1. The Triple Mission: make it or break it for social change

Say you have your heart set on...

Changing how power works so it stops hurting people and killing the planet.

How challenging is that? What does it ask of you? What do you need so you can carry out a mission this radical and this deep?

Our nonprofit sector puts the majority of its resources into delivering services, and puts pressure on us to build our capacity to deliver even more.

There are, of course, many good things about the services we provide, because through them...

We respond to the urgent needs people have.

We demonstrate how badly people are being treated, making it harder for society to ignore this truth.

We show what compassion looks like and what it can do.

We call the question of what kind of society we want to live in.

And yet...

Social change cannot live by services alone.

And that's because...

Our society is mass producing suffering faster than all our services together can take care of, even if we double, tripled, or quadrupled those services.

And we know that the service-only approach is the proven path to burn out. Not just because there is way too much work for each of us on that path, but more importantly, because there's a constant undertow of despair.

When we stop and think about it, it's just not credible that we can make fundamental, enduring change at the core of our society just through services.

So we need something more.

And in that spirit, I want to talk about what I call the Triple Mission. Which might sound exhausting at first...

"I'm not keeping up with one mission as it is, and now you want me to take on three?!"

But actually I'm talking about a single, coherent Triple Mission invigorating you instead of three different missions burying you.

What I've found in working with lots of leaders over the years is that when you're dragged down, when you're burning out, your best chance of getting your spirit back is to take on a bigger challenge...

As long as it's the right challenge,

A nurturing challenge,

One that gives you what you need and fires you up.

The alternative to the service-only approach is the organizing approach. It's true that it's super challenging. And it's true there's no guarantee that through it we'll be able to "save the world."

But there is something deeply enlivening about being on the right road headed in the right direction and seeing how far we can go.

There's something exhilarating and comforting about getting off the burnout track and instead building compassionate communities around our work and around ourselves. Communities that can multiply the effect of our work many times over.

It's for these reasons and more that I believe the Triple Mission is a blessing instead of a burden. Here's how I look at it...


The Triple Mission of Social Change

Our Primary Mission
We build sustaining relationships
to power our work,
and we build them across all the divisions
that typically set people against each other.

Our Meta-Mission
We change in fundamental ways how power works
so it stops hurting people and killing the planet.

Our Issue Mission
We ignite change and incarnate community
through the particular issue we work on.


It seems to me that the Triple Mission is a match for the real story of social change which goes like this:

We come together to make...

Effective teams,

Which power...

Effective organizations,

Which we gather into...

Effective coalitions,

In order to build...

Effective movements,

Which then move significant numbers of people to make a significant difference.

But what is it that powers this chain of events? What is the source? We can only be really powerful in our work, if we have first developed the ability to create...

Sustaining relationships.

Sustaining in both senses of the word...

Nurturing and enduring.

The Triple Mission honors this by...

Putting the people who do the work ahead of the work.

And it makes sense to me to do this, because if we put the work first and burn out the people who do it, if we use them up and throw them away, then the work will suffer. There's no way burnouts can accomplish what people who are thriving can.

If we put the work second it actually fares better. So it turns out that...

Putting the people first is the only way to put the work first.

And isn't that a happy irony?

The people-first perspective, which is really a relationship-first perspective, matters because...

Social change is social.

There are not nearly enough of us activists to be able to change society by ourselves. And besides it doesn't work that way. Society changes only when large numbers of people make changes.

It's also true that...

Social change is a way of life.

We're asking people not just to agree with us, but to make serious changes in how they live. To internalize change. To incarnate it day by day.

Too many people know the nonprofit sector only for the services we deliver and the burnout of the people delivering those services. That's not an appealing picture. How many people will want to join us if we allow ourselves to be seen as a community of drudgery and suffering?

By contrast, what might people think if they look at us and see that...

Social change work can be good for you.

That it brings out the best in you.

That it brings more love into your life.

