Behaviors we might survive by,* or: Recipes for achieving the SDGs

Reflections on truth, trust, and transformation from the frontlines of social change

Astrid Scholz
May 15 · 14 min read

Astrid Scholz and Cameron Burgess**

Stupid is still winning

In a 2011 op-ed, Thomas L. Friedman quotes the Australian environmentalist and entrepreneur Paul Gilding, who in his book The Great Disruption posits that the climate crisis will be transformational in bringing about a new sustainable economic model and world order that averts the coming collapse:

“We are heading for a crisis-driven choice. We either allow collapse to overtake us or develop a new sustainable economic model. We will choose the latter. We may be slow, but we’re not stupid.”

Eight years later, based on our experience on the coalface of social change, stupid is still winning. The obstacles to averting climate disaster and achieving the SDGs are more formidable than ever, and yet our collective progress is lamentably slow. We reflect on the lessons and observations from the last few years working to overcome these obstacles. And yes, there are still ways to avert disaster — but they won’t be easy. As the stakes get higher, the behavior changes necessary to avert disaster become more drastic. Achieving the SDGs in time will require radical truth, radical trust, and radical transformation.

At Sphaera, we have spent the last few years building technology and designing systems that mobilize data, innovations, and capital at the speed and volume required if we want to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. The 17 SDGs collectively describe the urgent challenges of our time — from poverty to climate change, gender inequality to fragile ecosystems — that humanity has to overcome in order to achieve lasting peace and prosperity.

Together and individually, the SDGs comprise the most urgent problems humanity faces, and yet not enough is happening fast enough to achieve them.

We founded Sphaera in the firm belief that there is an abundance of human ingenuity and an abundance of financial capital in the world to achieve the goals, and that we “just” need more effective ways of collaborating on, and scaling, solutions. With President Clinton we believe that “Nearly every problem has been solved by someone, somewhere. The challenge of the 21st century is to find out what works and scale it up.”*** We set out thinking that contemporary technology, combined with legal and financial innovations, would make that collaboration and scale not only possible, but also delightful, cheap, and efficient. We had the experience, the networks, the access, and the funding to hit this out of the park. Should be easy, right? Wrong.

That challenge of the 21st century turns out to pivot on behavior change. What we have been learning from over 1,500 conversations with prospective partners and clients is that the behavior change required for collaboration on and scaling of solutions requires hard-to-find courage, commitment, and confidence of both individuals and institutions.

We are sharing some observations and reflections on our experience here, in the hopes of finding others who have experienced similar patterns, have perhaps found ways to overcome them, and have recipes to share for behaviors that will help achieve the SDGs.

1. Truth hurts

At the annual gathering of the elites in Davos earlier this year, teenager Greta Thunberg came to prominence for speaking truth to power and demanding that the adults take the urgent action required to fight climate change. Greta joins the tradition of youth activists taking part in UN gatherings and the international speaking circuit that started, at least in our GenX recollection, with Severn Suzuki’s powerful speech at the ‘Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. There is a fascination with charismatic, precocious, earnest young people who remind the world’s elites of their responsibility, and current media coverage seems to suggest that Greta Thunberg’s social movement may be gaining some traction. We very much hope so! The sheer fact that too little has changed since Suzuki’s speech, however, is testament to the problem that this fascination with these ambassadors from the near future does not compel decision-makers to actually take action.

Alas, in the rooms we have been invited into over the last few years, we also are not finding a response that translates into action. Bear in mind that we are generally invited and paid by people who agree that the world is on fire; that the scaling and accelerating of solutions requires unprecedented collaboration; and that their institutions could and should be catalytic in showing the way. As soon as we get into the specifics of how their current business and institutional practices would need to change, however, the defenses go up and we observe what we have come to think of as an immune response of sorts: groups of people confronted with the need to take specific, personal action will go to great lengths to avoid taking that action.

Truth hurts — especially the truth teller

There are a number of ways this plays out, the most painful of which, for us personally, is the phenomenon that psychologists describe as ‘splitting’: our immersive design workshops make some participants uncomfortable because they can experience failure, shame, or guilt when they realize the extent of the dysfunction their institutions exhibit. It is a natural defensive mechanism to separate these uncomfortable feelings and ascribe them to an external person.

In this case that’s us — the facilitators. We thus find ourselves called arrogant, offensive, or worse, and participants blame their lack of follow-up on our behavior or demeanor. It’s not pleasant being the proverbial whipping boy for social change, but we take comfort in the fact that we are not alone. In comparing notes with other organizational change consultants and facilitators, we find that this is a common problem — hostility directed at the agent provocateur, lack of follow-through, or reverting back to old behaviors.

We would dearly love to meet anyone who has this figured out! Please get in touch if you are or know someone who can point us to facilitation models that reliably, in very short term engagements, motivate groups of people who are, on the face of it, united by a desire to take action to actually do it, but are unable to do so when they see the true magnitude of the change required.

