Making Social Change More Effective: It’s Not ONE Thing, It’s EVERYTHING (A New Program)

$471 billion dollars1
1.3 million organizations1
12 million employees1

This is the nonprofit sector in the United States at a glance.

So much money. So many organizations. So many people.

And so much frustration. All of us sensing that more change is possible, often feeling like we are taking 2 steps forward and 1.5 steps back. Dreams of changing the world becoming fears that we can’t even help all the people who are currently suffering. A vision of what is possible becoming whatever incremental impact we can create within this year’s limited budget.

If you are reading this, you may just be one of those people. You might be working in a nonprofit or providing support with your funds. Or you might be a volunteer. Or someone who works for a social enterprise or government program doing social good.2

That frustration may be your own frustration.

These days, there are two common answers to that frustration, both often viewed through the lens of racial equity. The first is the need to rethink philanthropy and how organizations resource their work. The second is the need to rethink governance and organizational leadership.

From our research and analysis at Creating the Future, we believe the answer is sadly bigger than just rethinking governance or funding. It is also bigger than only focusing on the much-needed lens of racial equity and social justice.

The answer is that despite our benevolent intentions, everything about the way the social good  ecosystem operates is actively contributing to a lack of systemic change.

Put simply, it’s not just one thing. It’s everything.

And that is where the next phase of our work at Creating the Future is focused – on everything.

Our Research and Why This Matters to Creating the Future

Our mission at Creating the Future is to help people create systems change, towards the ultimate vision of a world that works for all of us – humans, creatures, planet.

The question that has guided our work from the beginning is this one:

We see change happen all the time – the US Civil Rights movement, the marriage equality movement.

What is happening in those movements that is not happening in the work being done every day by social good organizations of all kinds?

And here has been our aha:

Problems of incrementalism, inequity, and an overall sense of frustration and burnout aren’t just about how organizations design strategy and programs – the outward facing stuff. It is not just about the impact of philanthropy on how organizations do their work. It’s not just about how organizations are governed and led. And it’s not just because they lack resources to get the job done well.

It’s about all the seemingly invisible things we do internally as well, the functions we take for granted as “just the way it’s done.” How we do accounting and human resources and marketing and succession planning. Everything.

And the reason it’s everything is simple:

NONE of the tools and approaches we use to support the work of social change was designed for the purpose of creating systemic improvement to the quality of life in our world.

The practices used by social good organizations to support their work were all designed for other purposes, and specifically purposes rooted in power and privilege.

  • Strategic planning comes from the military, and then the business world. This leads to win/lose, zero-sum approaches, often aimed at short-term gains.
  • Nonprofit programs are modeled after charitable efforts of the early philanthropists, who modeled their own efforts on religious charity. This leads to an emphasis on helping one person or group at a time vs. the types of societal shifts that might threaten the standing of those powerful individuals and groups.
  • Accounting, human resources, and marketing practices were copied and pasted from the business world. This leads to (among other things) an emphasis on protecting and sustaining the organization vs. protecting and sustaining the community, an oversized focus on accountability for “the money,” and a culture of competition vs. cooperation.

Here’s the thing:

All those operational functions, from boards to fundraising, from marketing to accounting, are things we are TAUGHT to do. University-based nonprofit management and social enterprise programs, nonprofit resource center and social enterprise hubs, consultants’ workshops and interventions, foundations’ capacity building efforts – they teach us that these systems, adapted from places of power and privilege, are “the right way” to run social good organizations.

We are taught how to differentiate our organizations from others, to compete for funding – when what we need to be doing is finding points of commonality, so we can work together on these big issues.

We are taught to have top notch systems to account for “the money” (i.e. the means to do our work), with standardized reports every board reviews at every meeting – when what we need is a reporting system for our impact in the community (i.e. our desired end results), that every board reviews at every meeting.

When we try the approaches we have been taught, and we are still not where we want to be, we are often told that we just haven’t done it enough. So we double down on those counterproductive actions. We also double down on blaming ourselves, often with the words, “if only, if only, if only…” when in fact, the reason we are not achieving what is possible is because so many of the things we are taught to do go counter to what we are trying to achieve.

Those teachers and leaders are all well-intentioned. Unfortunately, it is precisely what they are teaching that is standing in the way of creating social change.

“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
~ Audre Lorde

And so it is not just how social change groups raise money or how they do their work “out there” in the community that is stopping change from happening. It is how we do every single bit of our INTERNAL work that is stopping us at every turn, before we even get out the door. 3

Our plan

To get beyond the incremental change that our culture suggests is normal – the stories we tell ourselves that change is hard, that it takes time, that it happens only bit by bit – Creating the Future will be working to design new systems, specifically intended for supporting the work of creating dramatic, visionary, systemic, societal change.

Creating the Future will be working to design new systems,
intended specifically for supporting the work of
creating a better world.

