As I have shared previously, in any social entrepreneurial approach (see post 1) to creating social impact, core values are at the heart of building individual and community empowerment (see post 2). They must guide everything from our internal team dynamics, to how we engage with our collaborators, to how we co-create social innovations with our community friends and partners. It all starts with empathy (see post 3). And empathy is the precondition for our next core value which is “Trust”. Ahhh….trust. This is one of my favorites to dive into. It is so critical and yet so easy to inadvertently screw up.
Trust, or being trusting, is seemingly so straightforward and simple, but at the same time so many of the failures that I/we see in development/aid work come down to a lack of trust. Sometimes it is overt and sometimes it is implied. Trust is about believing in the good faith and good intentions of others and requires giving people, communities and organizations the benefit of the doubt. To get right at it, when we mistrust or create solutions where there is even a small hint of perceived of mistrust, we are on the road to failure. We are building relationships in this work. And in the words of our good friend Drake, “A relationship without trust is like a phone without service, and what do you do with a phone that doesn’t have service? Play games.” Creating systems changing social impact at scale isn’t a game. You have to be connected. Trying to help a disadvantaged youth in a town down the street isn’t Candy Crush. This is serious business. And if we don’t focus on demonstrating and building trust as a core value, we should and will deserve to go out of business. Give me a few minutes here below to frame where trust fits in as a challenge on a “big picture” level for some broad context, and then I’ll dive into two fundamental aspects of trust as it relates to social innovation design and scaling on a more practical level.
Trust as a macro level challenge in empowering social impact
I think we would likely agree that overall we have a global, societal challenge of trust in this work when it comes to perception. People are continuously seeing, reading about and studying this aid strategy that didn’t work here or that community development project that when amiss there. If you Google to find a story of “failed” social impact work, you won’t get Carpel Tunnel Syndrome. Apart from the amazing work that David Bornstein, Tina Rosenberg and their team are doing at The Solutions Journalism Network (www.solutionsjournalism.org) and in their NY Times Fixes columns, too much of what we see in the media or read about is focused on failed social impact work. Why do people write about failure so much? I could give you probably about a dozen quick reasons, but that isn’t the focus here. However, the consequence of this is that questioning turns into skepticism which turns into cynicism which manifests itself in mistrust. Many people have a mistrust of what the social impact sector can achieve. This is a shame because successes abound. And this isn’t without some dripping irony. We praise the business entrepreneur who has failed five times and even gone into real estate bankruptcy (Sorry, I had to do that.) for his or her amazing tenacity and stick-toit-ivness, but we are far less forgiving when a non-profit project doesn’t turn out as all would have hoped. Our reactions are entirely asymmetrical. This is not helpful. This is not helpful for any of us. We need innovation to solve the incredibly complex problems at the root of poverty, discrimination and marginalization. And innovation requires failure. And you only let failure happen if you trust. Or flipping it on its head, a lack of trust leads to a lack of “forgiveness” for failure, let alone admiration, which leads to a lack of social innovation, which leads to a dearth of new solutions for community challenges. That sucks. It creates a Mobius strip of solving social challenges. Or in the words of Albert Einstein “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
Needless to say, I can’t solve this big picture challenge. That’s not my thing here. I’ll leave that effort to David, Tina and their team and other amazing social entrepreneurs who are working at this level. However, putting a bit of emphasis on the fact that this macro level challenge exists is important I believe. How we view and treat the ecosystem on the whole affects everything that happens inside of it.
Trust at the social innovation level: design and scaling
Trust is critical in two fundamental aspects creating social impact. It is necessary when we design our social innovation models and when we work to scale our efforts.
