December 15, 2005
“Hope Is Not A Strategy.” (But It Is What Keeps Us Alive.)
Thoughts from a Greenlights Staffer on the Way to Africa
Note: This article was written by Janie for the monthly e-newsletter of Greenlights for NonProfit Success, her recent former employer.
In Malawi, a small country in Africa, prisoners die daily in overcrowded, understaffed prisons. Homeless children roam the street begging for food or a bit of money to survive the day. Across the country, mothers sit next to husbands who are dying of AIDS, not knowing what will happen to them and their children when their only source of income disappears.
Aid organizations have flooded the country, but the best they can do is try to stem the flood of death. "That's what we do," says Sylvester Kalonge, the Malawi coordinator for food security and emergencies for CARE International, quoted in the New York Times on December 7.
"We keep people alive."
In Central Texas this week, a prisoner killed himself in a crowded jail, his parents alleging lack of health care for a chronic mental health disorder. The city government scratches their collective head this Thursday over the hundreds of homeless people begging for money or a bite to eat on Austin streets. Despite a drug revolution in our country, AIDS organizations still man hospice care houses to give dignity to dying patients. Victims from this year’s natural disasters are already threatening to disappear into the cracks of society, desperate and unsure how to rebuild their lives.
Hundreds of nonprofits in Central Texas struggle to face these problems every day, doing it to keep people alive.
In January, I’ll leave my Greenlights post as Director of Education & Communication, a job that I have loved for so many reasons for the last three years. This March, my husband and I will take up residence in Malawi, a country of about 11 million people in southeastern Africa. I’ll be working there for an African nonprofit called the Story Workshop that uses a mix of advocacy and social mobilization on behalf of human rights, democracy, food security, gender equity, AIDS education, conservation of natural resources, literacy and economic development.
Some people have told me they think I’m courageous to go. Some people have gone so far as to say generous.
But the truth is that I am going not so much to help as to be helped, not to teach what I know but to learn from others.
The truth is that I am not sure quite why I need to go.
I know that I want to understand why we do the things we do as people. How we are all bad and good at the same time. Why we know what to do to make things right in the world and yet, around the earth, continue to make the same mistakes, face the same problems. I know that I need to understand better what drives us as humans – what causes us to work, to learn, to love and to hate, to hurt and help each other. In a selfish way, I also need to know what I can do to be useful.
But I am realizing that there is something else, something more powerful I have learned here from Greenlights and many of you, that drives me to go.
At our holiday party this week, one of our board members mentioned a project she is working on with an area nonprofit – one that has been through several false starts and is just now gaining traction. Wondering over all she has learned over the last few years, she said, “As I look back today, the thing I wish I had known then is this: ‘Hope is not a strategy.’”
She was referring, of course, to a popular business book of the same name, a book that champions strategic thinking for salespeople, showing them how to turn intent into results.
I nodded. I agreed with her sentiment and generally with the principle of the book. After all, it corresponds to our key tenets at Greenlights. We give people strategies and skills, direction and resources so that they don’t have to rely on hope alone to fulfill their missions. We try to help organizations channel their passions to make the most powerful difference they can. We talk about plans, about communication, about roles and responsibilities, about outcome and evaluation. We talk mostly about things that can be measured.
But perhaps, I am thinking now, what we don’t talk about enough is hope.
Hope isn’t measurable. It isn’t quantifiable or results-based. On most days, it isn’t even enough for those of us striving to make practical, real change in the world. Hope seems a slippery idea in our world of concrete and facts; we’re suspicious of those who hold it up like a flag as a justification or explanation for anything at all.
But, while hope may not be a strategy, it occurs to me, most of us are driven by it. We must be. Otherwise, why do we go on? Why wake up every day to look head-on at the injustice and the inequality, the abuses that we see in our world, whether Austin or Africa?
This year at our Crossroads Conference, the closing keynote speaker Dan Hayes, (yes, a close relation) mentioned a book called “The Anatomy of Hope: How People Prevail in the Face of Illness.” And I wondered how the book’s author, Jerome Groopman, defined true hope for his sick patients who are staring into the chasm of death:
"Hope...” he asserts, “does not cast a veil over perception and thought. In this way, it is different from blind optimism: It brings reality into sharp focus."
So it must be, I think, this unveiled hope that drives us. It must be the backbone, the motivation, for the work we do. And as I think about my job here at Greenlights for the past three years and my interactions with my colleagues, clients, and so many of you, I realize that what I continue to be inspired by is their – and your – sense of hope in our world.
And I guess this is why I am going to Africa. I guess it is what makes the CARE representatives in Malawi get out of bed every morning. And my suspicion is that it is what carries each of us working with nonprofits in Central Texas throughout each day.
So thanks to you for all the forms your hope has taken in my life – the courage to feel passionately, to think critically, to work, to play, to laugh and to cry.
And if there is one thing that I hope as I leave, I guess, it is that we all collectively manage to do a little more than keep people alive – that we strive to pass along a little bit of hope.
Bon Voyage and my best to all of you who have taught and given me so much!