There’s a mushrooming grey area between traditional charity and business as usual. A whole spectrum of efforts based on a conviction that things can be done better. A growing anthology of tales of people who are taking problems by the scruff of the neck and giving them a good shake. The “do-ers” with vision and purpose, putting their heads above the parapet to start and build new ventures. Those who stand out from the crowd in their willingness to forge new paths and who epitomise the spirit of doing things differently.
Western culture loves a hero—someone brilliant, inspiring, capable and relentless in pursuit of their goals. So celebrating social entrepreneurs comes easily to us. Their stories inspire and energise. They are great tales of heroic endeavour—of triumph over adversity, of a gutsy David pitted against the Goliath of “the way things are done.”
But for a while I’ve been wondering if these fantastic tales are distracting us from seeing a much bigger picture; after all, it’s no secret that few great things are created by one pair of hands alone. Who stands behind and beside our fêted, system-changing social entrepreneurs? What enables and encourages them? Who is sticking with the system but battling to create change from the inside? What stories are we not yet telling that might also engage and inspire? And if we told them, might we illuminate a greater spectrum of possibility for us all? Ten years working in the field of social innovation has taught me that it is not about neat, mechanical, predictable processes, but rather a vast compilation of human interaction.
It’s a whole eco-system for change; one that needs all sorts. It needs starters and do-ers, but it also needs growers and builders. It needs people at the front, and people behind the scenes. It needs people of diverse abilities joining forces, combining skills and sharing resources in pursuit of common goals. Because strength and resilience is built brick by brick, by brick.
Those bricks take many different forms. A good web designer, accountant, intern, or funding administrator can be every bit as inspiring and valuable as our most celebrated social entrepreneurs. I’ve seen ventures rise and fall on the strength of their spreadsheets. I’ve seen a brand overhaul change the fortunes of a struggling startup. I’ve seen impact created at scale through the dogged pursuit of a tiny operational change at one of the biggest corporates in the land. We can individually “upskill” all we want, but we will always need each other.
In reality—nobody is a superhero. None of us have all the answers.
Helpfully, the digital era is equipping and rewiring us to think like this. We can now see webs of relationship where we once saw only straight lines. We are beginning to grasp that we are all part of systems and networks, constantly able to combine our brains in various constellations. We have the tools to create and craft both alone and with others.
Things are changing in terms of how we see ourselves in the world, and how we go about being, doing, and contributing. This is nothing new, nothing radical—merely a different way of seeing; akin to enjoying the patterns created on the pavement as we splash through muddy puddles, instead of being fearful of how wet our feet might get. At the same time, the straight lines of career “ladders” are being replaced by something altogether more complex. For more and more people, finding meaning at work has become critically important. No longer are we content with the idea of putting off “giving back” until we retire comfortably and are resting on our laurels.
We want to be doing it yesterday. This is a restless generation. There is unpredictability and possibility everywhere.
It feels like the perfect storm. The perfect time to look beyond one or two heroic individual entrepreneurs as the fixers for the challenges we are all facing, and see a realm of opportunity where all of us are valuable. An accumulation of small, individual thoughts and actions is what transforms a big idea into a resilient, solid proposition.
Reclaiming this ability to enjoy the chaos of un-straight lines and unpredictable outcomes creates a different lens on the business of making change. It helps us value a multiplicity of personalities, abilities, and skills. Whoever we are, it empowers us to see pathways forward—for ourselves and for others. It quells what Margaret Wheatley calls “our desire for heroes.” As a famous African proverb goes: “If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together.”
As charities seek to be more like businesses, and businesses to be more like charities, the social impact sector is flourishing. From the tiniest startup to the biggest corporation, a smorgasbord of skills and knowledge is needed to keep things moving in a positive direction. At every level, people are tinkering, adjusting, disrupting. Looking at what we have, need, and want, and figuring out how to get there in kinder, more “human” ways. From our telephones to our underwear to our entire financial system—somebody, somewhere, is thinking laterally and working to get things done differently; and somebody else has the pieces of the puzzle they are hoping to find. The story of making change is a complex story with many characters. The thread running through it is pure energy and unwavering optimism. The conviction that there is another way. So for me, the most compelling story is the one about the many, and not the few. After all—surely changing our world for the better is less of a rugged individual pursuit, and more of an extreme team game. It’s time we started telling a few more stories of everyday folk. While it’s easy to fall in love with heroes, this is a story about all of us.