But more importantly, the Trump era has drastically changed the landscape and re-defined the priorities of progressive causes so dramatically that I’ve been “in the weeds” as it were, trying to figure it out as it changes in real time. And just when I think I’ve seen the landscape enough to paint a picture of it here, it seems to shift. I’ve been taking actions and redefining my theory of change, and I’m ready(ish) to share with you what I think, believe and know. Truthfully, in any conversation about impact, you never really know what you’ve accomplished until the outcome stage. “The proof is in the pudding” so to speak. And so to be perfectly honest with myself and to you, for a long time I have struggled with writing this blogpost because when are you ever done? The answer is never. On this long arc of the moral universe as Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr said, I don't think we ever reach the end. But that's not the point. The point is we work towards bending it every day.
One of my founding principles, though, is never let the perfect be the enemy of the good or eco. So here’s hoping this post helps you in one way or the other.
This idea for a post topic is in recognition of the numerous people asking me “but seriously Megan, how do you know which environmental organizations to give to that have the most impact?” I am definitely going to answer that with a direct response. But first I am going to walkthrough a few priorities on that journey. While it may seem to swerve and wander, I can assure you it’s with necessity and intention. And I hope you end up having the impact you are truly seeking.
1. Believe that you can
I am here to tell you one simple truth: if you believe you can’t make a difference, then you definitely won’t.
The individual belief that one person can’t make a difference is something we all share. This feeling is universal. This cuts to the core of our own insecurities as people. Every human has this doubt. But therein lies the unlock. If every person had this same doubt, then so did Nelson Mandela, Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr, Mother Teresa, and Susan B. Anthony. We talk about their legacies as though it was inevitable. But in reading autobiographies of all these folks the theme of self-doubt is deep throughout. Their doubt is the same doubt that we all share, and it is the relief valve towards progress. They were just one person, too. And their progress was not theirs alone. Their progress was thanks to thousands, tens of thousands, maybe even millions of individual actions from people whose names we don’t know and were part of the movements they have come to symbolize. Embrace the possibilities and hold space for awe at what can be accomplished. And I've said before, if you have a case for optimism as the way to solve climate change, you can be optimistic about the change you seek too.
So if you want to have an impact, first, you have to believe you can.
The next four steps are after the jump, after this poem which always inspires me to bring my mindset back into the truth of infinite possibility.
Our Deepest Fear
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves,
Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small
Does not serve the world.
There's nothing enlightened about shrinking
So that other people won't feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine,
As children do.
We were born to make manifest
The glory of God that is within us.
It's not just in some of us;
It's in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine,
We unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we're liberated from our own fear,
Our presence automatically liberates others.
2. BUT REALLY, Know YOUR VALUES
Greatest impact on _____________
How you fill in that blank is more about self-reflection and introspection than some measure that comes externally.
You have to know what motivates you in order to have an impact for two reasons:
- Impact is always a relational equation. What is the outcome you are trying to achieve? Seriously stop and ask yourself your ultimate goal. And if you say “good”, well what kind of good? Ask yourself the “why” question at least 3-5 times. I know this will be a challenge for a lot of you, because I have had this conversation too many times to count. For environment, this shows up all the time in the context of life cycle assessment. For example, a common one “paper vs. plastic bag”? Even something that simple requires environmental values or criteria to be applied. Are you trying to minimize your impact on climate change with this choice? Do you care more about ocean pollution and acidity? Do you care more about forest health? People constantly want to push back and say “just, which one is better for the environment?” And we are back where we started: what environmentally do you care about the most? In this case there is an answer - I’m tricksy! Haha. Reusable bag (obviously) so long as you reuse it enough times…it will typically end up overcoming all of the different types of environmental impact….but you get the point, yes? Impact. On. *What*?