The program has three prongs:

Bottom-up: Focusing on individual groups seeking to create more change via their own work
Top-down: At the other end, we are focusing on the entire social change ecosystem, to facilitate change on a massive scale
Top-down AND Bottom-up: In between those two extremes, we are focusing on intermediaries – foundations, academic institutions, nonprofit resource centers, social enterprise hubs, consultants, and other intermediaries who establish the “best practices” and norms within which social change groups operate.

The program will focus on nonprofit / NGO organizations, social enterprises and government programs, because they all use similar internal systems to support their outwardly-facing programs.

As with everything at Creating the Future, the through line for all aspects of this program will be

a) that we will learn and then broadly share what we learn (our mission)
b) that Catalytic Thinking will be at the heart of every aspect of the work (our values in action)

Here is how we envision this multi-faceted program will work.

Bottom-up:

For individual organizations wishing to better align their own systems with their vision and their values, we are providing the opportunity to apply Catalytic Thinking to specific topics they already care about, to begin rethinking those systems right now.

Some of the topics to be addressed include…

    • Succession planning (cohort #1 has already begun)
    • Collective Enoughness / Resource sharing
    • Hiring and compensation
    • Community Impact Planning (better than strategic planning – built for this sector!)
    • Communications strategy
    • New Program development

The goal of this bottom-up aspect of the program is to begin designing new systems right now, to learn how those systems might function in individual organizations, and to then share the results of those efforts, to create more ripples of change.

Our hope for participants is that they simultaneously are able to take action around the specific subject matter topic, AND that they have more confidence in applying Catalytic Thinking to all aspects of their own work and lives.

Creating the Future’s own work will be included as an example in all topics, as we explore systems for supporting our own work. In this way, organizational leaders can feel comfortable to try on new ways of thinking without the fear that often comes with applying that thinking to their own work. In addition, they will be able to share information about their own organizations in confidence within the cohort, knowing that the stories we share publicly will be those of Creating the Future’s work, not theirs.

This is some of what participants can expect in each cohort:

    • Facilitated discussion of the topic through the lens of Catalytic Thinking, to ensure the resulting decisions and actions reflect the humane, healthy, equitable world we want to see. Each cohort will be small enough for folks to feel comfortable together, to facilitate meaningful conversation.
    • Q&A sessions between facilitated sessions, to support participants as they put what they are learning into practice.
    • Forms, templates, worksheets that can be used in their own work
    • Pre-recorded Classes and other learning tools to support their Catalytic Thinking practice
    • Publishing our findings and results in academic and mainstream publications, to add credibility to the work participants will be attempting in their own organizations.

Top-Down:

To effect change in the entire social good ecosystem, the program will include significant advocacy about this topic. Like the bottom-up work, this work has already taken its first few steps, to be ramped up considerably in the coming months and years.

The goal of this top-down aspect of the program is to create a shift in the conversation globally, to begin a sweeping effort to rethink and redesign all the operating systems of social change groups (beyond the current focus on governance and philanthropy).

Our hope for those with whom we engage will be a different understanding of what is really stopping change efforts – a different way of seeing the same old problems that have plagued social change work for decades. As fiscal sponsorship guru Andrew Schulman put it, “This is an effort to shift all the stuff everyone in this sector complains about!”

This part of the program includes all forms of advocacy we can imagine, including…

    • Writing in both mainstream and academic publications
    • Public speaking
    • Podcast guest and guest blogging
    • Networking

Depending on the outcome of the conversations, as we find partners who are working on the same issues, we hope to participate in (at least) or organize (at most) a gathering of individuals from around the globe, to participate in a Catalytic Thinking facilitation, creating a unified voice and unified action towards systemic change within the social good arena.

Bottom-up AND Top-down:

To encourage intermediaries to rethink and redesign the systems they promote as “best practices,” we will provide a way for those influencers to participate at a level that acknowledges their influence – combining the bottom-up and top-down programs into one overarching program.

Our goal in working with these groups is to provide actionable alternatives to their current norms, while simultaneously creating a multiplier effect, shifting the approaches of all the groups and individuals whose work these influencers touch.

Our hope for intermediaries / influencers is that the work of their grantees / students / members is more effective in creating change – the ultimate desired outcome of the intermediaries’ own programs.

This part of the program will provide a subscription to everything in both the bottom-up and top-down efforts, about every topic (succession, resource sharing, etc.). Whatever is available for cohorts of individual groups (bottom-up), as well as any of the information gathered and shared via our advocacy efforts (top-down) – subscribers will have access to observe or participate in any and all of it. In addition, we will be creating features intended just for those intermediaries.

This aspect of the program is just being launched. As of this writing, the program will provide…

    • Access for themselves and their grantees / students to any of the cohort topics noted above, as well as those we develop down the road
    • Special cohorts designed just for their grantees / students
    • Special cohorts designed for specific groups of intermediaries, e.g. a cohort for university professors in nonprofit management, or a cohort for community foundations.
    • All the same features as the individual cohorts – facilitated sessions, Q&A sessions, pre-recorded classes, etc.
    • All the same features as the top-down advocacy – actively providing them with all articles, copies of speeches, networking opportunities, blog posts and podcasts, etc.

