Coffee In Surry Hills (Chapter 12)

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IMG_2458You have to remember that I am writing this book many years after the events took place. Even so, in some cases, it feels is as though the events were only yesterday. In the case of the 9 City Bridge Run, that was actually last decade, almost eight years ago.

I wrote the after action review mentioned in Chapter 10 following a public forum which I convened to open a conversation addressing wellbeing as a counterpoint to depression and suicide as a result of the 9 City Bridge Run. I actually felt numb and stupid when reflecting on the experience. What had I done between 2007 and 2009 that made any difference to anything? My efforts seemed to have resulted in collateral damage with me as the casualty, and not much else. If I had known then that it would be a long eight years before I made sense of this journey through the publishing this book, I don’t know if I would have had the grit to continue. Sometimes it is better not to know how bad it is going to get when you are at the beginning of an epic quest.

I knew after reflecting on the 9 City Bridge Run that if I did nothing with the experience, then it would amount to failure. I had learnt something, but the problem was that it wasn’t exactly clear what I had learnt at that time.

I wanted to try again because I knew it would be possible to make some difference through this method. I didn’t know how exactly, but my sense was that it was valuable enough to try. Cast your mind back to the earlier chapters where I defined the genesis of this idea and you will see that it was never about how far I could run or even about me being at the centre of the action. In some respects, this created some dissonance in how I felt later. More often than not, I felt uncomfortable in needing to take the limelight. Overcoming our crippling insecurities is just another part of the Hero’s Journey. The insecurities that we allow to dominate our minds is also a key reason for getting stuck at All Backswing.

My sense was that the imperfect method which had proven so problematic and which I was exploring was worth pursuing further. For some reason, the idea of running across bridges to build bridges was an idea I couldn’t let go of, and maybe that was my folly. As I considered how to take the idea further, I felt turned off advocating further on the issue of suicide largely because of the lack of assistance I had received from the organisation who I had intended to support during the 9 City Bridge Run. I also recognised that for as important suicide was to address, there were more pressing issues that I could influence.

My aversion to continue with addressing suicide as the key problem was a case of institutional Backswing impacting on the individual. On a personal level, Backswing holds us back. It cripples our potential. On an institutional level, Backswing cruels a brand. In both circumstances, this occurs without the person stuck at Backswing not fully appreciating how short of their potential they are falling.

I have since formed a view that how we come to be involved in an issue is almost as important as what we do itself. Have you seen this before: organisations where the conversation makes sense, but somehow seems forced? There is something mechanical about the delivery which doesn’t seem quite right. I think too often the not-for-profit world is weakened by organisations who seek issues to champion because of their capacity to reduce tax through their legal status where they are able to exploit cause-related marketing, rather than being a feisty collective of activists wholly motivated by a deep-seated passion to see change occur whatever the cost because of their own personal interests.

It matters why we do things. I am increasingly convinced why we do things is more important than how we seek to do the work. We must strive to resist a culture of philanthropy which is grounded in building the perfect fundraising machine, which although efficient is disconnected from impacting the mission with authenticity.

This is not a new idea. As a society, we have been sold a pup because so many not-for-profit organisations manipulate their marketing to influence our donations. It is the same problem around corporate social responsibility which is at times dumbed down to a branding issue in the name of cause-related marketing.

The answer to this problem I think is to increase our tolerance for the failure for not-for-profit organisations (not so as to bail them out, but to let them perish if they are ultimately unviable). People shouldn’t pursue failure, but if failure is the result of an attempt to realise a noble outcome driven by passion in the interests of achieving change, then can we not see this as somehow worthwhile? It is better than corrupting an entire system with a flawed DNA that serves the interests of no one except so as to make annual reports and the reputations of executive teams sing.

How willing are we to make ourselves vulnerable in the service of the larger task? Our reluctance to accept vulnerability at an institutional level is the point where a state of All Backswing can often emerge. There are so many people who don’t want to have their expectations failed, that they would sooner preserve the certainty of the status quo that seek the necessary path that leads to change albeit inherently risky. We have to swing at the ball to hit, and this is a risky process. Often, we are going to miss.

As individual actors within the institutional construct, we have an responsibility not to buy into the delusion that everything is ticking along just fine. We must demand transparency. We must be obsessive about hitting hard, not only the glamour of the wind up during Backswing. If Backswing is all you have got, the bat will never be placed in proximity of the ball. But that is half of the reason for having All Backswing: it negates the responsibility for hitting.

