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!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Cynicism, Get Thee Gone!

I’ve been in the “social change business” for over five (5) years now, and one thing has become eminently clear: it’s hard work. Neither changing lives, nor raising the funds to do so, is easy.  In fact, these two facets of my business represent the greatest challenges to the success of Capital Good Fund in particular, and the social change sector, in general.  Hardly a month goes by without a grant denial, or an instance of a client whose life has taken a turn for the worse, or a failure of a system, policy or procedure.  And because it is so easy for the human mind to focus on the 1 out of 10 negative cases, instead of on the 9 positive ones, a pernicious pall of cynicism can begin to infect the attitudes of those doing this work.

We Musn't Let It Happen!
Unfortunately, I am starting to feel the tug, the allure of negativity and defeatism creeping up on me, which is why I am writing this post to announce to the world that it is time to banish cynicism from our hearts!  We must do so for several reasons:

1. Despite all the challenges we face—government gridlock, climate change, weather-related disasters, wars, famine, disease and so on—the world as a whole is getting better.  There are several resources demonstrating that this is so.  For instance, Hans Rosling, a brilliant statistician, gave a wonderful TED talk titled ‘The best stats you’ve ever seen.’ Watch it and you’ll feel better about the progress we've made over the past 100 years!  Or read 'The Better Angels of Our Nature', a book by the experimental psychologist Steven Pinker.

2. Perhaps the greatest enemy of positive action is the fixation on negative examples.  In my case, to reinforce the aforementioned point, for every instance of a borrower in default, there are 9 where the borrower not only is paying back the loan but greatly benefiting from it as well.  As a case-in-point, just last week I received an email from a client that used a loan from us to purchase a computer; she wrote that thanks to the loan she has been able to help her children with schoolwork, save time normally spent waiting for a computer at the library, and catch up on work at her job.

3. It is undoubtedly true that there are many non-profit, for-profit and government initiatives that fail, either due to incompetence, corruption, lack of funding or a misguided approach.  As a result, frustration and despondency can set in.  But the only response that is of use is the one that says, “Let’s see what we can learn from this.  Let’s re-double our efforts.  Let’s acknowledge the difficulty of the task before us, as well as the urgent need for action, and balance the two as we move forward.”

4. Reasoned optimism inspires others. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had innumerable moments of despair: police dogs set loose on peaceful protestors, activists and children murdered, inaction of federal Civil Rights legislation, and so on.  Imagine if his ‘I Have A Dream' speech had been solely about his anger?  Surely we would not recall it to this day!  Yet if you look at the context of the speech, you realize that just as it did not solely focus on despondency, neither did it consisten of the fanciful thinking characteristic of Pangloss, the character in Voltaire’s ‘Candide’ known for unwarranted and naïve optimism.  Dr. King did not shy away from speaking to the reality of the current state of affairs.

To whit:

“We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality…We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one.  We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their adulthood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating ‘For Whites only.’”

What makes us want to join him in the fight for justice are the words that speak to what is often referred to as the “adjacent possible”--which is ambitious, but not so ahead of its time as to seem utterly impossible:

“I say to you today, my friends, though, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.  It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truth to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”

In short, may we move forward with an urgent patience, with a tempered optimism, with a spirit that never yields.  That setbacks will occur is inevitable; that they will obstruct the march towards justice is not.

More Reading & Viewing 

The Fierce Urgency of Now (AndyPosner.Org)


  1. Your own transparency and vulnerability is itself a source of optimism for those of us who read and identify with your experience. Knowing that we aren't alone in facing disappointment and dead ends is reason enough for encouragement. What you've shared gives me energy and desire to look for the adjacent possible.

    The moments I experience as darker are part of the entire process- a time to close down for review, renewal, redirection. Those days give purpose and depth to the better days somehow.

    Thanks for painting more of the whole picture.

  2. Hey Ron,

    Thanks so much for replying. I'm so glad that you enjoyed the post and that you found it to be a source of optimism.

    How did you hear about Capital Good Fund / come across the blog? It's so good to know that people read our posts and get something out of them!



  3. I became interested in CGF after hearing your TEDx talk. We spoke briefly about a 30 day collaborative fundraising event through cause marketing of renewable energy. Your challenges in trying to do something nontraditional is SO worth the effort, but BOUND to meet roadblocks until you get enough traction and great stories.

    That's what I connected with in your post and wish you the best in your pioneering service. I'm watching social change happen through dreams like yours, Rolling Jubilee and other common purpose missions. I'm hopeful we can collaborate more with a spirit of creative generosity, sustainability and integrity. Thanks for being a thought leader and front runner on the ground.