On the flip side, if you are a decision maker, program officer, executive of an organization contemplating ways in which to become more effective, increase your impact and accelerate the pace of change: know that the truth hurts. It’s not pleasant to realize that even our best-intentioned efforts are orders of magnitude off from where they need to be. For example:

  • The Nature Conservancy’s recently announced audacious strategy for the oceans, an astounding $1.6 Billion conservation bond initiative, is 1000x smaller than the estimated cost of saving the oceans;
  • A recent job announcement by the Campaign for Climate Leadership seeks a president who can, essentially, raise a multi-billion dollar endowment. That’s a sum that’ll require 1000x leverage to come close to closing the climate financing gap; and
  • The annual spend on Water and Sanitation (SDG6) by one of the largest private foundations on the planet is 1/10,000th of the expenditure required to create reliable access to water and sustainable sanitation for all.

This is not to diminish or disparage these efforts. Far from it. They are just illustrations of the magnitude of the challenge facing us. The radical truth is that none of these initiatives are (yet!) designed to truly scale, and won’t until the underlying business practices change sufficiently to allow the use of technological and other innovations that can bring about the requisite network effects. We get into how business practices need to change in the next section. If you are not feeling pained by the radical truths your consultants are telling you about the dysfunction of your process, or if you hire consultants who don’t tell you any painful truths, you are not doing it right.

One recipe for achieving the SDGs then is to embrace and lean into radical truth, and accept that the resulting pain is part of building our global musculature for shouldering the responsibility of leaving a better planet to Greta and her generation.

2. Radical trust is the new NDA

Another key ingredient for achieving the SDGs is radical trust, which takes us beyond the contractual and transactional relationships that typically govern the flow of responsibilities and resources in shared endeavors. The kind of collaboration and cooperation required across hundreds and thousands of individual organizations working together towards achieving the collective goal of achieving the SDGs, explodes current legal conventions. We come to this insight the hard way.

In growing our business, we endeavor to practice what we preach and have entered a number of collaborative partnerships. The goal was to find mutually beneficial ways to design and build the digital, legal, and financial infrastructure we imagine, and to partner with aligned technology companies and others who have products or expertise that can help us get there. Our thought was that we would find use cases that would benefit from the collective expertise of a number of us, and that we could serve them as a collective of separate organizations. We would use these cases to work out how to track the time, effort, and experience each of us contributed, and distribute the value we created. Over a number of these use cases, the data we collected would inform the creation of a cooperative structure.

As a shortcut, we used standard corporate contract templates between vendors and clients to organize the working relationships between a small group of partners. The goal was to use these agreements as basis for agile development of new contract instruments that capture the multi-sided creation of value across a number of interested parties that all need to come together and align if we are to achieve the scale and speed required for dealing with the SDGs. Perhaps not surprisingly, when the going got tough and operational challenges arose, it is those legacy contract templates that governed the relationships. It is here that fissures appeared between the philosophical alignment and the differences in corporate culture. The individual concerns and considerations of our respective organizations outweighed the collective intent, and the contractual instruments became the de facto set of rules by which we held each other accountable.

One of the dilemmas we faced is that while each organization internally had the high degree of trust and friendship that the Dalai Lama so beautifully posits as the root of cooperation, it is really hard to extend that kindheartedness across organizations, much less contract for it. Even closely aligned partners can have very different corporate cultures in how they navigate internal and external priorities, and those differences will tend to reveal themselves in times of stress.

Another challenge was tracking the specific value that each partner had input to each project, which gets to the heart of a requirement of a Market Network. For partnerships to truly scale, we need to be able to clearly map out the value creation — as opposed to simply the activities — of each ‘partner’. We have come to believe that organizing ourselves for true cooperation for the SDGs requires generative corporate cultures marked by curiosity, kindness, a tolerance for ambiguity, and an instinct to find solutions to tactical challenges.

In 2019, we are going back to the drawing board on how to document collaborative arrangements for working towards our shared purpose. We screen our partners more carefully as to a number of core characteristics; use lightweight agreements that put a premium on frequent communication and joint operational decision making; and imbue each relationship with radical trust. In order to work as a collective of individual organizations, we act as a cooperative: sharing balance sheets, cash positions, and other operational metrics to make decisions that advance the collective, rather than the individual interests.

So far it’s been a bracing and rewarding experience, and this modus operandi has the added side effect of informing the principles by which we might formalize this collective action model into a global co-operative of organizations working together to achieve the SDGs.

3. Radical transformation is a requirement

In our work we frequently meet philanthropic, corporate, and NGO leaders who really get it, who have a nuanced understanding of the changes required to the way we conduct the business of social change if we want to achieve the SDGs, who can get the right people in the room, and who have the mandate and the money to move the proverbial needle. These executive champions are typically quick to respond to calls and emails, and within a predictable amount of time we find ourselves beginning an engagement.

