SUSTAINABLE OS: Mastering mission discipline

If you put your heart into your work, if you give yourself to it...

If you love it like that,

Don't you want it...

To love you back?

Don't you want that kind of relationship? Mutual and healthy.

Sacrifice is one-way. You give and your work takes. And takes and takes, taking you to burn out.

What if, instead, leading could be like this: You keep getting better at sustaining your work, and at the same time...

Your work keeps getting better at sustaining you.


Compared to the...

Stormy dramas of sacrifice,

Or the...

Sweet exhilaration of soaring,

Sustainability might seem...

Dull and gray and boring.

The word itself feels clumsy on the tongue. It's got no charisma. So it might not seem compelling. And that's too bad because sustainability has so much to offer.

First it...

Puts an end to sacrifice,

Then it...

Opens the door to premier leadership, where you go soaring beyond best practices.

But more importantly...

Sustainability is the guts of leadership.

Is that a strange thing to say? That sentence surprised me when I wrote it. But the practices that produce sustainability are in fact gutsy. They're not lightweight how-tos. They take work, they take discipline, but if you follow those practices...

You'll turn yourself into a force to reckon with.

And this will happen because the roots of sustainability are...

Love and power.

Both of which in their own right are forces to reckon with.

Yet these are the last two things the nonprofit sector seems to want to talk about. And I find that sad, because they have so much to give you...

But only if they are working together.

In the world of social change and social justice, sustainability is and has to be the...

Partnership of love and power.

It's the interplay of...

Love when it's at its most powerful,


Power when it's at its most loving.

There are many reasons why sustainable leaders love the power of sustainable leadership.

For example, Sybil...

I've been diligent about self-development and now here I am, twice as capable as I was this time last year. Twice as powerful. It's like we've got two effective EDs for the price of one. I love giving this gift to my nonprofit.

And Simrun...

Once I started doing well myself, I wanted that for everyone. Nowadays my staff know that I'm their advocate. No burnout here, that's my stand. My #1 job as their ED is to make sure they're thriving. Which I love doing. Oh, and by the way, we've never been so productive.

And Sam...

I used to come home full of toxins from my day. First thing in the door, I started dumping it all on Stacey. I could see her brace herself. No hug, no kiss, just the dump.

Then I learned how to take charge of my work life. So now I come home at peace, free to focus on Stacey. I wrap my arms around her, listen to her mood, and then we make up our evening together. I love giving her this gift.


Mission discipline
Let me ask you...

What's the stand you take as a leader?

Which means...

What do you believe in so strongly that you will not be backed off from it no matter what?


What do you disagree with so strongly that you will not tolerate it no matter what?

A stand begins with core values but it doesn't stop there...

You back up those values with action.

A stand is not just talk, it's the...

Incarnation of what's deepest in your heart.

It means having the discipline you need to actually live your mission as effectively as you possibly can. And because our missions are so serious, the discipline we need in order to enact them is also serious.

But there's a problem here. "Mission" is such a noble word and "discipline" is such a cold word that when we put them together the combination doesn't feel friendly. So I want to take a minute and warm up this phrase because it can serve you so well.

It's a phrase you can use when you're taking a stand...

For something,

Or when you're taking a stand...

Against something.

Or when you're doing both at the same time...

Alison:  Jerry, you already know this, but I'm going to say it again. You may not operate outside our mission discipline. That means you do not get to hurt other people. You do not get to do negative gossiping or put people down. You do not get to tell lies about other staff.

Jerry:  As long as I'm doing my job duties you can't say anything to me about that other stuff.

Alison:  Remember when we hired you last month, we made a big deal about the first item on your job description, which says, "Abide by and contribute to the staff culture, which means absolutely no relational aggression and which means supporting other staff to do their best work and to be happy in their work."

Jerry:  Well, I remember that, but that's just fluff and you can't really enforce it.

Alison:  Not only is it not fluff, it's the heart of our staff culture, which is the heart of our organization. It's part of what we call mission discipline. We believe in treating people well. That's a stand we take.

And it's a stand I take personally as a leader. It's something I believe in so deeply that I can promise you it's something that I will not ever compromise on.

Jerry:  See, I think it's wrong to have absolutes like that.

Alison:  But we do have absolutes. This is a place where people get to do their best work and be happy in their work. And it's going to stay that way. It's not a matter for discussion or debate.

Your behavior over the past weeks, the conversations we've had about it, and the conversation we're having right now, all tell me that you don't like our stand and have no interest in joining us in it. So that means it's time to make an exit plan for you.

Jerry:  That sounds awfully rash. Staff culture is one of those phrases that means nothing. It's just not that important.

Alison:  Ohmigod, no. The stand we take is an expression of how much we care about ourselves and each other. Haven't you seen how much the staff here like each other and enjoy working together?

Jerry:  Well, yeh, I guess...

Alison:  The safety people feel working here comes from this stand. And this matters to us so much that nothing and no one will ever convince us to give it up. In fact, we just seem to get more committed to it every day.

So now let's do your exit plan.

Now here's a happier conversation...

