THE BLOG
04/24/2013 12:17 pm ET | Updated Jun 24, 2013

Star Wars , Civil Rights and 'We Can't Until...' Syndrome

Star Wars (the original) revisited: The rebels identify the source of the galaxy's problems and know they must take immediate action. So they form an organization, build a board and a fundraising committee, and spend years building organizational capacity, knowing that one day, they will be big enough -- with enough money for a huge marketing budget and well-paid staff -- that they will finally be able to formulate a plan and kick the Death Star's butt.

If you work anywhere around the nonprofit sector (and the world of social enterprise is fast catching up in its focus on enterprise strength), this not-so-edge-of-the-seat rewrite sadly rings true.

For decades the prevailing wisdom has been that strong organizations are a necessary prerequisite to addressing the large-scale issues facing our communities and our world.

However, history has repeatedly shown us just the opposite. And when we consider the recent decades of history specifically within the nonprofit sector, we find that an emphasis on building strong organizations has been, in fact, an inwardly-focused distraction to creating the kinds of real change the outside world needs from us.

The perceived need for organization-building and enterprise-building is premised upon a hierarchy of faulty assumptions that combine to create the "We Can't Until..." Syndrome. We can't until we have a strong organization. We can't until we're bigger, until we scale. We can't until we have a huge budget, or a better board, or a better fundraising machine.

Substitute any historical progressive change for the Star Wars story -- the U.S. Civil Rights movement, India's independence movement, the Anti-Apartheid movement. Did they wait until they had a strong organization and a huge marketing budget? Was there a well-paid staff at the helm? Was there even a single helm?

Historically, the things that have created change seem simple. And yet, immobilized by "We can't until" syndrome, we have all but ignored these simple truths. Here are some of the most powerful truths about what it takes to create change:

1) Change happens when people see what is possible, and aim everything they have at that end result, right now. They don't wait until anything. They don't build organizations and infrastructure first; they build what they need as they need it, to serve the practical needs of moving forward to their goals. Any group can do that right now.

2) Change happens when people walk the talk of the future they want to see. As Messrs. Gandhi, Mandela and King repeatedly modeled, if we want to see respect and kindness and cooperation in others, we can embed the question, "What will respect and kindness and cooperation look like in our own work?" into every decision and action we take. And any group can do that right now.

3) Change happens when people stop bemoaning their weaknesses and start building upon their strengths. The Civil Rights movement showed the strength in people who, by legal design and well-orchestrated intent were presumed to have zero power. If nonprofits think they've been hamstrung in their ability to create change, consider those who organized to change the course of U.S. history in the 1950s and '60s in black churches in the South. We are as strong as we need to be, because the power we need is not the power of dollars and infrastructure, but the power of each other. And any group can build on that strength right now.

4) Which means that change happens when we stop building organizations and start building communities. It happens when we stop focusing on our organization's survival and strength, and start seeing ourselves as part of a movement that already exists, all around us, for creating the world we want. Change happens when we throw open the doors and join that movement -- not as the "best and strongest" player, but as an equal participant, adding what we have to the collective whole, to make one hell of a force for change. And any group can do that right now, too.

We don't have to "wait until" anything. We have everything we need, right now, to create the future we want for our world.

Returning to Star Wars, we know what happens when a group gathers, forms a well-oiled organization, and scales to a size where their power and wealth are no longer in question.

For my money, I'm going to bet on the rebels.

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