That it deepens your relationships with your loved ones instead of hurting those relationships.

That it networks you into great relationships with very different kinds of people.

That it's the adventure of a lifetime.

If that's what they see in us, if that's how they begin to see social change work...

Why would they not want to come join us?


Bridging divisions
All of the pages in my staff section focus on building great working relationships that have the power to bring very different people together in a comment effort for a common mission.

For the rest of this page I want to focus on the importance of bridging divisions, first because I believe it's right at the heart of social change.

I also believe that building radical, committed alliances across conventional divisions is actually...

The key to the survival of humankind.

I really think it's that big.

We're a social species. We live in groups. We identify with our groups. We identify with our groups against other groups. That's built in to us.

This drive to form groups gives us a place to call home and it sets us up to fight with each other, so it's both...

The source of our sweetest solace and the source of our gravest danger.

Thirty some years ago, I heard Bernice Johnson Reagon give a talk about fear and politics. Here's what I remember her saying...

We all need a home base. We each need a group of people with whom we can find support and harmony and ease.

But if all we do is hang out in safe spaces with people like ourselves, progress will not happen, not the kind we're hoping for.

This means we have to work in coalition.

So far, so good. Then she said...

But working in coalition will just about kill you.

Where someone else might have given us comfortable platitudes, she gave us the shock of truth. She had been deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement, so she knew what she was talking about.

Of course, coalition is a word that covers quite a range. We call it a coalition when a loose network of organizations that hardly know each other meet in the state capitol twice a year to do lobbying.

But on this page I'm talking about the serious kind of coalition where...

You commit to each other.

Weave your work together.

Find yourselves deeply nourished by each other.

And stay present to each other, even through the hardest parts, not because you should, but because these kindred spirits of yours have come to mean so much to you.

We humans are a relentlessly competitive species, which causes us no end of trouble, but we're also, relentlessly...

An alliance-building species.

And while our talent for coming together gives us hope, still the hard truth is...

It's far easier to break an alliance than to build one.

So it matters that we make the relationship-building work of bridging divisions our top priority.


The loneliness of nonprofits
Just like leaders can be...

Lonely at the top,

Nonprofits can be...

Lonely in their silos.

And wouldn't it be fun to get out more and make new friends and be part of something bigger? And then something even bigger than that.


What if it's all you can do to keep your own organization running? What if you have no bandwith to do coalition work?

If that's what it's like for you, please...

Don't beat yourself up. Most nonprofits are under-resourced and therefore malnourished. So you're not alone. This is not just your problem. It's a sector problem. Ironically, it's the kind of problem we would be better able to solve if we had the bandwith to work on it together, like in a coalition.

And please...

Don't hammer yourself with shoulds, like:

"I should do coalition work because it's so important. And even though I have no time and I'm exhausted and I'm not sleeping well, I have to force myself to do it, because I should."

Coalitions born of shoulds are not happy places. They don't give coalition building a good name. They're vulnerable to internal distress and disintegration. And they are not the least bit scary to the powers that be.

Finally, please...

Honor what you're doing instead of stressing about what you're not doing.

This is important because it's so much harder to find funding for movement building than for crisis response and service delivery. So please don't blame yourself for funding realities that are beyond your control.

When you create a top performing team within your own nonprofit where people are heartfelt advocates for each other...

That's a blessing for your staff and their families. It makes their lives so much happier.

And when your staff is at their best...

Their work will be at its best which will be a blessing for your community.

And as you and your staff master the art of building sustainable working relationships...

You can inspire and mentor other organizations who want to do the same.

You can take comfort, too, knowing that, from the triple mission perspective...

Mastering relationship building is the most important work you can do.

And it's this mastery more than anything else that will make your organization...


Which means when you are able to make time or secure funding, you can jump right into the larger movement-building effort.

Imagine two nonprofits deciding to work together... 

Both are exhausted, running on empty, and torn apart internally by relational aggression.

Then imagine...

