07/02/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Politics, Personalities and the Business of Doing Good

Making good things (actually) happen is hard.

On any large scale, trying to make the world a bit better place is messy and complicated and almost always full of the same back-room shenanigans chronicled throughout the political, business, and tech sectors, but with one not-so-small difference: those involved act like it's not, and almost no one talks about it.

So let's talk about it.

Working in the social sector (including nonprofits and ever-more corporations and social entrepreneurs), is all too often like working in China or a culture in which everyone knows something unspoken is underlying the proceedings, but no one is allowed to discuss it.

I "direct partnerships" for a living, and a lot of people wonder what exactly that means - particularly at an issue neutral organization like While I typically respond with something to the effect of "it's complicated," what I really mean is I "try (and mostly fail) to understand the personalities, politics, and general ridiculousness that all too often defines the nonprofit, public service, and socially responsible business sectors; then try (and again mostly fail) to help connect and do more good with what's there."

To be sure, in 5 years of trying I haven't figured it all out... nor, I'm quite certain, has anyone else. There are, however, a couple lessons worth noting in the business of trying to make good, big things happen:

1) Assume the selfish-bastard factor. You may get lucky and it won't be there, but start with the assumption because it almost always is.

In an arena where concepts such as collaboration and partnership are paramount ideals, they are very rarely (truly) enacted. Organizations' good intentions are seldom translated to effective and responsible action - though meetings and words toward that end are dominant and pervasive. The single biggest reason for the gap is, not surprisingly, that most organizations would prefer to own, control, or lead an initiative than contribute resources to something collaborative that they can't brand as theirs. For-profit and nonprofit organizations alike tout the virtues of grassroots - and what amounts to "open source" - movements for social change, but are mostly scared of them (i.e. fully contributing beyond being on a conference call) when they come along.

It is actually very easy to get 50 national and global organizations to say they'll be part of a "broad coalition" to do X for the public good (read: put their names on a list), but if you look at who on that list is actually doing anything (at all) six months into the effort, it's seldom more than the 3-4 people/organizations who end up atop the leadership roster.

One of the most appropriate (and troublesome) examples in the social sector is the "world" of volunteering and the infrastructure promoting and supporting it. There may be no more basic idea than volunteering when it comes to the business of doing good in a community, and there may be no other thing that would be a tide lifting all boats in the social sector than improved systems for volunteers. For better or worse, though, I can say definitively that improving or promoting volunteerism is anything but simple or straightforward.

When I asked a national expert on volunteer management who just recently attended the 2008 Points of Light conference on volunteerism how it went she replied. "It was the best of times and the worst of times... I just wish certain people and organizations would realize that they can't own civic engagement."

Beyond the challenges at places like Points of Light, I've been in at least a dozen formal meetings regarding the connection of volunteer opportunities with those interested in the last year. There are at least 5 players online that do this - one of whose unfortunate business model currently restricts the collaboration and integration of others to create one central volunteer marketplace (which would obviously benefit everyone). I've discussed domestic and international efforts from Capitol Hill to the White House to the local watering hole, and there are so many organizations (literally hundreds) being convened through multiple channels that it's hard to keep them straight. (To be fair, there are two good efforts led by The Brookings Institute and Be The Change).

I've watched support networks, associations, and obscure-to-the-general-public acronyms merge with marginal success (Points of Light (POL) and Hands On), dissolve (AVA), sprout up (COVAA), compete, and seen others (foundations and CNCS) throw spaghetti at the wall trying to figure out what sticks. These aren't necessarily bad things; they're just not at all simple. The individual actors all know each other, most have been around for at least a decade, and each person often has at least two or three of the intertwined organizations on their resume. The money (both foundation and corporate), PR, and leadership usually, and not surprisingly, follow old friends and alliances. (Sound like anything else?) And all this to try to increase the number of people contributing their time and energy to the community. Seems it should be so easy.

And then there's lesson 2) the think-they-know-it-all factor.

Our national infrastructure for "doing good" is rife with occurrences like our President's (equally inept and poorly spoken) brother Neil - a "business man" whose only connection to volunteer centers is his father's admirable work - becoming chairman of a large national volunteer network, and walking into meetings calling for an overtake of larger networks to be followed by nationwide rebranding.

It's unbearably frustrating to watch - especially when all you want to do is make it easier for people to do more good.

Then there are the entrepreneur-turned-philanthropists ("Philanthropreneurs"), social entrepreneurs, social investors, community innovators and a slew of other relatively new terms for people from business or development who are trying to do the work traditionally done by nonprofits using business principles. To be sure, there are some truly brilliant ideas coming from this field, and those should continue. Simultaneously, there's also a lot of cockiness from this cohort and it's very frustrating when they think they can just come in and slap their MO on a social problem that has existed for decades (or longer), or when they treat their prospective grantees with little respect. These folks tend to learn quickly that there are no easy solutions, but while their methods can lead to great innovations, their trial and error can also be a real pain for the community their initiatives are intended to serve. The success of entrepreneurs in business - while potentially invaluable - does not in any way guarantee success in serving real people on the ground in communities. (Note to entrepreneurs wanting to do good: If you have even a small inkling that you are a savior, then it's even more indication that you most certainly are not.)

I could go on with "lessons," but the business of doing good, in most respects, boils down to this: Without traditional market forces, without checks and balances, without shareholders, but with personalities as big and narcissistic as business or politics, and with somewhere between $600Bn - $1Tr worth of assets, the do-gooder sector is all too often a veritable maze of complications, fits and starts, and good intentions held perpetually in potentiality. Put simply, doing good ain't easy ...and it most certainly cannot be taken for granted.

And all of the challenges involved cannot be taken for granted and need to be out in the open and discussed so that they can be addressed more effectively.

To the ever-expanding number of companies, nonprofits, and individuals seeking to create more positive community impact out there: First, thank you! Second, we must be more open and honest with each other about where we're at and what our intentions are. Convening a meeting of important names every couple months won't do the trick. No one owns things like "civic engagement" or "volunteerism" so if you are: quit trying. And in general, let's stop working under the assumption that convening and trying are enough.

Those who are successfully navigating the social sector from international to local and from corporate to nonprofit - those who are truly making good things happen - all demonstrate an authenticity, savvy, and understanding for the organizations and the community's they serve, and do that first before the politics and business are addressed.

The rock stars who understand this - folks like Brian Gallagher of United Way, Kathy Cloninger of Girl Scouts of America, Irv Katz of the National Assembly, or the teams behind Salesforce Foundation and Google for Nonprofits - who have sought to meet other organizations and communities where they are, partner, and deliver are the ones to emulate.

Follow their lead. Not Neil Bush.