On Commitment and Involvement
One of the ironies of the modern age is the feeling of isolation and its cognitive cousin, insular thinking, that can arise from a surfeit of exposure to what passes for information and connections to people, places and ideas. Faced with an overload of possibilities and choices, the tendency is to retreat into the comfortable and known within the reality of relentless change.
This is true for organizations and nation-states as well as individuals. It’s especially true for organizations that have endowments and the luxury of operating with a financial safety net. A foundation with a sizeable endowment, relieved of the necessity of having to earn its keep in the marketplace, runs the risk of becoming isolated in its own grand strategies and goals, lulled into complacency by the soothing voices of grant recipients and would-be “partners” who speak of the good and important work the foundation does.
If these foundations had to raise money from outside sources to fund their programs, many would be out of business in short order.
In my own case, I work in a public foundation that preaches the gospel of community connectedness and seeks to nurture a network of social change agents, agencies and ideas to promote better health in Arizona. Our Board and staff take pride in being “connected” to the communities we serve, and in being a “catalyst for community health.”
But how connected are we, really? It’s like the adage about a breakfast of bacon and eggs: the pig is committed, while the chicken is merely involved. Most of us are involved with multiple activities and projects, and we move in and out of relationships as time, interests and circumstances allow. Not so with true commitment. That’s a much shorter list. We don’t walk away from those we love, our deepest values and beliefs, the relationships that sustain and nourish us, the causes and activities that give meaning and joy to our lives. Every commitment starts with involvement, but not every involvement ends in commitment.
Connected for what? That’s the issue. If those of us at SLHI were to wake up tomorrow to find our endowment gone, would we be out of business? Would the trustees throw in the towel, and staff look for other work? Or would we regroup and dedicate ourselves to finding the resources necessary to carry on?
Contemplating that stark (and, one hopes, remote) possibility forces an organization like ours to articulate the difference between commitment and involvement. If all we are is the sum of the checks we write or meetings we attend for community projects in which we are “involved,” the number and size of the checks and meetings become the criteria of importance. It’s easy – intoxicating, even – to disappear into an exhilarating portfolio of projects, big ideas and coalitions, where the next opportunity to “make a difference” is always just around the corner.
This is the isolation of hyper-involvement: living in a world where we’re so busy with the process of community engagement that we’re too busy to be committed to anything.
But if what defines us instead – and, ideally, all organizations that work to improve community health – is a deep commitment to sustaining and promoting social networks that infuse communities with hope and the possibility of constructive change, then we are compelled to look below the surface of superficial involvement for those connections that stand the best chance of replicating and leveraging themselves beyond the confines of the immediate and form the basis for the development of real social capital – the glue that holds all healthy communities together over time.
We form those connections through the process of community engagement and involvement. The trick – the art of it – is not to get isolated in the ongoing process of that involvement but to have the patience and courage to stay the course with those connections that appear most promising in the face of unlimited possibilities and the next new thing.
This is how we build strong, healthy and resilient communities. Involvement, yes, but it will be our collective, deep and abiding commitment to the process of creating social capital that will help us break through the seductive isolation of our comfortable routines and activities, and create the conditions for real change.
Feedback? Send it my way: Roger.Hughes@slhi.org.
*The Drift reflects the views of the author, and does not represent the official view of SLHI’s Board of Trustees and staff.