- The Time Factor. Knowing your values is incredibly important to deciding where you want to focus your effort and energies to have an impact. You won’t have an impact if it doesn’t tie into a key memory, the beat of your heart, or the song of your soul. It’s easy to know why this matters: you won’t stick with it. Longevity and consistency are key to having an impact. Changing things at the outcomes level means you stick with something for a longer period of time. What motivates you over that time horizon is a deeply personal question based upon your own unique experiences. Which is why you will often hear a volunteer or change-maker being featured relating their own personal experience with that issue, or a close friend or family member relating to that issue. For me, it’s a combination of getting chased by elephants in the South African bush, having childhood habits of recycling/turning off lights & water growing up, and pushing through eco-depression to develop a sense of awe and excitement to working on the big, thorny, complicated problems we face as humanity. I am much more able to have an impact on environmental issues at present because I have developed expertise and knowledge on these issues, and I developed into being an expert on environmental issues because I was deeply, personally committed for over 17 years now. See how that works? Ain’t no way around but through it folks.
If you have never done a values identification exercise, I encourage you to do one for yourself. Just you. Nobody else. Like, maybe you actually want to stop reading this right now and figure out your top 5 values so that mine do not sway you from what is at the core inside of you. Take a timeout to discover the forces driving you. Here’s a handy dandy list, if you are like me and abstract thinking stresses you out. If you’d rather process it with “this one or this one?” until you formulaically narrow it down, this list can help! I won’t judge your process. Nor the outcome of this exercise…it is deeply personal, remember? :)
As part of a leadership seminar last October, I identified my top 5 values. What’s more important for me was the process of sharing it in person with a partner during the exercise. Not only did I verbally commit to them, but it also reminded me of the wide range of values that we can each hold. Just because my core values are ones that drive my day-to-day doesn’t mean they are shared by others, and stopping myself from a judgment of someone else’s values was such a strong reminder of how easy it is to judge one another. Here are my five core values:
3. Define YOUR THEORY OF CHANGE
So first, you have to define what the outcome is that you want to seek. And I mean really define that outcome in relation to what it is not doing. I care deeply about resolving climate change, about individuals knowing what they can do, and I’ve spent 17 years of my life devoted to these outcomes. I focused on education, changing minds. In the end, although those elements are important, I do not think that is the most impactful way to spend my time. The reality is that with every progressive change, the resistance is strong while it is being passed. And depending upon what it is, the negative viewpoint on that change lasts for a year or five. And then people come around. They do not change their mind and then agree to the more substantial policy change. The policy changes, and they change their mind. And so the outcome I have focused on since November 2016 is this:
Support a strong and powerful environmental movement by giving to and volunteering with environmental grassroots non-profits with a specific focus on resisting bad policies from the current administration, electing eco champions to office to win majorities, and holding those eco champions accountable in office to pass bold pro-environment legislation
Research says to start, a good theory of change should answer six big questions:
- Who are you seeking to influence or benefit (target population)?
- What benefits are you seeking to achieve (results)?
- When will you achieve them (time period)?
- How will you and others make this happen (activities, strategies, resources, etc.)?
- Where and under what circumstances will you do your work (context)?
- Why do you believe your theory will bear out (assumptions)?
Well, how did my theory of change hold up to these six questions?
- Who - I am focused on elected officials and policy via environmental non-profits that either sue for bad policy implementation and/or work to elect pro-environmental officials
- What - I want pro-environment majorities to achieve a "hold steady" on taking away good environmental law and policy as well as pro-actively get good environmental legislation passed at the local, state and Federal level
- When - I'm in it for the long haul. It'll take years to get good measures in place at not just local and state, but Federal levels
- How - there are already organizations that do this work, have the scale and infrastructure in their organizations to do even more, and were under-resourced prior to the Trump Administration, especially compared to corporate interests. Environmentally, I am referring to Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and Nature Conservancy.
- Where - I will give on a regular/monthly basis to these organizations, fundraise for them and will give my time, talent and effort as it can help them advance the work, particularly with Sierra Club whose model is built upon grassroots people power.
- Why - I believe my theory of change will bear out because these are the organizations that protected the Grand Canyon, helped create the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, innovated on economic models and partnerships for conservation to create multiple national parks including Great Sand Dunes National Park. They have done it before and with more help, can do it over and over again.