Edgar:  Cheryl, now that we've talked in detail about your commitment to our issue and how you would contribute to our work if you joined our Board, there's just one more thing to go over and that's our mission discipline.

Cheryl:  Okay, what's that?

Edgar:  In our organization, we like to say that no one is above mission discipline. And that includes Board members. In some nonprofits, Board members think they have special status and don't have to treat others with respect. Or don't have to stay on track with the mission, but can go off on tangents on their own.

To us, mission discipline means many things, but most importantly, it means that we stay focused on the mission and that we treat each other well. And with regard to this, we insist that our Board members be exemplary not exempt. And that means we don't allow personality battles, power plays, name calling, or put downs. We don't tolerate any kind of relational aggression.

And while we have lots of fun together, we have a disciplined focus on the mission and we make sure that we as the Board are making the kind of contribution to the work that this organization needs from us.

We're very proud of the culture we've created and very attached to it. It's something we stand by. It's not something that's open for changing. So what do you think?

Cheryl:  I love this. I've been on two nonprofit Boards before and they were both discouraging experiences because of the relentless interpersonal conflicts which then meant no work of any value ever got done. I quit those Boards.

But when Alex told me what it was like being on your Board I thought it might just be what I've been looking for, and now, listening to you, I know it is.

"Mission discipline" is not a technical phrase, it's a moral stand—in the best sense of that word, in the nurturing sense. It's moral because it expresses the deepest values you live by in your nonprofit.

Notice that Alison and Edgar both explained to some extent what they meant by "mission discipline." But there was something more, something that went beyond definition.

Alison and Edgar were putting across the message...

In this nonprofit, we know who we are and we stand by what we believe in.

Having a clear, consistent, coherent stand that you take—for your mission, your staff, your Board, and yourself—gives you the kind of power that nothing else can give you. There's no substitute for this.

You can use the phrase "mission discipline" to let people know that what you're talking about in this moment is fundamental...

Alison was letting Jerry know that he could not get her to waffle on her values, not with any amount of manipulating or cajoling or bullying.

Edgar was reassuring Cheryl that if she joined the Board, she could absolutely count on the best kind of behavior. Absolutely.

You can use "mission discipline" to let people know that you couldn't be more serious...

Suppose you tell Chris, "We've got a problem because you're operating outside mission discipline." That indicates this is a very big, very serious problem.

Suppose you tell Lee, "I love having you on our team, because even though you've only been here two months, you've already got our mission discipline in your bones." That's a very big, very serious appreciation.

"Mission discipline" is a unifying concept. It's a shorthand way of talking about all your core values in one phrase...

It speaks to the whole that's greater than the sum of the individual values.

Of course there are other ways to talk about your leadership stand. "Mission discipline" is a favorite of mine, but you might come up with a phrase you like better. Or maybe you'll find yourself using different phrases with different people in different situations in order to get your message across.

I want to urge you, though, to have at least one concise way to name your leadership stand, because that will make you....

Stronger in taking it.


More convincing when you talk to people about it.

In a minute, we'll get to specific power principles that make sustainability robust, but first there's a crucial question for us to ask both about mission and about discipline.


What's your relationship to your mission?
I remember once years ago an ED asked me to rewrite her mission statement because she felt it was too casual and she wanted something classy, something dressed to impress.

So I went at it. I constructed chains of compound-complex sentences jamming in every aspect of their work, leaving nothing out. Then I translated all the short, punchy words into multisyllabic Latinate substitutions.

When I finished, I sat back, took a breath, and looked at my handiwork, a dense jawbreaker of a paragraph—and my stomach rolled over. What had I done?

I was now looking at a mission that had been shot, stuffed, and mounted.

And I vowed never to do that again.

I understand that we do have to dress our missions in their Sunday best when we apply for a grant from a foundation which we know likes that kind of thing.

But what is it that we need personally from our mission statements, those of us actually doing the work?

In our sector we put so much attention on the end point, the formal statement of the mission. But what if you go back to the beginning? What if you ask yourself the really rich questions, like...

What was my mission in the moment when it was born?

What was it before I had words for it?

What's the primal passion inside my mission?

Now of course there are excellent nonprofit leaders who are not interested in passion. Give them some good services to deliver and they're happy.

But there are those of us who need to reach deeper to sustain ourselves. Passion feeds us. It's where we feel at home. And that's who I'm addressing right now.

And to illustrate what I want to say, I'm going to talk about the mission I dedicated myself to for many years—child abuse prevention—because I still have such strong feelings for it.

There were two dimensions to my deepest experience of that mission...

Primal refusal: Child abuse has to stop. It just has to.

Primal commitment: Children have to be safe. They have to be cared for and loved.

Such simple, emotional words captured the yes and no of my work and mobilized me.

And a part of me thought...

Really, what else needs to be said?

Of course, we had lots more to say in our appeal letters. But for me personally, this primal relationship to my mission was sustaining.

And yet these words, as true as they were, did not begin to capture my feeling about the mission. They pointed to something still deeper in my heart.

Now compare that primal mission stand to a mission statement of the kind we sometimes wrote up for grant proposals...

