We’re working on it

There are many organizations that are doing some good work, or at least not failing. But they do not have the ambition to solve the problem for which the society was formed. The people are satisfied to be making a worthwhile contribution — endlessly. [If you cannot see the rest of this article, please click on the title… ]

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I see many organizations that are busy doing some wonderful things. This article asks, “Is it enough?”

Alexis de Toqueville wrote of his amazement at the way Americans could recognize a need and then not wait for the government or the nobility to solve the problem. Americans, he observed, formed what he called associations.

I met with several kinds of associations in America, of which I confess I had no previous notion; and I have often admired the extreme skill with which the inhabitants of the United States succeed in proposing a common object to the exertions of a great many men, and in getting them voluntarily to pursue it… It is evident that the [people of England] consider association as a powerful means of action, but the [Americans] seem to regard it as the only means they have of acting…

Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions, constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds – religious, moral, serious, futile, extensive, or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found establishments for education, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; and in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. If it be proposed to advance some truth, or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society. {Democracy In America, Book Two, Chapter V.}

This is a truly wonderful phenomenon. When there is a community need, often people will come together and voluntarily create an organization to address that need.

For decades I have served as a volunteer, both as a participant and sometimes in leadership roles, in several organizations. These community associations have produced some of the most satisfying accomplishment of my life. I am convinced that those of us who volunteer actually receive far more than we give. For people who are wondering about this kind of community service, I should add that it takes usually a few years to see real results and acquire this perspective.

I have a couple of observations.

First, in most cases, when a society is founded to address a problem, the rest of community assumes that that organization is now the group responsible. Therefore, unless by accident or ignorance some other society blunders into this territory, other organizations are not likely to try to address the problem. (Yes, I know there are overlaps and occasional conflicts.)

My point here is that if the organization (that may be self-appointed) has neither the imagination nor the resources to address the problem, likely the situation will remain unsolved until that society assigns the issue to another, or utterly fails and abandons the field.

Second, In many cases no one expects that their organization is really going to solve the problem. The folks are happy simply to be working on it. We all know that there are many organizations that have few resources, and are still doing some useful things that are enough so that it keeps operating year after year.

What this means is that in the case of both of the above examples, as long as those organizations exist the problem they were created to address will not be solved. Their failure to be successful is actually blocking the rest of the community from seeing an end to the problem.

In working with groups, I find that there is a widespread acceptance that many of our social problems are unsolvable. And that it is satisfactory community service to do anything to alleviate the situation.

This attitude is so ubiquitous in our culture, that the topic of actually solving the problem is not even a matter for discussion.

Policy Governance provides the means for a board to envision a future that does not currently exist and — with its words — employ the almost unlimited potential of the incorporated society to accomplish that future. (If you do not believe any aspects of that statement, we need to talk!)

In my opinion, such boards must at least consider a world where their cause is fully addressed. That means that there is an expectation that the problem will be solved, or a truly satisfactory situation is achieved and maintained.

It is my belief that the right to be able to incorporate a society, and occupy such a position in the community is a privilege and an honor. When a group raises its collective hand and says to the community, “We will address this need,” I think it has an obligation to be successful, or move aside so another, with perhaps the vision and the resources, can arise. An organization that is doing its best, yet failing, is probably a disservice to the community.

Am I saying this so that lackluster organization can just give up? No, I would rather the leadership understood their responsibility and mustered the vision and the wherewithal to accomplish the job!

Part of the problem is that our culture seems to expect that many of our community’s problem are simply the background noise of life, and nothing we do is going to solve the problem. So, we are satisfied to know that some group is working on it. At least some aspect is being temporarily addressed. Maybe some suffering is being alleviated.

Let me suggest that we can do better. It may not be enough to be satisfied with saying, “We’re working on it.”

© 2007 R. Ballantyne. All rights reserved. This is for your use at your computer screen. For reproduction of any kind you will need the written permission of the author.

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