08/12/2013 10:37 am ET Updated Oct 10, 2013

How-To Tackle Thankless Social Change Work

Fighting the good fight means big challenges, big ideas, big solutions.

In humble contrast, the menial and mind-numbing grunt work required of the social change-maker is tiring and tedious. Accurately and also arrogantly, you know grunt work is below your station, below your educational accomplishments and below your self-assessed capabilities.

In the simple-minded way in which social action history is taught, touted and modeled, it is easy to overlook that every lionized change-maker (the courageous civil rights leader, the principal politician, the outsized corporate CEO, etc.) is simultaneously a strategic visionary and manager of details. If you don't have the force of character - the tenacity, the grit, the clarity of mission - and the basic skill sets required to execute well, your good idea doesn't matter.

"In social entrepreneurship, the most awful details are the most important," says Think Impact Founder and CEO Saul Garlick. "You don't go into social change work for the glamour. You do it because it's rewarding."

Grunt work is the trench warfare of social change. It is the fundamentals which drive social action.

One fundamental is writing. The other day in San Francisco, Ben Mangan, CEO of EARN, reminded a powerhouse luncheon of change agents about the importance of writing. If you intend to be an advocate for social and economic justice - the voice of the voiceless -- learn to be an articulate, well-spoken, persuasive and cogent writer. Muddled writing muddies up your message.

Another fundamental is character, which must be learned by doing, by observation and by constant practice. It is not an inborn trait. Like any other human attribute, it must be nurtured, strengthened and reinforced.

I learned something about civic character by answering a California legislator's constituent mail and performing other basic, often boring tasks. I got a first-hand, worm's eye view, fly-on-the-wall chance to watch and observe how decisions were made, on whose side we stood, who we fought for. As if in a social entrepreneur's flight simulator, I was able to grow my "implementation skills" without putting at risk the causes and people I cared about.

The un-diploma-ed benefit of starting your social change career making coffee and copies is the opportunity to practice and develop your moral compass, your decision-making skills and your advocacy tools without crashing your social justice career.

Some of the work may have been dreary and thankless, but I am so very thankful - forty years later - that I was given the chance to do grunt work.