This is the sixteenth in a series of posts that will examine ten insights Community Wealth Partners has uncovered through our research of and experience with initiatives that have created transformational social change.
Big. Lasting. Positive. Change. That’s what so many of us in the social sector are seeking. Yet many get stuck facing seemingly insurmountable barriers or falling into complacent acceptance of incremental progress.
What can you do when you realize you’re stuck?
As Amy Celep noted in her recent post, one of the most powerful things a leader can do in this situation is to change the conversation. You can change the conversation within your organization, you can change the conversation you have with your partners and funders and you can change the conversation across the country. Each of these can lead to profound results.
You may be saying to yourself, “okay, in order to get my organization to long-lasting impact, you’re asking me to change the way I talk? I need actions, not new slogans!“
You are absolutely right. And “changing the conversation” means much more than developing a new messaging campaign, or changing your mission statement:
1) Change the conversation inside your organization: In our Making Connections work with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, we found that organizations that want to hold themselves accountable to social impact need to first change the way they do business internally before moving to external partners.
Changing your internal culture—by improving impact evaluation efforts and building up a staff dedicated to data, measurement, and outcomes—will drive an organization toward greater sustainability. If you want to get to that long-lasting impact, you first have to change the way staff talk about how to get there. This requires a change of culture and a re-dedication internally to your bold goals for impact.
2) Change the conversation with your funders: Many times, organizations feel at the mercy of funders. They have to speak to what the funder cares about, and alter its programs to fit whatever peg the funder has put out there.
But there can be a different way. If you have a bold goal you want to reach, sometimes, you have to pull the funders toward you. Many market leaders are doing just this—breaking through the boxes imposed by funders and drawing new lines around what success looks like in their work. Geoff Canada at Harlem Children’s Zone explains how he did this in the early days of his work: “We honestly would not take money that was not multi-year and it had to be unrestricted. You had to fund the plan, not a specific program.“
3) Change the conversation nationally: After two decades of raising and distributing money to provide food to vulnerable populations, Share Our Strength changed the conversation around their work from “feeding people” to “ending hunger.” Share Our Strength realized there was a problem: 16 million kids in America struggle with hunger. And they realized that in order to solve this massive problem at the scale it exists, the status quo was not going to work. And that incremental progress was good, but not good enough.
With their No Kid Hungry campaign, Share Our Strength has worked to change the conversation nationally around hunger. They would not accept the fact that millions of American children will be hungry, and when partners pushed back that solving this problem was impossible, they convinced them otherwise.
And through this bold vision-setting and process of changing the conversation, new partners have rallied around their idea and this is leading the organization toward the impact they know is possible—that no child will be hungry in the United States.
We have big ideas and big dreams. People can push back against big dreams and call them crazy. But when this happens, either on an internal level, with funders, or on any scale you operate, don’t give up. Try re-framing the conversation and watch for the new possibilities that result.