My theory of change isn't set in stone forever, but it's pretty well developed. I try my best not to trip on the pitfalls of not confusing accountability with hope and assuming I have it all figured out. Even though I've done social impact measurement in the Federal government, non-profit and social entrepreneurship sectors, I have a lot to learn.
But I hope by exploring this topic you now have a framework to think through your own theory. Don't let it get in the way of doing, but do let it be an occasional conversation with yourself to answer that evergreen question: "am I using my time and resources wisely to having the impact I want?"
4. Stay Healthy to Sustain the Fight
Trying to have an impact in the real world is a messy business. It takes a long time. There are other people, other organizations, and other ideas to negotiate with. And those are just the ones that are on your same side. Not to forget that bigger than the forces that directly oppose you, is the weight of the status quo. That motherfucker is *heavy*. You will run into people who will say things you think are inappropriate and want to walk away. You will interact with people who will argue with you about the change you seek. You will bump up against organizational forces that don't want your shiny new idea versus what they've always done. You will sometimes lose. Prepare your mind, body and soul for this reality.
For this, I have three pieces of advice:
- Keep an Open Mind and Listen. Being good at having an impact will mean negotiating with these forces, and when you are really good at it, it will mean like judo, going with the energy and flow of those forces to achieve an impact. People often think that winning is being stronger when you oppose pound-for-pound the forces that oppose you. It's not. For having an impact, I have found that by yielding to strength, by thinking of the key inflection points of leverage and focusing there, by playing to what advantages you have first, you can win by off-balancing the forces that may be. The surest sign you are utilizing this strategy is you listen to those on your side and those on the opposing side. I mean, really learn how to listen and do it every time, even when it's hard. Keep an open mind. Ask who is not at the table in partnership with you towards the change you seek and should be. And when you do, the journey will be filled less with frustration of "THIS CHANGE IS NEEDED NOW, WHY AREN'T THEY LISTENING", and more actual impact. This is also critical because you will use less energy to have that impact, and therefore stay in the fight longer.
- Stop Discounting Rest, Recharge, and Disconnect. There is such a thing as compassion fatigue. And while the term was coined to focus on the very real issue of social workers and those who support our troops and end up having "vicarious traumatization", it is a real issue when trying to have an impact and working or volunteering in the advocacy and non-profit realm. The world is in crisis, the issues aren't getting any easier or often even better at all. There is shame and guilt around stepping away from the issue at any point in time, so you pressurize yourself not to disconnect. Don't. If you experience burnout, you won't have that impact you seek. Build structures to avoid burnout. What that looks like for me is actually a digital detox. Purposefully creating space away from the fast-paced news and information superhighway. I took a vacation last summer to Grand Teton & Yellowstone National Parks and purposefully stayed somewhere with no cell reception or wifi. That first day was an adjustment, but the amount of decompression that came with it...it's something I crave and seek to sustain me. Listen to those needs and nurture them.
- Celebrate the Wins. The wins will come. And maybe they will be big, but more often they will be incremental. We forget to take time to celebrate so often. We forget that if a tree falls in the woods and no one is around, no one heard that sound. And yes, it's like it didn't happen people. I get the inclination. Sometimes, when I've spent so many years on the journey to having that impact, when it finally comes around maybe I feel bruised and beat up. I feel like the path changed 100 times, I am tired, and I'm limping across that line. Rasty is here to say: Celebrate. That. Shit. Celebrate it every time. Providing that positive recognition to what you've accomplished doesn't mean you are done, it means you are marking the occasion for the impact that has been won. And as humans, our brains need this. Plus, did you know that celebrating the small wins actually leads to bigger change and productivity? I KNOW RIGHT?!
5. Never, Ever Stop Pushing Forward
Acknowledging what the critics will say - especially that deep inner critic that we all have - is important. It's important to say "I hear you, I see you, and I'm going to show up and do this anyway."
But most importantly, never, ever stop pushing forward. Take a break maybe. Re-engineer certainly. But never stop pushing.
The impact will only come to those who persist.
"I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again."
Quote from What Happened by Hillary Clinton