CAP is dedicated to providing prevention education and self-defense training to children in public and private schools, classroom by classroom, from preschool through 12th grade, with age-appropriate curriculum, to teach them how to deal with peer bullies, how to get away from kidnappers and molesters, and how to get help if they are being abused by a familiar person at home.

Nothing wrong with this. It's good stuff. I'll sign up for it. But the original passion is missing.

In our sector, we talk about mission drift, meaning that we chase money by accepting a grant that takes us away from our core.

But there's also mission deflation, which means that in forcing our mission into dressed-up language which might seem more respectable, we lose the inspiring presence of its soul.

And that's a problem for leaders who need to be more than dispassionate professionals, for those of us who need to be...

Passionate activists.

And the truth about our social change missions is that in the moment when they're born, they might not be pretty and presentable. Though we pack our mission statements chock full of happy words, the truth is that a mission can come to us not only in lovely, upbeat phrases, but might be born rough, unruly, and rude in the language of hate...

I hate racism. I hate the destruction it does even to little children. I hate the arrogance of it. I hate the relentless bitterness of it.

I hate war. I hate the terror and the death of it. I hate the utter hopelessness of it.

I hate poverty. I hate how it grinds on and on down through the centuries. I hate how it makes every single thing about the life of a family so much harder. I hate that humankind has the knowledge to stop it but not the will.

If we're doing our work in the real world, then don't we want a real, full-blooded relationship with our mission? And why would we expect this relationship to be anything less than messy, challenging, passionate, and sometimes perhaps upsetting—and thus very, very rich?

Of course, we can always take a negative statement of hate and turn it into a positive statement of love...

We love building bridges across racial divisions so that peace and brotherhood will lead the way into our future.

We love creating the kind of universal justice that will lead to a lasting global peace.

We love creating comprehensive changes in our economy to that everyone will be able to have decent work at a living wage, and where our democracy will flourish free of the influence of undue wealth in the hands of the privileged few.

But still it's good to remember that our deepest motivating passions are not always tame. And sometimes hate has a purer way of telling the truth that in fact needs to be told.

Now just because you're connected in to the primal dimension of your mission doesn't mean it can't have a touch of poetry to it.

At my old organization, years into our work, we came up with a new mission statement, something we hoped would capture people's imagination and stay with them in their hearts and it went like this...

CAP...So every child will know what to do when it really matters.

This statement tested so well we decided to keep it. But what surprised us most was that it didn't even have the words "child abuse prevention" in it.

Instead it takes you right into the moment of decision, into the moment of danger, and then implicitly calls the question: Don't you want your child to know what to do?

When parents heard our new statement their immediate responses was...

Yes, I want that for my child!

And isn't that the key thing we as social change activists want from a mission statement? That it draws people? That it's easy for them to remember and then pass on to their friends rallying them in turn...

Don't we want our mission statements to have an organizing impact?

Even though this revised statement was written in more eloquent language than my original primal impulses, it still touched me in that deep place. It still gave me a shiver. I could feel my fire for my work every time I used it in a public talk or said it in a conversation with a donor.

Now what about the kids we worked with? They created their own relationship with the mission and their own statement of it. For example, in the elementary school program we started off each session with a discussion of the three special rights we believe every child has—to be safe, strong, and free!

Then we'd work with them on things they could do if someone tried to hurt them, if someone tried to take away one or more of their rights. The kids were eager to learn. They wanted answers to their fears.

Later, even long after we had left a school, we'd hear back from teachers that the kids were still talking about the "Safe, Strong, and Free program." That was their name for it, not CAP, not Child Assault Prevention. And it served as a perfectly good, eminently practical mission statement. The kids were using that phrase to keep the spirit of the program alive in their classrooms and on the playground.

Now back to this issue of passion, because I want to make sure that I emphasize that it can be very different for different people. By no means does it have to be dramatic and florid. For some of us it has a quieter way about it...

One time I was up in the Sierras doing a consultation for a combination rape crisis and domestic violence center. I was meeting with the staff and Board together, a dozen people. I asked them to go around and say in turn what they considered the mission to be.

The staff each had a well-rehearsed rap of course. The brand-new Board member, Rose, spoke briefly and shyly...

My daughter was being battered and she came here and without you I don't know what would have become of her. I'll never forget what you did for her. And I decided I wanted to make sure that this Center is here for every woman who needs it.

Then she apologized that her statement wasn't very good. But the staff immediately jumped in...

"Oh, no, you've said the mission as it needs to be said."

"When you say it that way, it sounds fresh."

"I've repeated my version of the mission so often it's now like pushing a button on the tape recorder. It's automatic. I miss being able to talk like you're talking."

"I can feel your heart in your words."

Rose had not used fancy words, she was soft-spoken, yet her simple authenticity put across how deeply she felt this mission. That was twenty-five years ago and I still remember her voice.

So what blocks our passion? Lots of things might. Maybe we feel pressure to sound more professional and grown up, and passion doesn't seem quite acceptable.

Or consider this...

