Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Doin Good

Since I choose to work in the nonprofit sector, I've been told that I'm  "doing good work" or "doing good" many times through my life. This never sat well with me. I never seem to feel good about doing good and tend to have a visceral reaction to hearing those words. When I try to explain this feeling to people, it mostly comes out as a spewing tirade against the traditional do-gooder, activist model of change. This explanation also never sat well with me and I don't think I even convinced myself.

Related, I've also struggled with people who say they give donations or volunteer or work on a cause to "feel good." I'm beginning to understand these motivations a little better, but I still think "doing good" and "feeling good" are non-starters when it comes to creating change. I do feel good about my donations and I do think I am doing good work at my job, but that really isn't my motivation. I'm motivated by what I think is right and what I think is the most effective way to create change. It's great that you may think I'm doing good, but that's a bonus. I don't prescribe any moral judgments to what I'm doing.

I consider myself in the Jon Stewart camp of sanity, so I try to keep these feelings mostly to myself and not convert others to my side, except for the occasional spewing (I am a blogger, after all). But then, in a black-hole of blog surfing a few weeks ago, I came across this article, "Leverage Points--Places to Intervene in a System," written by Donella Meadows, the systems analyst, in 1999. She outlines 12 "places to intervene in a system" to create change, in increasing order of effectiveness. They range from "Constants, parameters, numbers" (least effective) to "the power to transcend paradigms" (most effective). I'm sure you can tell by those snippets alone that this is some pretty heavy stuff. It completely blew my mind.

I won't go into what exactly the different "places" to create change are or what they mean, because Meadows does that quite effectively and succinctly. But I will focus in on second most effective place to intervene and create change on the list (which was originally #1): "The mindset or paradigm out of which the system--its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters--arises."

When I read this, something clicked. I realized that "doing good" is the mindset the entire nonprofit sector has arisen from. All of the nonprofit sectors' structures, rules and goals have arisen from this notion of "good", as have all of its subsequent problems--inefficient capital markets, low pay for nonprofit employees, a hesitancy to blend for-profit/nonprofit ventures, etc. I think I fundamentally disagree with this mindset and have begun to recognize the problems that it creates. Meadows' list showed me that changing this mindset is actually one of the most effective ways to fix these problems on a large scale. (For more on this check out Uncharitable by Dan Pallotta, where he traces this moral framework all the way back to the Puritans.)

Now, I think the label of "doing good" is less of a pet peeve and more of a cause for action for me. (I think I should have realized this sooner because a synonym for "doing good" is charity and I did name my blog "Change Charity.") Being able to shift something as fundamental to a sector as the "mindset or paradigm out of which the system...arises" is pretty powerful. I'm not sure how we can make this shift, but I know there's a lot of people working on it. If anything speaks to that, it's the recent Social Capital Markets Conference.

But until that shift, if we ever meet, please make sure to refrain from telling me how great I am for working at a nonprofit. I don't care, and you don't want to hear me spew.

Disclaimer: The postings on this site are my own and do not represent the positions, strategies or opinions of Venture Philanthropy Partners

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