Social change work is hard and frustrating and wonderful and terrible; it is also, at times, funny, quirky and just plain fascinating. With this blog we hope to capture all that goes into what we do at Capital Good Fund, and we invite you to join the conversation!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Leverage in the Fight for Social Justice

There are only so many hours in a day, days in a week and weeks in a year; we cannot squeeze more time out of the fabric of the universe without resorting to the extremes of relativity.  Yet the problems of poverty, racism, environmental degradation and other forms of injustice seem to demand more of the individual than can possibly be given.  As the Executive Director of Capital Good Fund, for instance, I am keenly aware of the dissonance between the amount of time and energy I possess and the demands placed on me by my work.

Over the last four years, however, I have come to two powerful and fundamental conclusions about the nature of the fight for social justice: first, that there is a tremendous difference between delivering a program or service and building an organization that can deliver that program or service, and second, that only through leverage can we ensure that the arc of history bends towards justice.

Consider the difference between volunteering at a soup kitchen, ladling soup to the homeless, and starting an organization that creates employment opportunities for the homeless.  While there is no doubt that, for those without a place to eat, a soup kitchen is an essential and, indeed, live-saving place, the fact remains that anyone can ladle soup into a bowl.  Those of us with the means to truly make a difference must ask more of ourselves; we must think about systemic change, about how to leverage every action, every idea and every hour into greater and more sustainable impact.  True social change does not come from the warm fuzzy feeling of ladling soup, nor does it come from occasional volunteerism.  Rather, social change happens when ideas people meet people with a knack for logistics, people who understand finance and operations...and when these people get together to build an organization, greater than the sum of its parts, that can tackle a problem until it is solved.

Take, for instance, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), one of the key organizations that led the fight for civil rights in the late 50's and 60's.  While the majority of Americans can identify Martin Luther King, Jr. and understand the impact of his work, far fewer recognize the role that the SCLC, the NAACP and other organizations played in advancing civil rights through legal action, coordinated protests, nonviolence training, fundraising and voter registration drives.  In other words, the success of the civil rights movement was as much the product of MLK's soaring speeches as well as his, and myriad other people's, ability to build an infrastructure that could engage the masses and force an end to segregation.

Had MLK simply been on his own, and not part of a broader movement, his brilliant speeches would have reached but a few ears and his life would not have become a pivotal part of American history.  The unsung heroes of social change are those that execute on the ideas of leaders; those that bring to their work a businessman or woman's attention to finances, operations and management.

So whether you are a leader or employee of a social change organization, it is imperative that you think about how to leverage your actions so that they have an impact beyond the reach of your arms and the sound of your voice.  An hour spent disbursing a loan to a woman in poverty is not the same as an hour developing the policy and procedures for how to effectively and consistently provide equitable financial services to the poor.  When I first started Capital Good Fund, I spent all my time answering phone calls and serving one client at a time; obviously, when we had no staff and were still trying to figure things out, that was the role I had to play.  But now, everything I do is about building systems, processes, policies and procedures that can transmogrify the vision I have for the organization into the actual impact it can have on the lives of thousands of human beings.

I encourage anyone that cares about social and environmental problems to consider how they spend their time and money addressing those issues.  Think about your actions as a kind of pulley that can lift up society; imagine how you can connect your passion with the community of people who share your passion.  Finally, I want to be clear that I am in no way demeaning the importance or power of volunteer work such as ladling soup at a soup kitchen.  Instead, what I am saying is that, given the choice between an hour of working at that soup kitchen and an hour building an organization that can deliver soup to the homeless day after day, there is no doubt in my mind where one's effort should be focused.  Indeed, when we consider that the community of people working for social good is far smaller than the forces that perpetuate injustice, we must recognize that the only way we can hope to see justice persevere is if our impact is multiplied through the judicious use of our time, our energy, our and our ideas.