Our sector has a bad habit of taking dynamic, vibrant leaders full of passion, and burying them in administrative work so they end up becoming nonprofit drudges. Which is one effective way to put the brakes on social change. But it's also a source of burnout—when people who need passion are cut off from it.

If our missions matter to us deeply, don't we want the public to witness our passion? The radical right is so good at speaking to deep emotions. They offer reactionary programs, self-defeating strategies, action plans that hurt people, but they tap into deep, rebellious, powerful feelings, which is one reason they have power far beyond their numbers.

And in response, how often do we see liberals and progressives using pure information without emotion? How often do we see them being restrained and super reasonable rather than showing their passion about meeting basic human needs?

It seems to me that doing social change or social justice work means that...

We go into the worst of being human to bring out the best.

And I can't think of any work more challenging than this or more important.

And this means, whatever our own particular issue, whatever our daily tasks, at the deepest level of our work we are...

Tending the very soul of humanity.

And why wouldn't that kind of depth inspire deep passion in many of us?


What's your relationship with discipline?
Back in the days when I worked at a crazy, exhausting pace, I'd get the question, "How to you keep going?"

And I'd answer, "I have great self-discipline."

But what a sad misunderstanding of the concept. I was using a destructive definition of discipline.

I was hurting myself with work that could have been sustaining me instead.

The sacrificial operating system aligns itself with the negative meaning of discipline...

But one of the things I love about the sustainable operating system is that it takes us back to the primary, positive meaning.

The root of the word is "disciplina," which translates into "teaching" or "learning." "Disciple" comes from that root and refers to someone following a calling. And isn't that how it is for a social change leader...

You're called to your work by your own heart.

And in that context...

Discipline blesses you.


Discipline gives you the power to put your passion into practice.

And to get better and better at it day by day.

Discipline gives you the stamina to persist even though the odds are against you.

So you can do your best in service of what we love.

Discipline gives you the moxie to stay true when your adversaries are trying to knock you off course.

And some adversaries can be tough and relentless.

Discipline gives you the ability to build, not just an okay team, but a stellar team.

And this more than anything is the key to success in social change.

Discipline, in the best sense of the word, is not limiting but nurturing. Let me give you one quick example from my old organization....

In the workshops we did for the elementary school children, we had three role plays we used to illustrate three major types of threat or danger: a bully, a kidnapper, and a familiar person initiating sexual abuse.

First we'd show the situation, just enough of it to give the kids the idea of the problem without scaring them too much. Then we'd brainstorm effective responses with the kids and anything they didn't come up with we'd add into the discussion.

Finally, we'd re-run the role play showing a successful outcome with the child saying no, getting away, getting help, and ending up safe.

To some people, at first glance, our program looked cute. But it wasn't at all. It was life-and-death serious. We had many, many kids get away from very dangerous people using what they learned from us in their classroom.

And because so much was at stake, if you wanted to be one of our staff and do these workshops with us, there was a serious discipline you had to embrace.

You had to know your lines. You had to say them clearly and at the right time and with the right emphasis. You had to be aware of the blocking. We were determined that every child be able to see everything in every moment of the workshop. We were determined that they understand every one of the safety strategies and self-defense techniques we were teaching. Every single one.

So, no, it was not okay to wing it. It was not okay to be casual about the material. It was not okay to get creative and improv your way through the workshop. And anyone who insisted on doing such things we screened out without hesitation or apology.

At the same time we didn't want script robots. We wanted staff to bring their natural personalities and enthusiasm to the workshop to keep the workshop lively so the kids would be attentive and engaged.

That part of the discipline was a definite challenge because we were asking staff...

To be an effective member of the team and work in close coordination with the other presenters, while being personally present and authentic.

But what an interesting challenge to master. And isn't this a discipline that's at the core of so much of our social change work...

How to take action in concert with others while being fully ourselves at the same time. Rather than marching lock step in mindless masses like authoritarian movements do.

Mastering this challenge in our one small nonprofit helped prepare our staff for the challenges of social change work wherever they went in their future when they moved on from our program.

Now, why do I use the term "discipline" instead of "professionalism" in talking about the quality of social change work?

Over the last couple decades there has been a big push in the nonprofit sector for us to become more professional and in many ways this has been a good thing. For example, we've upgraded our standards of fiscal management and personnel management. And this has made nonprofits in general stronger and more sustainable.

But I notice that discussions of professionalizing our work mostly refer to improving our administrative competence.

This doesn't mean we can't talk about professionalizing the actual work of social change, and some people do talk in those terms.

But to my mind social change is a bigger thing than what is usually meant by a profession. And that's why I don't use the term "mission professionalism."

I prefer the concept of discipline because to me...

Social change is not a profession, it's a way of life.

It's like when people talk about having a spiritual discipline, they're talking about following practices that help them live true to their deepest aspirations in every aspect of their life. And this is a very different thing from being a "spiritual professional."

It's also the case that "professional" usually refers to a carefully restricted group of people. But the point of our social change work is to attract everyone we possibly can to the social change way of life. We don't want there to be daunting tests that must be passed. We want it to be as open and inviting as possible.

