Or, particularly perniciously, when we hold our elections on Tuesdays and cluck our tongues at the low voter turnout rates among low-income working people–those least in control of their time on any given work day?

Where our policies give credence to our worst instincts, we need policy change.

Where we build barriers and constrain people’s options to a series of bad choices and then cast judgment on their choice of one of those, we need policy change.

Where we force people to live out stereotypes that in no way reflect the reality of their lives absent these unnatural limitations, we need policy change.

Where our direst prophecies are being fulfilled, and then treated as though the march in this direction is unavoidable, even while lamentable…

We need policy change.

How would nonprofits fare, on trial?


This post from White Courtesy Telephone described a scene at a philanthropy conference a few years ago, when a jury of the field’s peers ‘put philanthropy on trial’.

Prosecution and defense, both from the philanthropy world, presented evidence on either side of these critical questions:

“Was philanthropy, or was it not, underperforming in its quest to help create social change? Should it, or should it not, be convicted for its lackluster outcomes?”

And 10 out of the 12 audience members chosen to deliberate philanthropy’s fate voted to convict.

The post emphasizes that there was little discussion, afterwards, about the significance of that verdict, or about the evidence that jurors, respectively, found most persuasive, or about the criteria that should be used to determine the relative effectiveness of the field.

And, interestingly, there has never been a retrial.

I would encourage you to read the post; nonprofits and nonprofit advocates certainly have an interest in how philanthropists are debating these questions of impact, and how their perception of their progress in this area may speak to the need for changes in how foundations interact with their nonprofit grantees.

But I am wondering how a similar trial would go for our nonprofit social service sector, itself.

Should we be convicted for failing to make significant progress on some of the most pressing social problems of our day? Or should we be excused, given the increasing pressures put on the sector, and the abdication of government, in particular, regarding its responsibilities for the same?

By what criteria would we be gauged to be ‘succeeding’, or not, in our quest for impact?

Are there parts of our sector that would fare differently than others? Are organizations working in health care, for example, doing better than those combating poverty? Is it even possible to dissect our field this way?

Would certain voices in our sector be more critical than others? Has this role of internal critic fallen mostly to particular voices in the field today, or are some actors just positioned so as to make them more or less concerned about nonprofit performance?

How would you vote, as a juror deciding the fate of our sector? What evidence would you present, as a prosecutor or as the defense?

And how would you feel, as a defendant?

What if we were judged not by other nonprofit actors, but by our most important ‘peers’–the clients whose interactions with our organizations give us our legitimacy?

How would they judge your specific organization and the overall field with which they engage?

What might we learn from such an exercise? What do we stand to lose?