Why organizations that do good are collapsing
It's time to make the larger purpose of our work truly concrete
Like many people, you joined a mission-driven organization because you wanted to do some good in the world. You believed in its purpose, so you set to work. But the work dragged over time. You became swamped with paperwork. The protocols you had to follow didn’t make any sense. Your colleagues, who all seemed so great at first, were challenging (who isn’t?). And you kept asking, Am I really doing what I came here to do? Is it enough? The world is still burning around me — is my work really making a difference?
During the throes of Covid, people questioned their work and left their jobs in droves. They feared for their lives, so it made sense to ask, Am I really doing what I came here to do?
This is the question most people in mission-driven organizations ask all the time. They burn to do some good (they’re not just in it for the mediocre pay). So if the work isn’t fulfilling its purpose — if the process is dysfunctional and the results are questionable — then it’s hard to want to stick around.
But of all the reasons to lose motivation, perhaps the biggest (and certainly most overlooked) is the fact that the larger purpose of our work is never really clear. How does it relate to the whole of society? Yes, children need to be educated, people need healthy food, the homeless need a place to rest their heads, and the elderly and infirm need care. But the world is on the brink of catastrophe. How does my work relate to that? How does it help transform society and make it healthy? Really, though. Concretely.
The fact is we don’t know, and this subtly undermines all our work. It imbues it with a sense of futility, though we’re often not even aware of it. Why not? Because the question of what a healthy society looks like is almost never asked and, on the rare occasion we do ask it, we fall almost immediately into vague utopian thinking — “It should be, democratic… and everyone should be fed, everyone should be taken care of…” Yes! But how?
If you imagine that we were to somehow turn things around in the next few decades, how would things look? How would the government or economy be different? What would pacify the culture wars and ease international hostilities?
These will seem like naive questions to many. How could we ever possibly know such things? And so we resign ourselves to not knowing, to working on the small, incremental change in front of us in the hope that, if we take enough tiny steps in the right direction, we’ll somehow stumble into a new world. But deep down we doubt it. Deep down we can’t imagine anything turning this mess around.
The thing is: we can know what a healthy society looks like. We can come to understand the principles of societal health, and learn to see the role that our work plays in it. Because society’s development is lawful, and we can come to know that lawfulness.
Let’s look at an example of such lawfulness. News organizations always talk about the importance of a “free press.” What they mean is that government shouldn’t influence what’s published, otherwise they’ll censor stories that are critical of them. But of course people don’t just worry about government, they also worry about how business affects the newsroom. They worry that billionaire owners will run things according to their whims or grudges, or that, because news outlets rely on the advertising dollars of powerful corporations, there’s a huge disincentive to write anything critical about them.
And these worries are clearly justified. The math is simple: if the media isn’t independent of political and corporate entities, then there’s a conflict of interest that harms society.
And that, right there, is an example of society’s lawfulness. It’s a clear, observable dynamic within society, just as clear as any law of the natural world. It can be restated: the more that outside interests, such as government and business, have a say in the news, the less the news will pursue the truth for its own sake and the more it will do the bidding of political and corporate interests.
But that’s just one instance. The reality is that lawfulness permeates all of the social organism, but we rarely see it so clearly. If you think about it, it’s incredible that journalists can even see their healthy social ideal at all. Can any other profession do the same? Is there an equally clear social ideal in the fields of art, medicine, agriculture?
Though journalism clearly falls short of its ideal, imagine if it didn’t have it at all — imagine that all news was explicitly government propaganda or business PR, and there was no independent media. What would be the state of society then? Clearly, an important check on tyranny and corruption would be lost, and we can assume it would be a pretty dark world.
Now try to imagine the opposite — imagine that the field of journalism was fully living its ideal, that it was indeed a free press. What would it look like? How could you possibly get rid of political and corporate influences entirely and make all media independent? Can you even imagine such a scenario, or do you just throw up your hands and say it’s impossible?
The problem is, our social imagination is stuck. In most areas of social life we have no idea of the larger social ideal we’re working towards. And in the areas where we do, like journalism, we still can’t find a way to actualize that ideal. We’ve largely given up.
What does this do to our motivation? It drains it. We work day in and day out, but ultimately we know it won’t turn the tide. The world will continue to collapse. So we leave our organizations in frustration, and they begin to collapse as well.
But we can come to know the larger social ideals behind our work — the healthy dynamics we must strive for in order to renew society — and we can actualize those ideals. How? Through the ideals themselves. When we begin to see the larger picture of what’s right and healthy in society, it sets a fire in us. It becomes an engine, motivating us to redouble our efforts, and redouble them again.
The first step, though, is simply trying to see the whole of society, trying to see its lawfulness — what leads to social health and what leads to social illness. Such an exploration is easiest with a guide, but unfortunately there aren’t many people who have ever even tried to see society whole.
Rudolf Steiner is the only person I know of, and his insights are profound. For instance, he saw that society has three main spheres of activity — government, culture, and economy — and that they need to be independent of one another to be healthy. So for Steiner, all cultural activities need to be distinct from business and politics, not just journalism. We already know this when it comes to religion (the need to separate church and state) and education (the need for academic freedom), but it should also apply to art, science, medicine and really all of education (not just higher education).
Perhaps you disagree? Great! That means you’re at least asking what should be the right dynamics within society. This is the conversation we need to be having. Should the government run everything? Should they tell teachers what to teach and doctors what medicines to prescribe? Or maybe everything should be a commodity exchanged on the market, subject to the highest bidder — let the wealthiest corporations pay for our politicians and determine our laws? Or maybe there should be some sort of separation between these functions, but along different lines than Steiner suggested?
It is this that we must try to see. This is the messy reality of society, and if we don’t try to grasp it in a deeper way — learn to see which dynamics are truly healthy and which are toxic — then others will continue to manipulate it for their own gain, and we’ll continue to slide into catastrophe.
Of course developing a whole society perspective is not so simple. It means wrestling through to a deeper understanding of the true nature of political life, democracy, rights. It means beginning to understand the role of capital in society, how it’s created and how it needs to be used. It means questioning whether a person’s labor is truly a commodity to be bought and sold, or whether that’s just a last vestige of slavery and serfdom.
But if we don’t do this work, if we don’t try to see society whole and understand what makes it healthy or sick, then we’ll just continue to lose motivation. To hope, but not really to hope, because we can’t see any way out of the mess we’re in.
But if we do start to take an interest in the whole of society, and the role our work plays in it, then maybe we’ll begin to tell a different story:
Over time, the work in your organization took on new life because you began to see its larger purpose. Your work became lighter, more efficient, even as you began to step into new tasks. You started working more closely with your colleagues to really understand the deeper meaning behind your work and how it fits into the whole. And you began to create coalitions with those outside your organization in order to transform your field more broadly. Yes, the world was still burning around you, but the fires were beginning to smolder and die out. You could see your work was making a difference. You knew where you were going.
If you’re interested in understanding the whole of society and the role of your work in it, read more here and get in touch (firstname.lastname@example.org).