Bob McKinnon on how to get 32 renowned people to contribute to a book on social change (Hint: ask 230)
Bob McKinnon, the founder of YELLOWBRICKROAD, a company that focuses on communication that advances social change, had a vision five years ago to create a book that would gather creative action-oriented ideas from across the spectrum of society. McKinnon was dismayed that children today are expected to live “shorter and unhappier lives” than their parents. He saw it as crucial that we “set aside our differences and join together for some serious collective action.” Out of his vision came the publication Actions Speak Loudest: Keeping Our Promise for a Better World, which has the distinction of being one of the few places where readers can find Jimmy Carter and Newt Gingrich side by side. We asked McKinnon to write a short piece on how he realized his vision and what he learned along the way.
This project took me five years to bring to life. It has 32 contributors, and for every one who said yes, six said no – almost 200 rejections. With essays and photographs, there were over 300 pieces. We described the work of over 150 organizations, and recommended almost 300 different actions that could make a difference.
In his introduction, Juan Williams describes the book’s contributors as “people who have put their hands in the muck and mire of life to create something more beautiful – a better outcome.” But sometimes people find the juxtapositions in the book jarring. Invariably at book events, someone will complain about the inclusion of either Gingrich or Carter, or both. While I do not agree with the views of all my contributors, I know that we benefit when we listen to one another with respect.
So, what did I learn?
If it seeds, it should lead.
After one leading publisher read the proposal, they commented, “It sounds great, but our experience has been that books about problems sell better than books about solutions.” A depressing realization, especially when science tells us that problems suppress action while solutions inspire it.
That’s why our media’s obsession with problems is so harmful to society. We found that by honestly acknowledging problems alongside the powerful seeds of change being planted to address them, we were able to inspire others to take the leap with us. Starting with our literary agent, Sorche Fairbank, and our editor from Lyons Press, Mary Norris, we found person after person who championed the book.
Remember the “social” in “social entrepreneurship.”
When we tell stories of social entrepreneurs, we conjure images of heroic actors who single-handedly change lives. But people like Greg Mortenson and Wendy Kopp would be the first to tell you that their successes were made possible only by others.
For every Jeffrey Sachs, Geoffrey Canada, or Queen Noor who contributed to the project, there were three individuals behind the scenes who made their participation possible. It is through the quiet, uncelebrated, daily work of many people that all change happens.
Help people see how their contributions add to the whole.
When we surround ourselves only with people who believe as we do, we become myopic. If we want people to see the forest for the trees, we must let them see their tree in our forest. We showed all our contributors how their work added something unique to the collection. In other words, we connected what was important to them with what was important to everyone.
Most of us want to change the world; where we differ is on the question of how. Newt Gingrich and Jimmy Carter want their children to lead better lives than they did. They just have different ideas on how to achieve this goal. By framing this book project not as a debate but as a kind of treasure hunt – looking for the best ideas where ever they can be found – we were able to free up more collaborative energy and produce a stronger whole.
Photo: Courtesy of YELLOWBRICKROAD