Two nonprofits playing at the top of their game. Staff are working hard, but they're happy and their relationships are strong and healthy.

It's no contest which pair is most likely to succeed if they decide to work together.

Two people, each drowning in their own life, are not relationship ready. And two nonprofits, each drowning, are not ready to be part of a serious, committed coalition.

On my homepage and elsewhere I talk about the three leadership operating systems, and how they determine the happiness, or unhappiness, of individual leaders and nonprofits. It's also true that...

Coalitions can be sacrificial, masterful, or premier.

And that will determine their happiness and their effectiveness. Sacrificial organizations are likely to make sacrificial coalitions. Premier organizations have the best chance to create stellar coalitions.

I understand why people might think that coalitions are much more trouble than they're worth, but I'll bet it's because the coalitions they're thinking about are based on sacrifice.

How about if instead we look at what the best ones have to offer and how about if we re-imagine what coalitions could be?

And what if our coalitions could give us...

An expanding network of kindred spirits, and

Strengthen us when we're up against tough odds.

And then...

What if the group that's our coalition today, challenging us and stretching us, becomes our comforting home base tomorrow?

And from there we stretch some more to build an even broader coalition.


Saying yes to coalition means saying no to division
Whenever an ED calls me and asks...

"How do I manage difficult staff?"

I have one word for her...


Then I say...

"Please don't do that to yourself."

And then ask her...

"Do you really want to manage difficult people?"

No one has ever said yes.

But lots of leaders still feel like they should be able to work some kind of magic with difficult people.

Now, when I use the word "difficult," I'm not thinking about temperament or personality quirks. Or about people with great attitude who are putting their hearts into the work but still have things to learn personally or professionally.

And I think it's fine for someone to be a character as long as they have character.

"Difficult," the way I'm using it here, means a person who...


Spreads rumors.

Routinely hurts other people's feelings.

Has mostly forgotten about the mission.

Never gets much work done.

Is driven to act out personal melodramas

Takes delight in opposing you and fighting with you and your staff.

Can you afford to have even one such person in your nonprofit?

Think about how hard you work to raise money for your mission. Then think about how it feels to hand over a paycheck to someone who is hurting you and your staff.

There are, in fact, people who are more interested in running their own game than carrying out the mission. There are, in fact, people who are...

Dedicated to being unmanageable.

And when you try to manage an unmanageable person...

You're committing yourself to an oppositional relationship.

You're committing yourself to an impossible struggle that can turn into a war of attrition.

And the odds are against you because it's so much easier to act out than to control acting out. You can put a stop to acting out only if you're ready to take a stand and call the question. But if you're trying to live with acting out and manage it on a continuing basis, well, please, please don't.

When you tolerate oppositional relationships with even one staff person, you're giving permission for the staff culture to turn oppositional, and if that happens, you''ll have no end of trouble.

I don't see any way we can make social change happen out in the world if within our organizations we are adversaries toward each other.

And this might seem like a contradictory thing to say following the previous section where I was so intense about our need to build coalitions. But what I'm arguing for here is that we make a distinction....

People with personality or cultural differences can create a coalition together only if they want to coalesce. Even under the best circumstances coalition building is a challenge, but it won't happen if people don't have a compelling desire to come together to begin with.

One thing I love about the concept of mission discipline is that very different people who are committed to the same mission can find common ground.

A compelling mission can unite the full spectrum of different kinds of people.

On the other hand, it's just true that there are...

People who are into creating and exacerbating divisions. As I said, this is a very human thing to do. They like to control the rest of the staff by setting them against each other. They like to cause emotional uproar. They do these things because they think there's some advantage in it for themselves.

There are people who use strategies of relational aggression to get by in life. They may be unhappy doing this, it may be a terrible childhood that's set them up for this, but nonetheless they attack others in blatant ways or subtle ways and don't know how to stop themselves.

Such people are simply not good candidates for team building or coalition building. They have other work they need to do first, serious personal changes they need to go through before they will be ready.