And yes, there is a discipline that goes with it, because social change means we are making new and different choices in order to create what we believe will be a better world. We are not coasting along following the status quo default but forging a new path into the future.

So anyone who decides to join us in this way of life is also necessarily joining us in the discipline of social change. A discipline that is seriously demanding but just as seriously rewarding.


What cooperation asks of us
Negotiating means, at least from the social change perspective, we're working together to meet needs. And now I want to emphasize the together part of the equation, which we can also call cooperation. Not the compromise version of cooperation, but the healthy, sustaining version.

Where do we need cooperation?

In our teams, because if we're fighting with each other or playing power games, how can we accomplish our mission?

Between our organizations, so we can build the coalitions and movements without which we can't make significant social change happen.

Globally, if we want to survive as a species.

Some years ago I was surprised to find out that there is actually a science of cooperation, and that it's rigorous and complex. There are people who spend their days studying the evolution of cooperation and how it's the key to our success as a species. They study the ways our drive to compete and our drive to cooperate conflict with each much of the time and then sometimes support each other.

Once I realized there was such a science, I dove into it and read intensively because I had seen too many teams where people hoped to work well together but failed and things fell apart and no one could really explain why. I wanted to understand that mystery.

The first thing I learned is that...

Good intentions aren't enough to make cooperation work.

And that..

Being a nice guy is not enough. Because that's sometimes a submissive strategy and sometimes a controlling strategy, but it never actually works as a cooperative strategy.

Most importantly I learned that...

Cooperation takes enforcement.

Or we could say...

The mission of cooperation takes the discipline of enforcement.

Which was shocking to me at first, because enforcement has such an uncooperative sound to it. But the more I read, the more I understood that...

Cooperation is so challenging for us humans that we need to bring a serious discipline to it.

Cooperation is something we're born with. It's in our genes. It's essential to the continued development of human society. And yet, this doesn't mean it's easy for us. And there are plenty of competitive forces working to undermine it at every moment.

So if we want to sustain cooperation in our teams, we have to...

Take a stand for it.


Put into practice the practices that make it work rather than preach platitudes and hope for the best.

If we want to say yes to cooperation...

We have to say no to anyone who is cheating on our agreements to cooperate. And we have to really mean that no. Otherwise cooperation falls apart.

Which is where the enforcement part comes into play.

Let's take a look at an example. We'll pick a mid-size city in the Midwest which has five youth-serving agencies which decide that they'd be more effective if they stopped duplicating each others services and formed a coalition to coordinate their efforts, with each focusing on what they do best.

So far, so good.

In their first meeting, they lay out a basic agreement. There are three foundations in town that sometimes show an interest in collaborative projects. The coalition members all agree they will apply to these foundations only as a group. No agency will apply separately for anything from them.

Four months later, they find out Agency X has applied to Foundation #1 and has secured a grant for their own work, while that foundation turned down the proposal from the Coalition, because "We're only funding one youth service project this year."

An emergency meeting is called. Agency X is told that this is a fundamental violation of the agreement. Agency X apologizes and promises to do better.

Now it's two months later. The Coalition has gotten a serious grant from Foundation #2, but word comes that Agency X has submitted a proposal to Foundation #3 where the Coalition also has a proposal under consideration.

Here's the conversation at today's emergency meeting...

Cameron:  Stuart, we've call this special meeting to let you know that our coalition has decided to expel your agency. As of now you are no longer a member.

Stuart:  But why? But you can't do that. You didn't even ask us for our vote. You didn't find out if we want to be expelled and we don't. This is so cold kicking us out without notice.

Cicely:  We did give you notice. In our first emergency meeting, when you got that grant from Foundation #1 we told you if you applied again to any of the three foundations reserved by the Coalition then you couldn't be a member anymore. Didn't you hear that? Didn't you read the letter we sent you confirming our position?

Stuart:  Yeh, I did hear that. I got the letter. But this is all moving too fast. We're trying to do better. You have to give us another chance.

Carolina:  We thought giving you one chance was pretty darned generous, given what's at stake here.

Stuart:  Well, these things take time to develop, you can't expect a brand new coalition to work right out of the gate.

Colby:  We need it to work right out of the gate. Our coalition plan is great. We're making very good progress. We're on the road to delivering much better services to the youth in this city and their families. For the first time, we're going to have a coherent system of services. This matters so much to us that we're taking a stand for it. And we're proud to take a stand for it.

Stuart:  You guys are being so cold. It's like you've turned into some kind of tough guys without feelings.

Cameron:  Oh, no, we've got feelings. First and foremost passion. We're passionate about our mission, and if someone messes with our mission, we get passionate about that, too. We don't mess around.

Stuart:  I'm going to tell the foundations that you're destroying the Coalition and that if we're not part of it not to fund it because it's not a coalition anymore and it doesn't count if we're not in it because we're a youth-serving agency and we have a right to be part of any coalition in this city having to do with youth.

Carolina:  What gives you the right to be part of a coalition if you do abide by the agreements the coalition has made?

Stuart:  You're being so tight.

