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Moving Away from a Culture of Can’t

There is a lot of pressure on community benefit organizations to be more “business like”. Some of this “business like” behaviour is really code for “be more competitive”, including approaches to labour force costs. On the surface, with governments looking for efficiencies and value for money, with donors and volunteers experiencing “fatigue” and with the “culture of can’t” looming large, it does seem that being a shark is perhaps a good plan!

Not so quickly, lone ranger! There is another road!

I am a big fan of John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann’s work on Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) and McKnight’s more recent collaboration with Peter Block re: Abundant Communities. Among other messages, ABCD says to us:

  • Help neighbours discover each other’s gifts
  • Reduce dependence on “systems” of services; they can’t create community and evidence shows that systems NEVER get “fed” enough and usually under-perform (ref health)
  • There are many stories which support a “yes we can” narrative when it comes to community action

If we think of the non-profit sector as a community, our labour force is “abundant” and we, as a collective, have the potential to build strategies that support the long term development of our human capital. Recognizing that our workforce has the talent, experience and passion to achieve greater community impact is a compelling motivator. It’s a healthier and more empowering choice than the rational but ineffective (and costly) “culture of can’t” which invades our thinking, particularly when it comes to strengthening our human resources.

Hildy Gottlieb, recognized in the US as one of the “most innovative and practical thinkers in the public benefit sector”, has written a great, practical book The Pollyanna Principles: Reinventing “Non-profit Organizations” to Create the Future of Our World. She encourages us to:

  • Think differently (boldly and optimistically) about the future we want;
  • Change the questions we ask, so that our orientation is ask how can we build on strengths and create possibility vs. asking how we can solve problems based on our experience and our assumptions about what limits us;
  • To “turn to one another; discover the future we want to create; discern what we can do together that we can’t do apart; and
  • To support each other as we keep our eyes on creating the future rather than simply on sustaining our organizations.

Tall order, yes! Possible…. Absolutely!

As I creep towards being of age to get (more) seniors discounts, I am selfishly concerned that we pull ourselves away from the culture of can’t. We owe it to ourselves, our organizations and our communities to think differently, to change the question from “what’s feasible?” to “how can we change the world?”


About the author

Mike Coxon is the CEO of Mills Community Support which engages in community development and provides housing & services to older adults and adults with intellectual disabilities. Mike has been the Executive Director of several human services organizations. He has also taught in the Developmental Services Worker program at Georgian College and has operated Third Sector Consulting since 1990.


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