I originally wrote this post for the Capital GREAT Blog.
This morning, as I planted the above tree in my yard, I started thinking about the saying “you can’t see the forest for the trees,” which refers to someone who is so caught up with the details that they can’t see the larger picture. The saying felt especially pertinent as I have spent last week working on how CGF is going to go from 3 loans a week, to three loans a day, to 300 hundred a day and, so on. As I’ve pondered the challenges associated with achieving such significant scale, I have also kept my focus on those three loans a week–the loans to the low-income entrepreneur, to the disabled woman in need of a special chair, to the parent seeking to purchase a computer to help her child with homework–and so as I planted that beautiful little tree, as I showered it with water, with love with care…it occurred to me that when it comes to social good, you must see the both trees and the forest.
What I mean is that, when you plant a tree, or when you empower another human being, you are doing a wonderful thing. However, if all you do is serve one tree, one person at a time, then you are ignoring the scope of the broader problems facing earth and society, and you are also ignoring the broader social conditions that have disenfranchised the person and damaged the forest to begin with. In other words, even as you work, one gesture of kindness at a time, to better the world, you must also think about how to replicate, scale and increase the impact of your actions.
So when you plant a tree, think about the late Wangari Maathai, the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner and founder of the Green Belt Movement, which has planted over 47 million trees in Kenya with the goal of preventing soil erosion, improving environmental quality, and empowering the people of Kenya to move out of poverty and fight corruption and dictatorship. Each tree was planted with immense love and care, yet the Green Belt Movement has had tremendous impact because, in addition to that love and care, Wangari worked hard to build an organization with the infrastructure to enable thousands of people to plant millions of trees, take political action and take control of their destiny. Wangari once said that “for me, one of the major reasons to move beyond just the planting of trees was that I have the tendency to look at the causes of a problem. We often preoccupy ourselves with the symptoms, whereas if we went to the root cause of the problems, we would be able to overcome the problems once and for all.”
In the same way, every loan that CGF disburses makes a tremendous difference in the life that borrower, his or her family and the community in which he or she lives. But that is not enough. I do not work 80 hours a week in order to serve a couple hundred people a year, for I know that, through the simple mechanism of leverage, those 80 hours can be used to create an organization that makes a significant dent in poverty, and the structural causes of poverty, in America. I also know that if I pursue the path of scale and social impact with an authenticity and militancy of moral purpose, combined with a determination to solve the seemingly innumerable barriers to growth, I can turn my obsession with ending poverty into the reality of drastically reducing, if not eliminating, poverty in America.
I think it’s essential that those of us in our late teens and 20s–the generation that has grown up empowered by technology and the open-source and social entrepreneurship movements–to think about scale, for it is time that we grab injustice by the scruff of the neck and expunge it from the face of the earth; or, to paraphrase Muhammad Yunus, we must work to poverty in the only place it belongs–museums. After four years of working to create an innovative business model at CGF, I have come to see that developing that breakthrough business model–which I truly because we have finally figured out–is only 10% of the battle. The other 90% has to do with all the details: building systems, policies, procedures, funding plans, staffing plans, sound financial practices and projectons, etc. Another thing I’ve realized is that there is a tremendous difference between creating programs and creating an organization that delivers programs. Building the organization means that you are creating something sustainable, something that can take on a life of its own and grow over time.
So my challenge to all of us looking to better the world, however we want to go about it, is to be sure to see both the trees and the forest–both the suffering of the individual and the structural barriers that allow that suffering to take place. And once we see that, we must work to allay that suffering and knock down those barriers.