If you have invested any amount of money, time, or energy in addressing social issues and want to know how to make a bigger impact, this article is for you.
You are no stranger to this feeling. You start with an elevated sense of social responsibility or even a sense of calling. You believe you can make a difference. After a while, however, the frustration mounts. You feel like no matter how much money, time, or energy you've already invested, there seems to be an endless need for more investments. You start to question if the challenge is solvable and wonder what you've been doing.
When that's the case, it can be one of two situations. In one situation, you are doing everything right, but the turning point hasn't come yet. Cancer research, for example, falls into this category. Be patient. Incremental progress will aggregate, and change will come.
In the other situation, however, your instinct is correct. Unfortunately, your endeavor is leading to a dead end. It's like you're trying to lift a boulder by pushing it. No matter how much energy you put into it, the boulder won't move in the direction you desire.
Why is it so challenging to turn investments into impact? The answer sometimes lies in "people" and attempting to predict human behaviors without deep knowledge of their past experiences and self-understandings.
To illustrate what I meant, I give you a case study drawn from Peace Love Yoga: The Politics of Global Spirituality (Oxford University Press, 2020). Peace Love Yoga is written by Andrea Jain, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University, Indianapolis.
Suppose we see yoga as a solution introduced to American society to counteract some of the negative impact of capitalism on individuals, such as growing individualism and eroding sense of community. What is the impact of yoga?
To most of us, the answer might be something positive. Either from personal experience or popular imageries, it seems like yoga has helped many become more relaxed and aware of others' needs.
However, as Andrea Jain and many other social scientists and social commentators have repeatedly pointed out, yoga has become another space for individuals to draw boundaries or even build hierarchies.
Most Americans who practice yoga grew up in a highly competitive society with extreme pressure to achieve. They were told to carefully manage every aspect of their life to achieve the best life outcomes. And that's precisely what they did. With that mindset, yoga is seen not as a solution to capitalistic individualism but as a new tool to manage stress to achieve in this society.
In other words, the impact of yoga depends on what your goal is. If you want to create another tool for people to manage stress, yoga probably works fine. But suppose you plan to invest in yoga's potential to create a cultural shift away from capitalistic individualism and rebuild a society-wide sense of community. In that case, you need to, first of all, identify groups that are not already deep in the "achieving" or "self-managing" mindset. However, since this group already "escaped" from individualism, doing yoga is unlikely to create any significant impact after all.
Unlike other investment opportunities with clear ROI indicators, investing in creating social change means you're, at least partly, working to change people. Whereas many investors are aware of humanity's notorious unpredictability, in practice, we often assume that "people" will act in a "rational" fashion. But bear in mind that "rationality" is relative. What you see as "the only rational decision" might be seen as utterly unacceptable by another. Haven't we learned that in 2016, 2020, and 2021?
So, in order to maximize the impact of your money, time, or energy, always put people at the center of your strategies. As tacky as it sounds, let the people guide you.