By Kriss Deiglmeier, CEO, Tides
Amanda Greco contributed to and edited this piece, a true partner
Recognizing an Uneasy Reality
I started the year by reminding the Tides team of our vision: a world of shared prosperity and social justice. In the process of aligning our 2016 commitments to that end, we surfaced an uneasy reality. It was only January, and our calendars for the year were already crowded.
We were inundated with events and invitations, bombarded with enticing opportunities to learn, share, and connect with colleagues at conferences, pitch events, salons, dinners, networking events, and webinars. I did a quick tally of just the conferences on our internal list. We could spend more than two hundred days just attending conferences this year! I cannot imagine how many days would be filled if we thoroughly counted every social impact conference offered in 2016.
The opportunity to connect and learn is always exciting, but I felt uneasy. I had to ask myself some hard questions about priorities, ego, access, and impact.
What Do Conferences Crowd Out?
Conferences and other gatherings provide a forum to share learning, build an ecosystem of support for social change, and attract energy and ideas to our efforts to build a better world. But the sheer quantity and frequency of opportunities to talk rather than do leaves me wondering: when does all this talking actually distract from rather than lead to real impact?
When I was a little girl, someone told me about the “big rocks of life.” If you have a jar and fill it first with sand and gravel, there won’t be room for the big rocks – the things that matter most. But if you put your big rocks in first, then gravel and sand can shake down to fill the gaps, and more can fit in the jar.
Our social impact missions, the people and places that we care about, and our strategies on what to do and how to create results are our “big rocks.” The sand and gravel in our jars are the conferences, conversations, and convenings. They should supplement and inform our priorities, not supplant them.
Our Calendars Reveal Our Priorities
Our calendars are the jars. How much space in those jars do we dedicate to the people and places at the center of our missions? How many days do we spend listening to our target users and beneficiaries, reflecting on our effectiveness, and refining our strategies and programs to improve and grow our impact?
It is too easy for conferences, events, dinners, and dialogues to stake their claim on our calendars, crowding out the time that we need for the hard, slow work of social change. If we also add in webinars, salons, galas, and social networking events, the time to hunker down and focus on the core of our work shrinks dramatically.
Beware the Social Change Industry
The social change industry has become a very real force with its own hunger to grow and compete for energy and resources. In many ways, this is good. The vocabulary and infrastructure that has grown around social change and social entrepreneurship help to focus our potential and spark action as we work together toward a better world.
But we must be vigilant. The conference/convening circuit can be self-perpetuating and self-aggrandizing. As donors increasingly ask nonprofits to adopt self-sustaining business models, conferences provide a potential revenue stream which can diversify their income sources. But when you add up all the dollars to host and attend these events, is it money well spent? Do these events create meaningful results worth the time and resources that our field is spending?
These events can help us to build our brands, our skills, and our connections. We need them, because those connections can lead to game-changing collaborations. But the allure of this space and the cachet the industry can bestow on esteemed leaders and organizations can’t distract our focus. We need to remember that it’s about our missions, not ourselves.
The “In Crowd”
As I looked around at familiar faces and old friends at a recent gathering, I had to ask, who is being left out? Don’t be fooled – despite intentions, the field of social change is not immune to the human tendency to bifurcate into those who belong and those who don’t. Money, access, and biases help people get in, and once they’re in, opportunities, access, and funding increase and continue to grow over time.
Part of the problem is that thought leaders, speakers and luminaries – the “in crowd” – often don’t take the time to engage with attendees. Last year at the Global Philanthropy Forum I reached out to a number of speakers, all colleagues of mine, to connect while there. Each responded that they were only going to be present for their talk. We all multi-task and try to make the most of our travel time, but we owe it to ourselves and our missions to take a few extra hours to connect, and expose ourselves to new ideas and new faces.
Those who are outside of the inner circle are often overlooked despite their powerful commitment to social change and their dedicated work to make a difference. It makes me sad when I get out in the field and meet with an amazing nonprofit leader that is championing innovative work that few people have heard about. In almost all cases money and access are the barriers.
We need to create a social change system that is steeped in our belief in human potential and social justice. Rather than build a self-aggrandizing industry, we must build a system that is open and always looking to bring in new perspectives, approaches, and ideas. If we become complacent, if we forget to welcome new approaches and ideas, and if we fail to bridge the pathway for others to access the attention and resources they need to shape the conversation and make an impact, then we are missing the point.
When does all this money and time actually lead to impact?
We haven’t signed on for a cushy ride. Empowering people and populations that are disenfranchised or saving endangered places is already an uphill battle. Market forces are rarely in our favor and entrenched patterns of power work against us. This is not work for the faint-hearted. So it takes resolve not to be lured by the ego boost offered by the social change industry.
What to do? The answer is not simple but requires us to hold ourselves accountable. When we attend a conference, join a webinar, or accept an invitation we need to remember where these events fit in the long, hard slog toward social impact. We can’t let these activities crowd out time to do the dedicated internal work, to reflect on what we are learning, to listen patiently, and to make sure that our efforts are indeed creating the impact we intend. And we need to ensure diverse representation of people and organizations in our work, no excuses.
Whenever we get together, we should not only be talking about where we are, but also actively working to push ourselves forward.
Earlier this month I attended and was inspired by the Encore Conference. Instead of just talking broadly about how to engage people in later life in order to benefit society, they focus specifically on the work, celebrating and awarding prizes to people who exemplify that mission. The Purpose Prizes may not be a silver bullet, but they help further the work of successful and innovative people. At the Encore Conference, speakers, funders, journalists and thought leaders stayed and engaged, fully committing themselves to meaningful conversation.
As for me, I’m making a commitment to get out in the field for as many days as possible in the year ahead. And I will keep working to bring new voices into our work in order to anchor Tides’ vision in the realities of our world. After all, crossing boundaries and engaging with those whose lives are affected are two pillars of my organization’s approach. I believe that we can build a thoughtful and inclusive system for social change, and resist the temptations of the social change industry in favor of ideas and opportunities that move us closer to our vision.