How do you avoid the pitfalls when trying to make a difference?

Making a difference in the world isn’t just a passion for many people, it’s becoming the pursuit of more organizations and businesses. More businesses and organizations than ever before are becoming socially conscious as more and more people demand it, inside and outside their organizations, the world over.

The benefits of this movement are substantial for local communities, as well as the businesses and organizations that pursue it. In servant leadership led organizations, as people care for each other within organizations, people begin to care more for those outside their organizations. An awareness and desire to help those most in need throughout society increases. And, as organizations who embrace an “others first” philosophy thrive, they are better able to increasingly turn their attention to meeting needs in their surrounding community.

The downsides of this movement can be just as substantial unless the community is directly involved in the decision-making process. In our desire to love others, to serve them, and to help them, we often forget to check with them to see how we can best do that.

In 2017, the art director at the Walker Art Center wanted to raise understanding and increase awareness of the violence toward the Native communities throughout history. So, a sculpture entitled Scaffold was selected for the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, which included the gallows used to execute the “Dakota 38” in Mankato, MN in 1862. Though well-meaning, the art director did not engage the leaders in the Dakota and broader Native communities in advance of the work on the project. The ensuing trauma caused by the building of the sculpture could have been avoided entirely had the Native community had a seat at the decision-making table from the beginning.

Having the best intentions to make a difference in the world personally or professionally do not guarantee success. Instead of banking on good intention, use the following proven roadmap the next time you want to positively impact your local community:

1.     Listen and discover. Take time to discover what the actual needs are. Do not rely on your assumptions. We truly cannot know what others need without asking. And if we think we do, we’re simply projecting based on our own experiences, perspectives, and biases. If you haven’t already asked to discover the real needs present, this is the one time it is safe to assume, assume you don’t know. The person closest to the problem likely already knows the best solution to it.

2.     Validate your ideas. Once you have some concrete ideas of actual needs that you could help meet, validate these ideas with people in the community that you’ve invited to be part of the process. If you truly want to ensure you’re going to meet the actual needs of community members, they need to be part of the whole process. And rather than do it for them, do it with them. Make sure it isn’t transactional. There’s a rise in multi-purpose spaces as many organizations want to create space for the community to use their buildings in addition to their own organization. However, unless the community is consulted during the design process, there is zero guarantee community members will feel the space is actually for them or think it useful and therefore use it.

3.     Start small and gather feedback. Once you’ve validated how you can make a real difference in your community, test it out a time or two in small ways before creating full blown systems for it and devoting tons of resources towards it. Nothing works perfectly the first time. Here’s another very safe assumption to make: assume your efforts to make a difference in your community won’t go perfectly the first time. Gather feedback while moving forward to keep improving as you go along.

4.     Commit to learning. Once you start, please don’t put it on autopilot. We all know of well-meaning programs that were initiated with the best of intentions but no longer meet actual needs. One of the biggest hurdles to long-term success in anything is experiencing success early on and then committing to never changing a thing. The only way to continue to meet the actual needs in our communities is to keep learning. Society changes, needs change. Sometimes when real problems are addressed and met, doors open up to address new problems. Discovering what those are requires that we stay humble and keep learning.

Making a difference in our communities and societies is at the heart of so much of what many people and organizations strive to do day in and day out. Let’s do it is such a way that we bestow nothing but honor and dignity upon those whom we seek to serve by inviting them to be a part of the process, not simply recipients with zero odds for true reciprocity to exist.