Why we have chosen this approach

The simple answer to why we have chosen this approach is that this whole program is the result of Catalytic Thinking. (You can view the Catalytic Thinking questions here.)

Catalytic Thinking guides us to first focus on all the people affected by whatever situation or decisions are at play. To that end, we have been in ongoing communication and co-creation with over 100 people active in all areas of social change, from foundation leaders to individual activists, to learn from them and build this effort upon our collective wisdom.

That is also why we chose to take both the top-down and bottom-up approach to the program. While narrowing to focus on a target audience may make sense when you are selling toothpaste, it goes directly counter to the kinds of sweeping change our world needs from social good organizations. Catalytic Thinking guides us to first ask, “Who will be affected by our actions? And what will it take to include them?”  Those are the inclusive questions guiding us to take this 3-pronged approach.

From our hundreds of hours of conversations, we were able to define “success” as all people and organizations within the social good ecosystem working together to create a healthy, humane, equitable world, by modeling that vision in every aspect of their work.

From there, we listed the conditions that would lead to that reality, noting that people working for change would need…

  • Practice, companionship, and assurance as they rethink their own day-to-day work
  • Inspiration, knowledge, space to explore at no risk (i.e. testing new ideas on someone else’s organization vs. the fear of trying new things on their own org)
  • A framework that could help them first find new questions, and only then seek new answers

Not only was the program conceived via Catalytic Thinking; it reflects the essence of the framework – the understanding that while our actions create our results, it is our thoughts that create our actions.

Flow chart with the word "thinking" leading to the word "actions" leading to the word "results"

The key to creating significantly better results is not to innovate new actions, but to first change the assumptions at the heart of those actions.

Every single system within social good organizations carries with it the assumptions of organizations with completely different goals and values – assumptions rooted in the profit mandate, in military gains, and in charity and deservedness. If we don’t change those assumptions, those systems will continually be at odds with the community and global improvement we want to see, stopping us at every turn.

The key to changing the results for social good organizations is therefore to ensure that the assumptions at the heart of every aspect of our work are assumptions that lead towards our goals.

That is where Catalytic Thinking comes in – the question-based framework that leads groups and individuals to actions grounded in compassion, inclusion, and possibility. The Catalytic Thinking framework was designed with the explicit intention of creating a more humane, equitable, healthy future for our world. The framework reflects the sorts of questions that have historically led to visionary social change.

  • What is the future we want, and what will it take to create that?
  • Who else cares about what we care about? And what can we accomplish together that none of us can accomplish on our own?
  • What resources do we have together, that we can share towards our common goals?

We cannot predict whether this huge program will be successful in shifting the entire sector from one rooted in counterproductive assumptions to one that is aligned from top to bottom with the future we want to see for our world.

We do know two things with certainty:

First, we know that the people who partake in each aspect of our new program will be significantly closer to rethinking all those systems than they would have been without Catalytic Thinking guiding them. That will be a key measure of our collective success in this program.

Secondly – and importantly – we know that until we clean our own house of the stories that keep us stuck, we will continue to seek new actions without changing the thinking behind those actions 4.

Why us? And why now?

One part of the answer is that no one else is taking on this whole big question. Many groups are focusing on certain aspects of it, and we intend to work closely with them in all three aspects of this program. But no one is talking about all the seemingly insignificant systems that invisibly affect everything in social good organizations of all kinds.

Another part of the answer is that it is our mission to experiment and to share what we learn, and we have years of experience doing just that. 5

Lastly, we are confident that this approach will lead to great results because we designed the program using Catalytic Thinking, and after a decade of doing this work, we have seen the results when people (including us!) apply the framework to just about any issue that presents itself.

As to “why now?” the answer is sadly simple:

Because there is no time to lose – climate change, racial and social injustice, escalating political and social division, all while there is still a global pandemic waiting to attack. Within the social good ecosystem, the nonprofit sector has been under particular attack, with calls for ignoring (at best) and dismantling (at worst) the “nonprofit industrial complex.”

To live up to its potential, the entire social good ecosystem needs to ensure that both our internal and external efforts reflect the world we want to see.

And we hope you will join us as we begin the next step in this exciting journey.


1 Data sources: Dollars via Giving USA 2021 / Number of organizations via the National Council of Nonprofits / employee data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics

2 The stats that open this piece do not include social enterprises, government programs, or any countries outside the US. The social good arena is HUGE!

3 You can see a detailed look at nine of those factors at this post.

4 There is a comprehensive look at what “stuck” looks like in this slide deck – comparisons between aligned vs. current systems of organizational structure, resourcing, communication and engagement, evaluation and learning, accounting and accountability, leadership, program design, planning and decision-making, and HR and compensation.

5 For the past 10 years, Creating the Future has been demonstrating the power of Catalytic Thinking. We have done so in years-long demonstration projects like…

In addition, we have taught hundreds of students all around the world, who are applying Catalytic Thinking in their lives and their work – in fields as diverse as software engineering and social work, from foundation leaders to stay-at-home moms. In every case, Catalytic Thinking helped elicit ideas that never would have arisen, creating conditions for success towards goals large and small. 

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