The Truth About Social Good: It's More Than a Good Idea

For three, eight-hour days this week in the heart of NYC a who's who of world leaders and young visionaries in business, tech, entertainment, philanthropy and activism filled the stage. In the audience, hundreds of eager listeners, most under 35, networked, tweeted and took notes. What brought them here and connected them all? A commitment to social good and a focus on creating a better future.

Collectively, the passionate group at the 2013 Social Good Summit hosted by Mashable and the United Nations communicated three indisputable facts:

  1. People want to do good.
  2. People ARE doing good.
  3. There are tons of exciting ideas for how more good can be done.

These realities alone are incredibly inspiring, and with that the conference accomplished its goal.

Yet as I left, I found myself with the same nagging feeling that I always do after such displays: Something hugely important is missing from our, "change the world," equation.

If an alien from another planet dropped down into the social impact community she might get the impression that world peace, justice, equality and sustainability are just one big idea, one well-intentioned innovator, one new app away.

They are not. But too often we pretend that IDEAS + INTENTION = CHANGE.

And I guess that's true to some extent. If by, "change," we simply mean disruption.

Our generation is very good at disruption. And that's is an incredible thing. We buck the system, challenge the status quo and almost instinctively bring new ideas to every arena and industry we touch.

But if our goal for social change is true transformation -- new societies, the eradication of poverty and disease, the full equality of every human and a thriving environment -- it's going to take more.

Ideas and disruption are not enough. We need strategy and to learn the important lessons about the process, choices and values critical to the hard, painstaking work of social good.

The good news is that all of the speakers who presented at the Social Good Summit probably do have much to share on these issues. In fact I believe that most of today's leading social good practitioners really do know what it takes to make in impact.

The bad news is that we never ask them about it.

We only ask them to share the flashy parts. The success. The tools. The ideas. But as much as I love hearing and Richard Branson talk about "the next big thing," I'd much rather hear them talk about the relationship between how they make their money (entertainment and business) and how they spend it (on important causes).

I'd love to hear people like Anna Therese Day who works as an independent journalist in Syria talk about their struggle to understand and connect with cultures so different from their own without disrespecting, exploiting and patronizing them.

I'd love to hear how Nobel Peace Prize winner Jody Williams' driving passion for landmines has impacted her personally and how she has ensured her own physical and mental wellbeing while doing such dangerous work.

I'd love to hear activists talk about their choice to work globally vs. domestically vs. locally, and why they've decided it's important to work to end violence in Darfur when Chicago is killing itself before our very eyes. Or alternatively, why it's important to work to fix public education in America when young girls in Pakistan are being killed for wanting to go to school.

Tough questions. Hard conversations. But these are the thoughts that keep do gooders up at night. These are the decisions that make good ideas great. And these are the discussions that we should be having.

Perhaps we present a shiny, pretty story of social change at conferences because we think that if we tell the real story -- of costly mistakes and painful failures, of deep soul searching and self development, of frustration, of second guessing, of endless questions -- that we'll never recruit as many people as we need to for our "cause."

But I don't believe that. In fact, my work with young leaders and social do-gooders all over the world confirms that this generation is hungry for the information that will help them be effective and lead high-impact lives.

They don't need cheerleading to be cause-minded, creative and innovative. That comes naturally. What they need is leaders to share with them insights about social good that can't be googled.

They are looking for people to talk about the the values, principles, theories, commitments and skills that have helped every generation before ours turn moments into movements, reactions into revolutions and big ideas into lasting legacies.

These themes don't always make for shiny presentations, and the answers don't fit into five second sound bites on 10 minute panels. But our comfort with them will determine the mark that this generation will leave on the world.

So let's make some time at our next big social impact party to talk about the hard stuff, the good beyond the good ideas. I promise you. We can handle it.