Mon, December 27 2010

Change of Heart: Look Inside Before Changing the World

Katya Andresen's avatar

Author, Robin Hood Marketing

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Over the holiday, I’ve been reading the new book, Change of Heart: What Psychology Can Teach Us About Spreading Social Changeby Nick Cooney. It’s a handy overview of the key psychological research and social marketing principles that you need to know to be an effective activist. Most of the content will be quite familiar if you are well-read in psychology, behavioral economics and nonprofit marketing. If you’re not, this is a great overview of everything you’ve been missing that’s relevant to your work, gathered in one place and applied to the kinds of challenges you face daily. (Though I should note, it is extremely heavy on the cause of animal rights - which is Cooney’s pet issue - pun intended.)

My favorite part of the book is the first chapter, which also contains the most original thinking in the book. It encourages activists to apply psychology to themselves before they focus on using it to engage the outside world. That’s an important step, because without that self-reflection, do-gooders end up doing less good. I liked this critical point. It’s so easy to ask ourselves how to change people - it’s far harder to ask how we must first change ourselves.

Activists often lament that people care about causes for personal and emotional reasons rather than for altruistic support of an abstract mission. They can’t grasp why their mission statement isn’t sufficiently motivating on its own. This complaint has always bugged me, by the way - we are presumptuous indeed if we think our world view and our own calling should be shared by everyone else. Cooney points out an interesting twist: leaders of nonprofits are often no different in their own attitudes to their cause. They became engaged in their cause for personal, circumstantial reasons. Over time, they see their issue more broadly - but often, not broadly enough. Cooney says more is needed:

1. Doing good requires a dose of dispassion. Caring may feel altruistic, but true altruism is figuring out how to do the most good - rather than what feels good. It may be satisfying to launch a campaign ranting about a narrow-minded comment by a politician, but will that really effect change on your organization’s core issue? Do you count what you said (ie, how many pamphlets you handed out) or what you did (how many lives you saved)? Emotional self-control and calm focus on the most effective means of change are what lead to true transformations.

2. Doing good might require a haircut. Cooney quotes an environmental activist at a rally of young green enthusiasts. He asks, “Are you ready to fight for the environment? Are you ready to get arrested for the environment? Are you ready to die for the environment?” Everyone cheers. Then he asks, “Are you ready to cut your hair and put on a suit for the environment?” Silence. The point: sometimes our self identity is one of our biggest stumbling blocks. Are we focused on who we are or what we do?

3. The bottom line is what matters. When we are honest with ourselves about our feelings and self-identity - and then take a step back from those - we can begin to focus where we should: the bottom line. We should direct our energy to measuring our impact and embracing what advances it - which is not just about caring but about systemic change.

Self reflection - a good thought for the start of a new year. Look inside yourself and this book before you seek to change the world.

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