An organisation that gets transfixed around budget when they should be focused on mission is avoiding the hard task of combating a real systemic problem in society. And in doing so they are becoming complicit with the problem, enabling it to fester.

If you have ever been in a state of poverty and then released through the kindness of someone else without any expectation or ability to pay this back, you will know what I mean. It is an overwhelming sense of freedom, which is incredulous to comprehend at first, and so slightly different to joy. Being received from poverty is a humbling experience where there is no one to thank because their actions were made from a true position of philanthropy. There is no branding. No good photos for the annual report. No humblebrag speeches by a puffed up CEO and Chairman. It is charity at its finest.

This is where not-for-profits should be aiming to get to, a position of true charity, preferably in a way that also enables systemic change. There must be a driving desire, a deep dissatisfaction with the status quo that allows injustice to continue. This dissatisfaction must drive a search for new models and innovative interventions. While it does feel good to receive the thanks from others for helping out, this praise ought to be seen as less important that the opportunity to create the preconditions for others to “pay it forward”. We should have a sense that our satisfaction to help others is just as important as our need to eat and breathe. Helping others is an innate need we all have so as to be fully human. And this authenticity in connecting with our humanness is the foundation of our motivation to build human bridges that help others.

I thought long and hard about what issue I could address which I thought mattered most with the greatest need to address. I was also interested in addressing an area which also correlated with an issue that was lacking an abundance of interest. It had to have meaning and impact. I wasn’t interested in just joining the beauty pageant of cause-related marketing and so to what was sexy and popular at the time.

I narrowed this down to the problem of extreme poverty as it affected the bottom billion, especially through child mortality. I didn’t have a robust understanding of this, and most of my knowledge relied upon books and presentations I could find. What seemed clear to me was that there were some committed practitioners doing some amazing work, but also many institutions just presenting statistics and data to in effect tug on the heartstrings in order to appeal for change. Tugging on the heartstrings is good for fundraising, but I would question the effectiveness when it comes to radical and massive systemic change.

I knew there was something I could do to influence this situation, but I didn’t know what exactly. I could have been more bullish in expressing my lack of knowledge of this problem. Leading with questions is a very important intervention in any area.

It so happened that a friend of mine called Ruthe who I knew through my earlier foray examining social enterprise across the UK and US let me know of her friend Kelley who was soon to visit Sydney. Rathe asked if I could connect with Kelley in Sydney and show her around. Of course, I was delighted to help and so I met Kelley in Sydney and had a great time showing her around. One morning, we stopped in a cafe in Surry Hills for coffee. The conversation was good, and after some general chit chat she in true New York fashion called me on my bullshit. So what is really going on, she asked. She wanted to know what I was doing or more to the point wanted to do.

I explained that I was playing around with this idea involving running across bridges to build human bridges. Kelley listened very patiently and with great care. She led me through a process with some subtle questions that would lead me to take action a short while later.

I remember that during this conversation I confided in her a question which I was hiding from answering. Did I think it was alright if I put this idea about running sub-marathons in 10 cities across 10 countries to somehow impact child mortality out there on a website? She responded saying with good humour that unless I tried I would never know. Looking back, that is so elementary. It was one of those threshold conversations that gives ourselves permission to depart from the Ordinary World and embark on a journey which is far from certain.

To her credit, Kelley didn’t try to counsel me to avoid the uncertainty of a personal quest in preference to working through an established global not-for-profit organisation. Safety was never part of her considerations, and at the same time she was far from encouraging recklessness. I still remember Kelley giving me this permission to try something that might not work without any hint of censoring my aspiration for what might be possible. Looking back, it was an insight into the process of innovation.

Journeys take a path few of us can predict, especially as we venture out from the Ordinary World. Kelley was one of those supportive characters who act as a guide and ally though the Hero’s Journey. It was significant that she was there at the beginning of this journey, because coincidentally she was also the one person who would eventually be sitting patiently and listen to what had taken place across the many years which spanned this quest at the conclusion of the run in New York. Never underestimate the impact that other people are going to have in your life. This journey all began with a coffee in Surry Hills.

And so I launched my first website. I was very aware this was a new skill I had to acquire and I was far from being an expert. I was finding that it was necessary to jettison my familiarity with being a highly competent expert in my previous work as an Australian Army Officer, and to learn to embrace the beginners mind again. Admitting that you really have no idea what it is you are trying to achieve is a difficult place to find yourself.

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