Aspiring to greatness – little by little


Mark Nowottny


Mark Nowottny

The heady days of the 2012 Olympic Games seems like an age ago. In recent weeks, though, as I’ve discussed citizen action and global justice around northern Europe, one story above all still lingers. For me, rather than any of the numerous and impressive individual feats, it’s the story of the British cycling team’s domination of their medals chart which might just help us understand our role in social change.

The coach of the British cycling team put the consistency of their success down largely to what they called ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’: rather than seeking any one secret weapon to deliver the knockout blow, this approach relied on gaining a series of 1% edges over the competition in every field – usually through superior equipment, stronger management and better training. They weren’t the only sporting team pursuing this incremental approach, but they were arguably unparalleled both in the range of advantages they found (including having the team sleep on special pillows) and in their clean sweep of the medals chart.

Why is this relevant for us as civil society? Well, increasingly, there are signs that greater numbers of us are moving from addressing the symptoms of social injustice to the root causes. Reminded by the social movements of 2011 that it’s the ultimate responsibility of civil society to talk about, understand and speak truth to power, more and more of us are starting to think seriously about strategic and long-term, rather than tactical, change. We’re starting to realise again that first and foremost it is citizens and their organisations, when free from vested interests, who are capable of envisaging and catalysing this bold, creative and courageous kind of system change.

I encountered this first hand in Brussels recently at a project initiation meeting for DEEEP4, a new development education project to engage Europeans on global justice issues (CIVICUS is an associate partner). I was surprised and delighted to find that from start to finish, participants universally saw the project neither as a service to deliver nor as a way of building a support base for high development budgets in cash-strapped Europe. Instead, they saw it as a vehicle for emancipating and empowering citizens – and in turn contributing to a new global justice movement. Some interesting work by the Smart CSOs Lab, one of many groups highlighting the possibility of a ‘Great Transition’ to a new sustainable paradigm (and how civil society might make it happen), seemed to strike a chord with the way participants understood their own modest role in the larger world. This was just one example. But the sense that the sector is starting to rediscover its ambition, its voice and an innate sense of optimism is palpable. Gradually, the world’s changemakers are starting to dream again, and daring to aspire to greatness.

But what kind of tactics, structures and organisations do we need to make these kind of ambitious goals a reality? Dan Pallotta, interestingly, makes the compelling case that in the current environment for non-profits, we just can’t hope to compete with those whose priorities are profit and who can do things we can’t to bring about success. Suggesting we need to re-level the playing field, Pallotta highlights that profit organisations have five critical things that non-profits currently don’t:

  • Compensation
  • Advertising and marketing
  • Taking risk on new revenue ideas
  • Time
  • Profit to attract risk capital

For many in civil society, the argument that we should encourage non-profits to access these five things causes some discomfort. With the private sector increasingly muscling in on the traditional service delivery territory of non-profits and claiming to be able to deliver social change more effectively, many of us understandably feel anxious about further blurring the lines between what we perceive as different sectors, or about further professionalising civil society and losing what we believe is our ‘essence’. But in terms of the mechanics – the ‘how’ – Pallotta makes a compelling case. Without a level playing field and an ability to exercise power in our own right, we can aspire to greatness all we want, but we’ll remain ultimately weak, unable to effectively meet the aspirations of the citizens that are the foundation for CSOs, and increasingly illegitimate as vehicles for popular claims to justice.

The broader point was perhaps made better (and certainly with less focus on the pure economics) by Avaaz’s Ricken Patel in his Commonwealth lecture (watch from 41 minutes) in early March. Patel argued that the public institutions in government and civil society, which we trust to push for aspirational and transformational global solutions, are themselves broken. But Patel suggested, in a refreshingly political analysis, that the key weakness lies not in their intentions, their mandate or their legitimacy, but in a deficit of good management. While few would probably admit it openly, I think many of us in these public institutions know this, experientially and intuitively, to be true. In unsupportive environments with poor management, as Patel puts it, ‘our inspiring purpose and charge gets lost’.

Good management in institutions need not be about organisational charts, the latest buzzwords, or the much-feared professionalisation or bureaucratisation of the sector. Good management can simply be about inspiring good people to work effectively for good causes. It can be about attracting the very best, and creating an environment where they’re not alone in their excellence, their ambition and their desire to work at translating our collective dreams into reality. Patel implied that if we’re to move on from our collective cynicism about big ideas, then we need the best public servants in each institution to step up and to work harder at believing they can change their institutions from the inside.

We might just be reaching a tipping point where we are starting to believe again in dreams and in change. But if we want to truly get to greatness – our own Olympic medals – then dreams and big ideas alone won’t be enough. We’ll need to work at it little by little. Our managers, our public servants – much more than our charismatic leaders – will need to step up and do little things. They’ll need to give that extra 10%. They’ll need to reject that job offer to work in a bank. And they’ll need to take that flak from that colleague they can’t stand, just to protect their brilliant, idealistic interns and make them see their future in public service. They’ll need to turn away from fear and cynicism.

If we’re serious about systemic change – about fixing the root causes rather than the symptoms – then, like the British cycling team, we must give ourselves both the tools to level the playing field and also powerful, effective, management. If we aggregate those marginal gains and competitive advantages, we might just get there.

Mark Nowottny is coordination and planning manager at CIVICUS. This article was first published on the CIVICUS blog

Tagged in: Civil society Management Social change

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