Note from Jen: Sharing progress and spreading optimism

June 18, 2018

There is a whole lot of good news in the world. Like huge drops in the number of people who live in poverty and the number of people who die from disasters.

There is a whole lot of good news in the world and there are a whole lot of reasons we don't always recognize it.

Hans Rosling's book "Factfulness" lays out 10 of those reasons. It is a terrific book. (Bill Gates likes it so much he is offering a free copy to every college graduate in the US.)

I think the book is fascinating and explains a lot about how our minds and our hearts can trick us. I want to focus on one small but critically important point in the book: the role of those of us in the do-good industry in spreading pessimism.

For those of us who are focused on addressing social issues and trying to get others to care, it is almost irresistible to paint the bleakest possible picture. We share our stories and our data in a way that suggests things are horrible and getting worse.

There certainly are issues that are horrible and getting worse. However, on most issues there is also some progress to celebrate.

When we don't celebrate progress, when we just have lots of us shouting that everything is horrible and getting worse, we collectively create despair. And we reinforce negative stereotypes. Horrible-and-getting-worse can be good for organizational fundraising. Ultimately, however, it undermines our efforts. We need people to feel hopeful. We need people to be optimistic that our challenges are solvable.

We had a board retreat last month in and around Grand Rapids, generously hosted for us by our colleagues at the Blandin Foundation. We heard a presentation by Isaac Meyer from Kootasca Community Action about poverty in the area. It was one of the most optimistic explanations of poverty I've heard. He painted a vivid and troubling picture of rural poverty and the challenges people in poverty face. He also gave us reason for hope.

He shared what was working. For example, he compared the official poverty rate with the market poverty rate. The market poverty rate shows that tens of millions of people would be in poverty in the US if not for the supports we already have like Social Security and SNAP programs and SSI and tax credits. Although every issue doesn't have a tidy measure like market poverty rate, there's an opportunity to showcase how the effort and money we are already putting into any issue is making a difference.

And he explained the dynamics of the problem in easy-to-understand terms. He explained how people move in and out of poverty. (Most of us will experience at least a year of poverty in our lifetimes. It is a mainstream problem.) He showed that it is not an intractable challenge. We are successfully moving people out of poverty every day and know how to do it. On every big issue, there's an opportunity to break it down into smaller pieces or actions that feel less overwhelming and more energizing.

To do great things, we need to believe great things are possible. We need optimism. For those of us in the do-good industry, there is much more we can do to spread optimism — to inspire people and energize people to make this region better for everyone.