by B.J. Rogers

If you’re like most animal welfare, human service, and social change folks I know, there’s a good chance that what draws you to the work you do is rooted in a genuine desire to help. To make a difference. To leave the world better than you found it. It’s why I’ve so loved working in the mission-based sector for the last couple of decades. Passion can be a powerful thing. Trouble is, it’s also a coin that absolutely has two sides.

On one side, passion is a powerful driving force behind the work we do and leads to the development of programs, organizations, and movements that aim to help further a cause, a people, or an idea whose time has come. On the other side however, the power of our passion can also have a limiting effect on the impact our work ultimately has. The problem? Blinders and a rush to act. Too often the passion that we bring to our work creates a sort of tunnel vision and a sense of urgency that can inhibit our willingness to slow down, step back, and ask the important questions of the right people. So, who are the “right” people?

Simply put, they’re the people you aim to serve. For years mission-based organizations have brainstormed brilliant ideas and developed ambitious programs, many of which are resource intensive (think money, time, people, facilities and supplies), only to find that the “if you build it they will come” mantra doesn’t quite pan out. What went wrong? Why no accolades for nonprofit of the year? Where are our people? Frequently, the place where the train began to slip off the rails was back in the ideation stage – that place where we were dreaming up how we were going to change the world and imagining the impact we’d have. In our rush to do good we often skip the most critical steps – namely, asking, listening and learning.

In the opening chapter of his book Ask More: The Power of Questions to Open Doors, Uncover Solutions, and Spark Change former journalist and current director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, Frank Sesno, writes:

Our questions reflect who we are, where we go, and how we connect. They help us learn and they help us lead because effective questioning marshals support and enlists others to join. After all, asking people to solve a problem or come up with a new idea turns the responsibility over to them. It says, “You’re smart, you’re valuable, you know what you’re doing – what would you do about this problem?”

In a number of disciplines, this approach has a fancy-sounding name: human-centered design (or client-centered or user-centered). The basic gist is that designing and developing effective solutions requires rooting oneself firmly in the shoes and skin of those people for whom you’re designing. And the only way to do that is to ask good questions, listen closely to the answers, and do your homework. There’s no such thing as leadership – as I see it – without learning. And there’s no such thing as learning without listening.

Wanna make a difference? Ask. Listen. Learn. And then design your programs. I promise your impact will increase and you really will make the world a better place.

If you want to learn more about human-centered design and engaging with those you aim to serve, you’re in luck because our two-day seminar, Big Impact: Designing Programs, Services, and Messages for Social Change, is next month on September 27-28, 2018! To register, email us at


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