Alicia Bonner Ness is an experienced facilitator, producer, social impact strategist, and author that is about to launch her first book, Purpose Power: How Mission-Driven Leaders Engage for Change, and will be hitting the road next year to visit 15 cities on the Purpose Power Town Hall Tour. The tour will allow communities the opportunity to rebuild trust through active listening and community dialogue, while co-designing their shared vision for the future.
What initially inspired you to write Purpose Power & what are you hoping to do?
I spent the weeks and months after the 2016 election wavering between being motivated to get up and do something, anything, to improve your own little corner of the universe, and unproductively wallowing in despair. Writing this book was my attempt to offer a pathway for progress out of circumstances that felt in some ways insurmountable.
I had spent the months before election day working as a Field Organizer for the Florida Democratic Party in Broward County, registering voters, and turning them out to vote. The choice to join the Clinton campaign was both pre-meditated and random. I had always hoped to help elect America’s first female president. I had no idea that this aspiration would lead me to spend the weeks before the election working 14-hour days knocking doors in the most important battleground state. I could not yet fathom how this choice would reshape the arc of my life.
In the weeks that followed, I thought deeply about why we had lost. What had we missed, I wondered. How could it be that so many people could exert such incredible effort, and meet defeat? We know now far more than we knew then about the efforts of bad actors to influence the psychology of American voters and stoke feelings of anger and distrust in key areas of the United States, especially in Florida, though as of this writing, the full story of how the 2016 election was manipulated has not yet been revealed. As I reflected on the outcome, I realized that the challenges that had hampered the success of Hillary Clinton’s campaign were the same challenges many mission-driven organizations face in their pursuit of impact.
I’m tired of the status quo. We can’t just push against. We have to figure out, what are we pushing for? What is the future that we all want? How do we collaborate to get there?
I’m launching the Purpose Power Town Hall Tour across America to host town halls in 15 cities across the United States. To gather people who want to be part of building a better tomorrow. We will connect based on our values, and articulate a shared vision to catalyze our communities to action.
How can we help support you?
I launched a crowdfunding campaign to underwrite the tour. I’m grateful for your support in making it possible.
The catalyst for the tour is two-fold. First, it coincides with the publication of my book, Purpose Power: How Mission-Driven Leaders Engage for Change. Second, it coincides with a moment in time in which I hope that we can fundamentally reinvent how communities come together to redefine their shared purpose, to take more meaningful political action in 2020 and beyond.
After spending ten years in the social sector developing brand strategies and fundraising campaigns on behalf of nonprofits, I had some experience with the challenges mission-driven organizations face.
Three big challenges stand in the way of mission-driven organizations achieving maximum impact.
The first is confirmation bias, the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs. In marketing and communication, just as much as in community organizing, this allows leaders to insist that the thing that has always worked will continue to work, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. In 2008, the Obama campaign was ahead of the Republican Party in its use of technology. By 2016, the Hillary Clinton campaign assumed the same advantage was still at play. Once you have come to expect an approach to work the way it always has, organizations often have to learn the hard way that the paradigm has shifted, yielding diminishing returns.
Second, in most organizations that run on shoestring budgets where every dollar counts (both nonprofits and political campaigns), most people are underpaid. Everyone is overworked.
This combination of circumstances yields an overwhelming “house-on-fire” environment that drives you to default to the “tried and true” solution your confirmation bias insists will work, again, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Urgency stymies efforts to consider new alternatives, instead insisting that people simply put their heads down and do the work—you can ask questions later.
The third challenge arises when confirmation bias and the house-on-fire conspire against you. Taken together, the “do-it-now!” mandate paired with a clear default option makes it even more likely people will miss the most important question: Why are we doing this? We easily assume that we’re all equally passionate about the same things, inspired for the same reasons, pulling in the same direction because we are all hoping for the same happy ending. This assumption, as they say, makes an ass of all of us.
What are the biggest obstacles you’ve overcome and the lessons you’ve learned from them?
I was raised in a divorced household, but have otherwise been incredibly fortunate to live a life of extraordinary opportunity. I’ve focused much of my life’s work on the social sector, helping to use my time here on earth to help those who are underserved. In the process, however, I’ve learned that no one will take care of you better than you care for yourself.
One of the most difficult lessons I’ve learned is that when you give it all away, it’s easy to wind up with nothing left for you.
While I know that ‘self-care’ has become a bit of a cliche, it’s still a powerfully important practice. Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, was one of my most important milestones. “Treating myself like a precious object will make me strong,” she affirmed. It took me a long time to realize how deeply true this is. Over time I’ve learned that self-love more than self-care provides the foundation from which we can love others.
What advice do you have for people trying to make an impact?
For people that want to start a mission-driven organization, there are three core lessons for mission-driven brands that stand at the heart of Purpose Power.
The first is the importance of having rock-solid brand foundations. You have to understand your ideology, and have a vibrant identity that supports it. You have to understand your audience and how to inspire your advocates. If you try to rush to event planning or fundraising without these fundamentals in place, you may not fail, but you are unlikely to achieve your desired results.
Second, recognize the power stories and experiences have to inspire people. Get people together in a room. Tell them about the human impact of your work. Do not rely on raw statistics to convince people of facts. Stories in any media—recorded or live—are the most powerful tools you have to persuade people to share your vision and to support your cause.
Most importantly, perhaps, embrace the need for change. As scary and uncomfortable as it may be, change is ever-present. It is the beating heart of what makes us human, animal, alive. Rather than staying stuck in the ugly awkwardness of this moment, you have the power to move the needle. So do it. Set your eye on the horizon. Articulate your conviction and get started putting that vision into action.
I spent a lot of my life waiting to get picked, for the perfect opportunity to present itself. Perhaps you, too, have spent a great deal of your life waiting for someone to tap you on the shoulder and to invite you into a secret change-making club where your pathway to impact will be handed to you on a silver platter. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that day will never come. It’s up to you to define your future and to find the grit and determination to make your vision for the future a reality. Our time on this planet is so brief. We must not waste even a minute. I wish you godspeed on your quest to bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice.