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It’s a modern relationship in a modern world. It’s a marriage full of promise. But does our culture’s celebration of the male-dominated tech world end up overshadowing critical skills like empathy that are required for social change?
In 2010, Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million to help then-Mayor Cory Booker and Governor Chris Christie fix Newark, New Jersey’s failing public school system. Five years later, it’s challenging to delineate all the accomplishments and lessons those involved in this ambitious undertaking achieved and learned. That isn’t surprising. Social problems are among the most complicated in the world—they require creative thinking and a complex understanding of human nature, and they don’t easily lend themselves to quarterly metrics.
Zuckerberg has been open about what he learned from his experience in Newark. In November 2015, he posted on Facebook, “It's very important to understand the desires of a community, to listen and learn from families, teachers, elected officials and other experts.” With this statement, he was commenting on an essential quality for any social change agent: empathy.
Empathy means being able to put yourself in another’s shoes and see the world through their eyes. Effective nonprofit leaders use their considerable imagination and empathy as a starting point for comprehending human nature and envisioning fixes for societal problems. In their book Creative Confidence, David and Tom Kelley, founders of the design firm IDEO, write that deep empathy for people is what makes _“observations powerful sources of inspiration. We aim to understand why people do what they currently do, with the goal of understanding what they might do in the future.”
Yet, if empathy is lifeblood for social innovation, why did the PR-driven, top-down approach of Booker, Christie, and the team trying to help the Newark public schools upstage it? Why did Oprah learn about Zuckerberg’s investment before the people of Newark? I believe that part of the answer to this question rests in our culture’s disregard for qualities traditionally regarded as _“feminine.”
Empathy is historically associated with women, while command and control are traditionally associated with men. Just as women are routinely devalued in society, empathy is often devalued in our work lives. It has not escaped my notice that the nonprofit sector is predominantly female, while the tech sector is famously male-centric.
The pairing of tech and nonprofit is much like that Bill and Hillary-type couple at the dinner party: He can be verbose, funny, and super-sized in personality, dominating the dinner table; she may seem reserved, wonky, precise, and hard to read, chatting quietly with her neighbor. Tech philanthropists have staggering amounts of money and power that dominate the social conversation; nonprofit leaders have toiled away for years, quietly working behind the scenes to cure and care for society. At home it’s fine, but when they’re together on the public stage, she’s easily overshadowed.
Clearly, tech philanthropists and nonprofit leaders share a passion. The new tech sector philanthropists are zealous about changing poverty, social injustice, education, climate change, and so on, and they have tremendous resources to bring to the equation. Internet entrepreneur Jeff Skoll has given roughly half of his net wealth to socially conscious organizations. Ebay Founder Pierre Omidyar has given more than $1 billion. Bill (and Melinda) Gates have given more than $30 billion. And the list goes on.
Similarly, nonprofit leaders—who frequently receive these huge donations or partner with tech moguls—have dedicated their careers to addressing some of the largest humanitarian problems of our time. If social change requires some of our most creative thinking and—as psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi notes in Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention—creativity requires the strengths traditionally associated with both genders, this passion has the potential to bear much fruit.
If you ask Scott Harrison about nonprofits, he’ll tell you they have an image problem. Harrison raises money from tech billionaires for organizations working to bring clean drinking water to underserved areas around the world. In a New York Times article, he explained that he started his organization, charity: water, because he _“ … wanted to reinvent the way people thought about charity and how people thought about giving. ...There were no really imaginative, fun, epic charities that I knew of ... ”
Really? I can think of dozens of imaginative, fun, and epic charities. I doubt anyone who knows Molly Melching’s organization, Tostan, which is ending female genital cutting in West Africa—for starters—would say Melching doesn’t think big or that Tostan isn’t epic. Or that Karen Tse, who founded International Bridges to Justice to protect basic human rights, lacks a sense of imagination. But because they are not members of the tech community, we can ignore their work, expertise, and vision.
Alexandre Mars—whose Epic Foundation taps his network of fellow techies for youth-focused charities—explained in the San Francisco Chronicle that his approach works because fellow techies “ ... don’t see me as someone coming from another world saying, ‘Oh, you need to trust us with this vision.’ They see me as a peer. I have the same amount [of money] as they do, same background—entrepreneur and doer.” In other words, social change leaders aren’t necessarily entrepreneurs or doers—unless their expertise has been confirmed by one of the inside members of the (boys) club.
Does the image of the nonprofit sector reflect the bias of media coverage of women in general, putting the emphasis on hot-ness, boobs, and fashion, and thereby minimizing their power and expertise? Consider the following unconsciously negative framing of nonprofit leaders and those who engage in social issues. In a 2014 New Yorker profile of Samantha Power, US Ambassador to the United Nations, the magazine comments on Power’s (seemingly surprising) competence by quoting a French official as saying that, though he’d only expected an “NGO girl,” he’d been pleasantly surprised by Power’s ability. A senior Administration official is then quoted as concurring that it was easy “to dismiss someone like Samantha Power,” because _“Oh she cares about the marginal, vulnerable, and oppressed!”
On the other hand, media coverage of the tech sector is predominantly positive when it comes to what these innovators and entrepreneurs can offer nonprofit leaders. Media portrays tech moguls as willing to experiment, take risks, color outside the lines, and think big—all true, for the most part. Simultaneously however, it portrays nonprofit leaders as earnest and well-meaning, but lacking imagination, a sense of fun, and an ability to think big and effect large change—a stereotype that is patently not true for all, and certainly unlikely to be true for anyone who is truly effective. You cannot make real social change without imagination, curiosity, and a willingness to be wrong, and nonprofits are in the change-making business every single day. Is it possible that, in the marriage between the new tech philanthropists and social change leaders, our culture ignores and sweeps aside the expertise of nonprofit leaders simply because critical skills required for social change (like empathy) are feminized, along with the nonprofit sector itself?
When I was 26 and working on the border of Mexico, I met an Irish nun who taught me about empathy. Sister Gerrie Naughton, founder of the nonprofit ARISE, was famous in the Rio Grande Valley for her work with very poor immigrant women in poverty-stricken colonias. She did not believe in hiring outsiders to solve local problems. Instead, she invested in identifying and coaching community women to run the multitude of ARISE programs, even if those women had only a second-grade education, cleaned houses for a living, and spoke no English. Ten years after founding ARISE, Naughton hired me, the first Anglo and first middle-class employee from outside the community.
For two years I helped teens who had dropped out of school reconnect with education, side by side with colleagues who had lived most of their lives without legal papers and in poverty. I learned what it means to live far below the poverty line in one of the wealthiest countries in the world; what it smells like, feels like, and sounds like to live in a trailer with your seven children; what it is to feel so far from belonging that walking into your town’s public library seems equivalent to trespassing an exclusive country club in Beverly Hills; and how life events can transpire to keep your mother hooked on drinking, your younger siblings in foster care, and you out of high school, trying to take care of everyone.
My time at ARISE gave me empathy for and an understanding of the complexity of poverty and human nature that I couldn’t have gained from a book or a conversation. I learned about social change in the truest sense of the words: social, derived from Latin socius, means “friend”; and change, derived from Old Celtic kemb, “to bend.” Social change literally means “friend bend.”_ It is, in other words, a friend becoming something other than what they were, which—as anyone who has supported a friend in leaving or changing a bad situation knows —requires the utmost sensitivity, compassion, and patience. You cannot force a friend to leave or change a bad situation; you can only walk beside them, offering help and resources along the way. If you threw a rock at a conference of nonprofit leaders, you’d probably hit 10 people with a story like mine; but the mainstream dialogue ignores the value of this expertise, how we gain it, how long it takes, or why it’s important—and we don’t have the metrics to measure it in the social change equation.
Some tech philanthropists are using their celebrity, wealth, and resources to research, listen to, and understand how social change works and what social change leaders want, or need, to do more. They’re using their power, money, and branding to value and build on the expertise that exists. Mars asks nonprofits “how ambitious” they are, not how they can “deliver more programming for few dollars per kid.” Skoll identifies social entrepreneurs and raises awareness of their intelligence, skill, and ability, while giving them tremendous, unrestricted resources. Zuckerberg, a true innovator, is committed to learning from the past and iterating. Over the past two years, he and wife Priscilla Chan committed $120 million to the San Francisco public schools and 99 percent of their Facebook stock to socially conscious causes.
The new marriage between the tech philanthropists and nonprofit leaders is tremendously exciting and fertile with opportunity, but like any modern relationship, it’s complicated. It’s growing and developing in a society rife with power dynamics around gender, not to mention race and class. We need to equally value what each partner brings to the table, acknowledging and discussing their abilities, so we don’t overlook any expertise and knowledge that already exists—because social change is some of the most complex and creative work on the planet, and creativity requires the collective intelligence of all of us.