Colby:  No, we're following the discipline of cooperation.

Stuart:  What the hell is that?

Colby:  It's the thing that makes coalitions work. Cooperative groups can't work if the people in them don't cooperate. It's just that simple. If one agency breaks the agreement and goes after a grant on its own that's "cheating." That's the word they use for it in the science of cooperation.

Cicely:  And there's a big advantage to cheating. You get all the benefits of the coalition plus all the benefits of going it alone.

Cameron:  As long as the group allows you to cheat.

Carolina:  And if the group allows itself to be ripped off like that, well, that group is a sad case.

Stuart:  But...

Cameron:  Hold on, Stuart. Let's play this out. We want you to get the full picture, so you can understand why we're doing what we're doing. See, if you cheat on our agreement, then either we have to enforce it, which is what we're doing today, or what would happen?

Stuart:  Well, I think you're being too strict. We'd continue to get by okay.

Colby:  No, what would happen is the rest of us would see that you had a serious advantage by cheating and why wouldn't we decide to cheat, too?

Cicely:  Exactly, and then bye-bye coalition.

Stuart:  Well, you don't have to do that. You could stick with the plan.

Carolina:  Wow, did you hear what you just said?

Stuart:  What?!

Carolina:  Are you saying you think you should get to cheat while the rest of us stick to the agreement?

Stuart:  Well, not exactly, but we have special needs.

Cameron:  We could each make the case that we're special.

Colby:  And here's the bottom line. If we don't have cooperation, the real thing, not just lip service, then we don't have a coalition. Then the coalition is just a pretense. A lie, really.

Carolina.  And believe it, we've got ourselves a coalition.

Cicely:  And that's why you're out. Is it really that hard to understand?

Stuart:  You shouldn't be doing this. We're going to make a bunch of noise about this.

Colby:  Really? That's what you want to do?

Stuart:  We'll complain to the City Council members and get them to take away your City money from each of you.

Colby:  Go ahead. Remember though, they already know our plan. We've met with each of them and they're really happy about us turning our individual services into a collaborative system. So if you go ballistic, you're the one who's going to lose. That's just a fact.

Stuart:  You guys are being really mean putting me in a corner like this. It's not fair.

Cameron:  Look, this is dirt simple. We had an agreement. You broke the agreement. We gave you a warning. You ignored the warning. So you can't be a part of our group anymore. You made your decision. Twice. This is not rocket science.

Stuart:  We should get another warning.

Carolina:  Come on, Stuart, think about it. If you were following the agreement and my agency cheated, you'd raise hell. You know that. You would.

Stuart:  Well...

Carolina:  You know you would.

Stuart:  You guys are being awfully cold.

Cicely:  No, we're on fire.

Colby:  That's right!

Carolina:  On fire!

Cicely:  We're passionate about the mission of this coalition. We're passionate about doing much, much better by the youth in our city. We're not going to let anyone get in the way of that.

Carolina:  That's what you're seeing. And you know what? If we let you stay and cheat, we'd resent you, maybe even start hating you, and do you want that? We don't. We don't do resentment. We won't go down that street, not with you, not with anyone.

Cameron:  Part one of our decision is that you're out. Part two is that one year from today your agency can reapply to the Coalition. And if you can show us that you're ready to cooperate 100%, no exceptions, then you'll be voted back in. But you'll really have to demonstrate in tangible ways that you've changed.

Stuart:  No, we're ready right now. I didn't understand before how serious you were. Bring us back in and we'll see if we can do better.

Cameron:  I'm sorry, but our decision is final. And now we're done.

Okay, so protecting cooperation takes some work. It takes a team that knows how to work together on something as tough as enforcement. It takes, in short, cooperation.

But once we master the art of protecting our cooperative relationships then we get to...

Play, and play big.

And then your community looks at your team or your coalition and says, "That's how we want to be with each other, too."


We're in the organizing business
Let's start with one simple fact. When it comes to social change activists...

There aren't enough of us.

Given the multitude and magnitude of the problems we're working on—racism, poverty, abuse, exploitation, violence, war, genocide, the degradation of our democracy, the destruction of our planet...

There aren't enough of us.

Given the difference we want to make...

There aren't enough of us.

Given that a scattering of activists are trying to enroll six billion human beings in the work of creating a much better world, it's just a fact that...

There aren't nearly enough of us.

So if we want to see significant change, especially at the global level...

We need a whole lot more people to join us.

Which means that more than anything else...

We're in the organizing business.

As opposed to being...

In the service business.

And isn't it interesting that the nonprofit sector is best known for the services we provide, even though...

Social change cannot live by services alone.

This is not to say that services don't matter. They matter a lot, and not just to the people who receive them, but to the bigger picture of change...

Our services prove that there's nothing innately wrong with people who have been knocked down by society, that they are not lazy or stupid or any of the other vicious lies that get told about them, and that if they are just given a genuine chance, they can thrive and contribute and lead.

Our services bring new people into our movements, people who are seriously motivated to change society because they know in a painfully personal way how damaging the current structures of power are.

