I am fond of telling the story about how shortly after Playworks was awarded a $4.4 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to scale our operations (and officially blowing our collective minds and sending us into a more-than-mild ‘now what?!?’ panic), I got a follow up call from our program officer informing us that we would also be receiving an additional $400K in investment in our communications that would be managed separately by the foundation to work with an outside firm. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that at the time I was more than a little annoyed by this. In fact, my immediate reaction was, “FOUR HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS ON A COMMUNICATIONS FIRM?!? DO YOU KNOW HOW MANY SCHOOLS WE COULD SERVE WITH THAT MONEY?!?”
Turns out, I was wrong. That money was one of the best investments Playworks (then Sports4Kids), ever made - or had made in us - because it fundamentally changed how we operated, integrating communications into our work both programmatically and operationally, and thus enabling us to reach measurably more kids. It made us more effective as an organization, and it extended the reach of our programs. Internally, it also made us much more aware of the importance of creating visibility into how decisions were made – an especially important communications capacity for a growing organization where the rate of change is rapid.
To talk about the power and import of communications to social entrepreneurship, David Bornstein joined our class. David’s perspective on social entrepreneurship is a particularly interesting one because before he officially came out as one, he studied and wrote about them, authoring a number of important books on the subject, most notably The Price of a Dream and How to Change the World. He and Susan Davis also authored one of the best textbooks on the subject, Social Entrepreneurship: What Everyone Needs to Know.
David described his journey, starting out in computer science and pivoting to journalism, and then traveling to interview social entrepreneurs around the world. David defined social entrepreneurship as bringing people together in new ways to solve the most vexing challenges, emphasizing the importance of being open to new configurations as key to identifying solutions. One of the comments that he made that stood out to me – and to the students – was that looking back on that period of time and the end product that was How to Change the World, David observed “I probably wouldn’t write the same book now.” One of the students asked about that comment later in our conversation and David explained that his writing at the time was heavily influenced by the then-popular narrative focusing on the singular, heroic leader. His own work launching and leading an organization, Solutions Journalism, has convinced him that the true story is really about the power of teams and networks.
David talked about the work of Solutions Journalism, and in response to a student question about the prevalence of disinformation and polarization, David offered a very hopeful analysis, emphasizing the opportunity for good that exists in working at the local level. Looking at the three points of entry for their work – local, national and social media – David maintained that the possibility of re-building trust was greatest through relationship building between local communities and their local news sources. When journalists are willing to make the effort to understand the challenges facing their communities and to report on interventions from other communities that had been successful in addressing those challenges, David maintains that a shift becomes possible. At the national level, and on social media, David described the pressures as favoring what he termed “conflict entrepreneurs,” monetizing fear and resentment, and referenced Reed Hoffman’s Seven Deadly Sins Framework (“Social networks do best when they tap into one of the seven deadly sins. Facebook is ego. Zynga is sloth. LinkedIn is greed.”)
David closed his talk with a reflection on the power that stories have to change our lives, to create, as he put it, “the chance to flight simulate other options.” He invited the students to consider deeply what made them tick, and to cultivate a self-awareness around work that enabled them to pursue opportunities where they found “not only a place to be effective, but a place to be happy.”
After David’s talk, I walked the students through last week's midterm assessment, reflecting back some of their responses and offering my own. The students then broke into groups to discuss the films they watched. I asked each group to prepare a 90 second “review” to share with the class. Two groups watched "Just Mercy", one group watched "Dark Waters", one watched "The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind" and one watched "On the Basis of Sex". The films were generally well-received by the students, though the emphasis on RBG’s personal life (and the minute-long makeout scene with Armie Hammer) frustrated the students who watched "On the Basis of Sex". "RBG" was held up as a better alternative, leading to a discussion of the fact that "On the Basis of Sex" garnered $38.8M in box office receipts compared to (wildly successful by documentary standards) $14.4M grossed by "RBG".
Next week we will be talking about fundraising and joined by Playworks CEO, Elizabeth Cushing.
Readings for next week include Kim Klein, Is Social Justice Fundraising and Oxymoron https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/transformation/is-social-justice-fundraising-oxymoron/
Making Big Bets for Social Change: https://ssir.org/articles/entry/making_big_bets_for_social_change
And watching: Anand Giridharadas: The Thriving World, The Wilting World, & You https://www.aspeninstitute.org/videos/anand-giridharadas-thriving-world-wilting-world-you/
People need meaning, the opportunity for mastery, and community to thrive. Creating opportunities for people to contribute, and to find their best selves is some of the most important work we can do.