We don't have to hate them or demonize them. We can understand them and even feel empathy for them. But understanding and empathizing does not mean we have to bring them into our inner circle. We can reach out to them if we want, but out there, not in here.

Advocacy for people does not mean that we have no boundaries or that we don't set limits...

We get to protect what we care about,

And who we care about.

Nonprofit leaders often feel pressure to be super nice and eternally understanding and to never say no to anyone about anything. But if you're a yes to everything without qualification, you'll end up sacrificing your core values. And hurting people you care about.

It's just simply true that...

If you want to say a big yes—to team building and coalition building,

Then you have to say a big no—to people dedicated to divisiveness.


Difference is different than division
When we treat each other not just with respect, but with active advocacy...

It's quite possible to have a great working relationship with someone you don't even really connect with on a personal level.

I 've learned this lesson on the dance floor...

One night many years ago I asked a woman I'd never met before to dance. The music was intense. A thirteen-piece salsa band was happily blaring a few feet from us. We were perfectly in synch from the first step. I wasn't leading, she wasn't following, we were in it together, intuition guiding us, making dance chemistry. It was so delicious. And, as you can tell, unforgettable.

Then the song was over and we stepped off the dance floor and found we didn't have a single thing to say to each other.

Rather than sad, I find this encouraging, that people with very different personalities can still do great dancing—or great work together. That it's possible to have mission chemistry without personal chemistry. I think that says good things about the possibilities for alliance building and social change.

Of course it's more fun when a personal connection blossoms and we want that as often as we can get it. Still it's good to know it's not necessary.

Core opposition, though, is a different kind of difference. If one person wants to practice relational aggression while the other person wants to build relationships, that won't work. Nothing can make that work.

Because relational aggression is anti-relationship. It destroys relationships.

Many times a nonprofit leader has said to me...

I'm conflict averse.

As if that's a failing.

So I tell them, "Me, too." Because what's the opposite? Conflict happy? I don't want to be that. I don't want to spend my days in a roiling stew of conflict.

I remember Paul Hawken talking about entrepreneurs who start their own businesses. They have a reputation for being risk takers. But Hawken says it's actually not like that.

They're willing to take one serious key risk for something they care about. If they've always wanted to open a gelatto shop, they open it. They take that risk because it's worth it to them.

And then they do everything they can to reduce every other risk, because there's no special virtue to risk in and of itself.

What about social change work? When we take our stand for what we believe in, there will be people who will oppose us. We will come into conflict with them because they do not want us to succeed. So we do our best to face the necessary conflicts that we have to face.

But apart from that, we want to reduce conflict as much as we can because there's no special virtue to conflict in and of itself.

And that's especially true inside our organizations where conflict can destroy our teams.

So instead of suffering conflict, we master the art of having vigorous, rock-and-roll, idea-generating conversations with each other, where we're debating in concert, opposing each other's ideas maybe, but with appreciation for each other and in service of moving forward together.

That's so different from the destructive position-taking debates that happen when people not only oppose each other's ideas but each other.

It makes sense to me to be conflict averse if by conflict we mean the dictionary definition of conflict: battle, war, antagonism, incompatibility, attack and counterattack.

But if "conflict-adverse" is a way for someone to say that they are scared of taking a stand they need to take, then that's indeed a problem. Then it's time to ask what they need so they can be stronger, so they can take that stand and respond to any conflict it generates.

And what helps a leader take a serious stand? Having a team of people around her who will stand with her, and support her, and love her. And to be in coalition with other organizations and communities taking that same stand with equal seriousness and commitment.

When a solo leader takes a stand alone she's way too open to being hurt. And her stand is in danger of becoming sacrificial.

But when a triple-mission leader takes a stand she's anything but alone.


What to click on next?
If you like the relationship-first dimension of the Triple Mission,
then you might want to check out this page about relationship courage.


© 2010 Rich Snowdon