Our services show our society how to treat other people as we would wish to be treated.

Our services show that there's a better way to live than the status quo.

Our services demonstrate the power of love in action.

Still as effective as the best of our services are, they're no match for the problems we're up against. That's because...

Our society is mass producing suffering and destruction faster than all our nonprofits together can begin to deal with.

Even if we doubled or tripled the number of nonprofits we've got, we still couldn't begin to meet the need.

So, again, at heart, social change has to be...

Focused on organizing.

We need to draw in a critical mass of people so we can deal with the source of the problem...

The operating system of human society.

We need to attract more and more people to social change, not just as a vocation or an avocation, but as a deeply committed way of life.

And to supercharge our work, what if we took on the challenge of not just attracting more activists, but being the kind of organizers who also...

Generate more organizers.


Enabling the status quo vs. changing it
Let's take a moment and ask this question...

What do the powers that be want from the nonprofit sector?

Well, certainly they don't want us to change how power works or who has it and gets to wield it. So instead, what it seems to me they want us to do is to...

Buffer them.

Soften the consequences of their hard system.

Take the edge off the pain people are feeling so it will be just barely tolerable.

Keep people from taking that critical step from suffering to activism.

Or to put it more succinctly...

They want us to do our work in such a way that it helps keep them in power.

Which means they'd like us to...

Provide services without the context of change.

And this strategy of theirs is not a modern invention.

In the declining days of the Roman Empire, the rulers provided the impoverished plebeian population with "the circus and the dole." The idea was to keep people distracted with entertainments and fed just well enough that they would keep on tolerating the patrician government that kept them down.

The idea is to lessen the suffering just enough...

To keep mass discontent from erupting into mass action.

So this gives us another reason why our sector needs to focus on organizing if we want significant change, because if we only provide services, we'll be enabling a destructive system...

Helping it stay strong,

Helping it last longer,

Helping it.

And while we're delivering services to some people, making a real difference in their lives, paradoxically, at the same time we'd be enabling a system that's hurting way more people than we're able to help.

Talk about heart breaking—working so hard to end up with the exact opposite of what we want.

But what if your organization is maxxed out delivering services and that's absolutely all, with your funding and staff resources, that you can do? That's understandable. Lots of organizations are in that situation.

And for the answer to this dilemma we come right back to organizing.

But this time we're talking about nonprofits organizing themselves.

We're talking about service providers and organizers working together, forming effective collaborations and coalitions. The last thing we need is a rerun of that old debate about which is more important, services or advocacy. Both have contributions to make. Each would be less without the other.

What we need is for social change nonprofits to all network in to the bigger picture and create together a larger movement with the kind of cooperative magic that makes the whole exponentially more than the sum of the parts.


Challenging vs. saving
When we save people, in accord with the sacrificial-savior operating system...

We're relating to the victim in them.

We're saying in effect...

We don't really believe in you.

When we challenge people...

We're relating directly to their strength.

To their desire for a better life.

To the fundamental life force in them.

When we challenge people to personal growth and social change...

We're calling forth the protestor in them,

The fighter in them.

"Leadership" is such an interesting word, how it shows up in the nonprofit sector. We apply it equally to such opposite things:

We use it to talk about people who are exhausted, dispirited, and buried in administrative duties.

And at the same time we use it to talk about happy, vigorous, even triumphant people who are successfully building effective teams and movements.

So it seems to me that in our social change movements, it would help to be clear about what leading is for us, especially what kind is best for us.

In the days when I started doing my child abuse prevention work, I thought leadership meant that me and my nonprofit, and then as we built our network, our statewide movement, were going to save our communities from the scourge of child abuse...

We were going to fix that problem for them.

It took me years to shift my perspective.

One of the things that helped me most was to ask one simple question which I learned from such diverse sources as friends, other organizers, Radical Therapy, and Parent Effectiveness Training (PET).

And the question was this:

Whose problem is it?

I came to understand that the problem of child abuse did not belong to my nonprofit, or my movement. It belongs to the community. And I realized that if we tried to fix it without asking anything of the community, we were actually...

Stealing the problem from them.

And how can anyone or any community possibly learn to solve a problem if they don't know they have it, if they don't know it belongs to them, if they don't discover that they have the power to at least address it, and perhaps, depending on the problem, resolve it?

And I realized that if I tell someone...

Relax, sit back and enjoy while I solve your problem for you...

when it's actually a problem they need to solve for themselves, a problem that needs their active engagement in order to achieve a lasting resolution, then what I'm doing is...

Lying to them.

This was a very hard truth for me to learn, that...

When I was trying to "rescue" a person or a community, I was lying and stealing.

Two things that absolutely were not part of my value system.

And the worst truth was that in trying to help someone in the rescue way, the enabling way, the co-dependent way, the savior way, and especially the sacrificial-savior way...

I was hurting them,

As I was hurting myself.

This is the hurt-hurt version of lose-lose. In trying to rescue people, I was actually helping to keep them trapped in their problems. At best I was giving them a short-term boost but at the cost of long-term, sustainable progress.