First, social innovation models must have trust embedded in their DNA from beginning to end. This is a requirement. We have to take risks with people and communities. Most of the time this is with folks with whom we don’t have a prior relationship on any deep level. Taking a risk requires trust. However, although we know this, when push comes to shove, I so oftentimes see leaders and organizations step back and start with mistrust. As an example, I see this in people’s reactions to my work. When I talk about our MicroConsignment Model and describe how we give women entrepreneurs their inventory at no up-front cost with no requirement for collateral, I cannot tell you how many times people have jumped in with, “But won’t they walk away with the inventory?” My somewhat flippant answer when I am frustrated is a question back “Would you?” And of course the answer is “No way!” Well then why do we think they would? Here’s the thing. You must believe that, despite our different cultures and economic situations, we are all the same in our hearts. We all essentially care about the same things and the vast majority of us share the same values. This must be reflected in our design. And as we all know, a wonderful thing is that when trust is given, trust is returned. Trust begets trust. When people hear that you trust them and see it in your eyes, it creates a glint in their eyes. There is a magic in that. Contrarily, people can smell mistrust from a mile away. This stink wafts from onerous up-front contracts, overly bureaucratic processes and procedures, micro management, heavy hierarchy, and burdensome requirement after requirement after requirement. This is why trust is such an important core value to guide us as a decision making “must have” as we design our models and approaches. And I know it can be so easy to slide into creating real and perceived mistrusting components in our work. We all do this sometimes unintentionally. I know I do. Trusting someone you don’t know well with your passion can be like standing on the edge of a diving board for the first time. Its scary and we often feel like we have little margin for error (see above). But when we trust, we win together much more often than we lose. And when we lose, those losses are more lessons than failures. And if we don’t trust we often aren’t really even trying to win. We’re half trying and I think we can actually feel it. Certainly we must build systems and accountability. Trusting is not mutually exclusive with these necessities. However, this must be done with an overall trust at the heart of our social innovation models. It allows us to innovate and to build the strong relationships necessary for this work.
Secondarily, scaling social innovation requires a rounded, healthy spoonful of trust. This is in no small part because scaling is predicated on delegation and decentralization. Delegation without trust creates micro management. Decentralization without trust is like having a conductor try to play all of the instruments in an orchestra. You’re not making it to Carnegie Hall. An emphasis on trust is true for both internal scaling within your own team and for scaling with external partners and community members. And instilling trust to empower scale is at its heart about building the right culture. You have to intentionally scaffold a culture of trust. As my friend and Ashoka Fellow David Castro says, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” A culture of trust creates the opportunities for great strategies for scaling. This is what social entrepreneurs aspire to discover. In the words of Lou Gerstner, former CEO of IBM from his book “Who says elephants can’t dance?”, “Until I came to IBM, I probably would have told you that culture was just one among several important elements in any organization's makeup and success — along with vision, strategy, marketing, financials, and the like... I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn't just one aspect of the game, it is the game.”
When you build a culture of trust with internal and external stakeholders, mutual trust that is, scaling becomes possible. The only way I can possibly lead work in Ecuador from my chair in New York is because I trust Justina, our country director. And I aspire for her to trust me and that this creates a culture of trust between us. That then manifests itself in two profound ways. First, assuming we are clear on our desired outcomes (see post 4), she then feels the freedom to create the right local strategies with the local team. That’s what we need. She and her team are the ones closest to the people and the problems. They know best. They are the most empathetic (see post 3). And second, when external partners see that I trust Justina as a leader, she is then seen by them as a leader. We need this too. My trust in her is transferred to others, and I can then focus on what I must be focusing on while she grows professional as a positive “knock on” result. Further pivoting to the need for trust with external partners, the only reason my good friend and co collaborator Brett Smith at Miami University forgives me when I don’t get back to him for a couple of days (I’ll call you back today. I promise.), is because he trusts me. We have created a culture of trust between us and he gets me and therefor forgives me. When we don’t get something right, there is a trust that we will work hard to do better. Trust helps us to not sweat the small stuff and focus on the big stuff.
Overall, it is only when we have created a culture of trust that we are able to work together effectively and operate across constituencies, communities, countries and regions. As you scale arithmetically, the need to instill a culture of trust grows exponentially. The beauty that if you work hard at this, you can truly change the world and build amazing and life-changing relationships in the process. So, go trust! Trust you must.