The Real Beginning to the Journey
The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.
How often have I heard, or even said, that statement? It is meant to encourage people to take some small action towards their dream. A thousand miles can seem impossible, but surely anyone can take one step.
But no true journey begins with a step. From any given point, we can move in many directions. We make choices about our destination, our route and our means of travel. Then we know what direction to step. So we have a vision of what success looks like—reaching our intended destination, or in the case of community benefit organizations, our ideal world.
Why then do we let organizations take many steps in different, almost random, directions, with no vision of what overall success looks like?
Too often, we make decisions about each priority and issue in isolation, to fix a problem or address a need or deal with a crisis. With an inspiring destination in mind, we might choose better options that work in harmony towards that destination, and leverage resources much more effectively. The destination will inspire others to walk with us, and provide support along the way. And if we harness our efforts and enthusiasm towards creating strength, we are much less likely to choose programs that maintain dependency.
What Questions Can Guide Our Thinking?
The better approach, therefore, is to take time to brainstorm about possible destinations for your community, and make conscious choices about the best possible outcome. Use questions of this sort to guide your thinking:
- What community of the future does your organization want to help create?
- What values are implicit in that better community?
- How can your organization model those same values at every level and every day?
Most people in our community benefit organizations do not have ready answers to those questions. They can tell me (at great length) about what they do. They can tell heart-breaking stories about how their work improves the lives of the individuals who come through their doors or otherwise directly benefit from their programs and services. Then, they sadly explain how the waiting list is longer each year. Some of the same individuals even need them again and again because the community hasn’t changed, or has changed for the worse. It can be a dispiriting conversation, as they despair of really changing the system, and they say phrases I dread such as, “the poor will always be with us.”
Well, they certainly will be if you structure your organization to survive forever to “deal with a problem.”
Turning Pessimists Into Optimists
You can turn that conversation around, turn pessimists into optimists and gain back the energy and enthusiasm really needed to make our communities better.
Bring your community together in a safe, casual environment. If defining your community as board, staff and key volunteers is your current comfort level, start there. If you are willing to open up the discussions more with your community and other stakeholders, invite them too. The wider the initial involvement, the less time you need to spend later consulting stakeholders and gaining their commitment. Those present at the start of an exciting idea will always be more enthusiastic than those talked into it later.
Break the room into small groups, and ask each to consider possible futures and describe their ideal future in relation to your sector, or the sector of those you have brought together, such as health. Give no timelines other than to assume that today’s personalities and resources are not relevant; we have no idea at this stage how long the journey will be. Avoid putting the current organization into that future for now, as you do not yet know whether your organization will exist in the ideal future. Be firm on this; if you hear a group talking about the organization, bring them back to talking about the community instead. Remind them that resources limit how fast you achieve the ideal, not what the ideal is.
I prefer to use crayons and flip charts and ask for pictures. It creates a new power dynamic, as the leader with the big ego and loud voice may not feel confident in his or her drawing ability, and the new intern or shy client might. Besides, in western culture, we all drew as children but most of us stopped by the time we were teenagers. We seem to need our inner child back to dream of what is possible. Be flexible about how the creative process unfolds - if a group prefers to sing or dance their ideas, why not? At this stage, words hold us back, but there are many ways to communicate without words.
Pictures reveal values faster than any dialogue ever could. For the health sector, for example, is the ideal future focused on the latest and best health care, or on helping people lead healthy lives with minimal dependency on health care? The pictures will show how different people in the room are really thinking, and whether there are similarities, small differences or chasms to discuss.
Often, people who never could agree on anything before find that they really do agree on the world they are trying to create–the disagreements had been about methods or speed. Sometimes, they find out who is holding them back—like a young professional employee who told us her ideal world was one in which the organization was still struggling to build awareness of the problem! No wonder no real progress was being made in her area; she was carefully ensuring lifelong employment for herself. This was not intentional; she had just been taught to limit her dreams to what was "realistic."
Really Being Realistic
What is not realistic is to think there will ever be enough resources to serve a community or a world defined by weaknesses and growing needs. Deciding on the right small steps to build on strengths, and not only decrease need but increase abundance, is the only realistic route to a better future. The community may not be a lot better at first, but it will be somewhat better, and the steps are at least in the right direction.
So if the drawings are in conflict, talk it through. An hour of guided discussion may save hundreds of hours in future decision-making. Perhaps the table that drew a picture of dependency will be inspired by other visions in the room, and willing to put theirs aside. Perhaps they realize the values depicted are not really what they want for their community. Or perhaps their vision is so incompatible that it makes no sense to remain involved with that organization. Now they know to move on, and will no longer be in there holding your organization back.
Think about history. If some people once felt that it was OK for others to be slaves so some could have a life of ease and comfort, and others felt that all humanity deserved freedom and a chance for a better life, those ideas could not peacefully co-exist indefinitely. Was some dissent worthwhile so the better set of ethical values could prevail?
Usually, the conflict is really between optimists and pessimists, and whoever wins control will make their prediction come true. Countries that have believed high rates of AIDS-HIV could be significantly reduced now have lower rates than those who believed it couldn't. Think about your situation. Would you rather work or volunteer with those who are focussed on changing a bad situation into a better one, or with those who see themselves forever fighting a losing battle?
The latter will take a circuitous route, often retracing their steps or changing direction. They'll travel far but usually be no closer to their utopia. The optimists will be partway there, and will have recruited other believers who will continue the journey.
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