When it comes to creating a better world, we as communities and nations need to own our problems and take them on together as communities and nations if we are to have any chance at all at resolving them.

And when it comes to our social change teams and movements, we need to challenge our communities to own their own problems—and just as importantly, to own the real power they genuinely have that they can call on to address those problems.

We need to do...

Leading by organizing,

Instead of...

Saving by serving.

We need to get it in our bones that...

We can't fix our communities.


We can lead them in taking on the challenge of social change.

And that our leadership is the best thing we have to offer—the leading kind of leadership, not the fix-it kind.


We're in the "development" business
And no, I don't mean the money kind of development.

I mean...

Human development.

We humans are a developmental species. We're not born ready for action. We don't run on innate instinct the way so many animals do. We have to learn. We have to grow and develop...

And keep on developing.

That's just who we are and how we're made.

So I think it's a shame that the word "development" ever got recruited as a euphemism for fundraising, because as social change activists...

We need the word "development" to talk effectively about the core of our work.

Sustainability is not something we achieve once and then we're done and can coast along in maintenance mode. It's dynamic. The more we grow, the more we develop our best abilities, the better we are at sustaining. And this is true for us as individuals and as communities.

So it seems to me that...

Developing and sustaining go together.

The one makes the other possible.

Okay, time for an admission.

I've never been really happy with the term "social change," even though I use it throughout this site, because it's not definitive. It doesn't give a comprehensive picture of what our work really is. It doesn't even capture, on its own, the essence of our work.

Which is why at key points, I add further definition to say that change means...

Changing in fundamental ways how power works at every level of our society so we can create a more compassionate world.

As opposed to a more authoritarian and totalitarian world which the radical right "social change" people are working so diligently to achieve.

So to me "a more compassionate world" is key. And "a more just world." And though I'm fond of the phrase "social justice," we're working for more than justice...

We're working for love.


Working to make love more powerful and power more loving.

At least that how I see it.

So when I'm talking to myself, I often use the phrase...

Social development.

Which also leaves a lot undefined and which also needs supporting statements to flesh it out and bring it to life. Still, for me at least, it speaks to the essence of social change and social justice work because, putting first things first, it points to the fact that our best success comes from...

Developing our teams,

Developing our organizations,

Developing our coalitions, and

Developing our movements.

All of which is based on the underlying work of...

Developing ourselves.

Which requires us to look at ourselves as we are, own our limitations and our need for change, but to own, too, and fiercely, our strengths which are the very things that make development possible for us.

And then, as if that internal exploration and work is not enough, we have to take the very big, even outrageous step of challenging our communities, our nation, the world—humanity at all levels of organization—to develop, too. To do that work. To face that pain...

The pain that comes with looking at the truth of the human operating system.

And, to do what on some days might be even harder...

To face the pain of looking at the possibilities for human community when we're at our best.

Because it might hurt a lot to see the possibilities and see how far we are from them.

Social development work is a hell of a thing to do...

It's so hard for us and so good for us at the same time.

It's so hard for our communities and so good for them at the same time.


The deeper the change we want our communities to make, the deeper we need to go into our personal changes.

Because otherwise...

How will we be able to guide them on that hard road?

How will be be able to feel for them when they are going through the hard parts?

Why would we ask of them something we aren't asking of ourselves?

Why would we want to separate ourselves from them in that way?

And finally, let's never forget...

The tougher the challenges we face, the more we need each other.


What do you want people to see in you?
This page has focused on the core of the sustainable operating system. There's a lot more to say about the principles and practices of this kind of leadership, and you can find lots more on the other pages of this site, because each page is designed to help you get sustainable and go soaring.

But in bringing this page to a close, I want to highlight one more reason why moving out of sacrifice and into sustainability matters.

Not only is sustainability so much better for you personally, but...

It makes a very big difference to the people around you who see you in action.

If you have to drag yourself through your days, if your spirit is defeated, if the sparkle is gone from your eyes, then you're putting across the message that...

Caring is bad for people.

If you are always exhausted and distressed, then your message is...

If you do the work of caring, it will hurt you.

If people see you burn out and quit, the message is...

Being a social change activist will end badly for you.

And what does it feel like to work so very hard only to end up...

Turning people off from the social change way of life?

People in the community, when they witness sacrifice, might say...

How noble!

But few will say...

I want to live like that.

What is it that we want to show people through the example of our lives? Don't we want to demonstrate that...

Social change work can be good for your soul.

Don't we want to show that...

Caring can be invigorating.

Don't we want everyone to see that building bridges across the divisions in our communities, though daunting at first, can be...

Deeply and sweetly satisfying.

Don't we want everyone to get it in their bones, through watching us, that...

Caring gives you the deepest meaning you can find in this human life.

So in the end, it seems to me that what's most important, both for us and for those around us, is not what we say, and not even the services we provide, but...

Who we are and what we take a stand for with our lives.


OS for leaders
The overview of the three operating systems.

This is the vital sign of your leadership.

This hurts you and keeps on hurting you.

This makes you exponentially more effective.

The peak moments of premier leadership


© 2011 Rich Snowdon