A great illustration of this is a prominent foundation that is one of the largest funders in a particular SDG. Senior program officers there had identified a need and opportunity to mobilize the practical, solutions oriented knowledge they were supporting with grants. They quickly embraced the proposition to interrogate their business processes and systems from the perspective of the goal in question, and its multi-trillion dollar price tag for achieving it, in order to better understand how they could achieve leverage for the $100 million or so in annual grant spending into solving the problem and achieving that particular SDG by 2030. Our system design process unfolded, we found alignment around the purpose among the entire team, and our recommendations were not only well received, they precipitated an invitation, towards the end of 2018, to submit a proposal for the next phase. And then: crickets. It turns out that the entire program is already fully committed through 2019 and the better part of 2020.

That’s right. One of the largest foundations in the world can’t find the funding internally to build the systems that would create 10,000x leverage for its grant funding. Its internal planning and budgeting process is configured to allow zero room for surprise, serendipity or experimentation, essentially locking it into its current path for the foreseeable future.

And that’s not the worst of the institutional dysfunction we have seen. Others include:

Lack of urgency

Whether due to a leadership changes or other organizational development processes, we have seen organizations get snared in strategic planning processes time and time again that tie up key people for months on end without advancing progress on the desired outcomes. In our pipeline, we track dozens of conversations with philanthropy leaders who tell us, “let’s touch base in 6 months, when we have completed our strategic planning process.” The resulting long sales cycles would be fine if it wasn’t for the 1,800 children dying every day for lack of adequate access to water and sanitation, to name but one of the awful human costs we inflict by not acting on the SDGs with urgency.

Lone champions

A common phenomenon we observe is the executive champion who shares the analysis and urgency that compels us, but cannot muster the internal support of an implementing team. Part of the challenge here lies in the fact that the champion is working alone to influence buy-in to a major change. Tom de Bruyne describes exactly why that doesn’t work in his latest blog, where he states that “only collaborations create breakthrough innovations.”. In the situations, where only one executive lead is tasked to work with us, our intervention dies on the hill of indifference from mid-level staff who perceive any suggestion of doing things differently as an imposition and tax on their already overworked experience.

Punishing intrapreneurs for innovating

One of the most pernicious institutional pathologies we have observed involves the highest levels of leadership making public commitments to disruption, innovation, and doing things differently, only to then punish the people who are acting on these mandates internally. We witnessed first-hand how this played out inside a major health-oriented multi-stakeholder initiative: while the CEO was rhapsodizing about the merits of Lean Impact, and encouraged his Innovation Director to help implement the approach across the organization, that same Innovation Director was systematically sandbagged and undermined by his colleagues and left the organization in frustration. In another case, a program officer at a family foundation was charged with creating a more bottom-up, community-centered approach to their economic development work, only to learn the hard way that her CEO was incapable of selling that approach to his board. She and her entire team were recently let go when the board nixed the approach.

We are not the first or the last to diagnose these pathologies of ‘business as usual’ that get in the way of social change organizations becoming the vanguard of our collective responsibility to achieve the SDGs.**** Nor are these phenomena unique to the social change industry, of course. Eckhart Tolle describes how, in blind pursuit of egoic satisfaction, corporations can easily become collective forces of human Ego that will stop at nothing to achieve profits. However, as the industry that exists precisely because governments and markets are failing to produce a just and sustainable world for all, the ‘third sector’ has an exceptional burden and responsibility to be smart and agile in its response to the global challenges we face today.

Cartoon taken from this website

What’s left then, is the need to radically transform the business of social change itself, and to embrace different ways of working in the service of leverage and scale. Given the prevailing patterns, this will be hardest for legacy institutions.

Reasons for hope

Even with what we have experienced, we see some reasons for hope. Among the 1,500 or so people and organizations we have spoken and worked with over the last 3 years, we see the emergence of two cohorts that seem to be moving in the right direction. One are innovative new business models that are centered on leverage and scale, focusing on using (not building) technology to achieve massive network effects to organize and coordinate innovators, investors, and implementers in the pursuit of massive outcomes. These young enterprises don’t have entrenched institutional behaviors yet, and are inventing themselves as natively networked organizations from inception. The other cohort are ultrahigh-net-worth individuals, trustees of foundations and family offices, who are actively breaking from the modus operandi of the philanthropic and investment organizations they have created to pursue new, more direct approaches to achieving leverage and scale for the solutions they support.

Both of these cohorts embrace the market network infrastructure we described in Billions to Trillions, and we are working on designing the first few charismatic use cases this year. Interestingly, the number of these pioneers, from among the 1,300 leads in our pipeline, as well as the distribution of the other attitudes to the required behavior change that we are observing, follows almost exactly the ‘Innovation Diffusion Theory’: about 1% are pioneers who will motivate the next 10% to become early adopter, with the vast majority not yet ready to take action.

At Sphaera, we’ll keep going, pivoting our way to success and looking for those pioneers and early adopters at the tail of the distribution, and looking for others we can learn from in modeling and proliferating the behaviors we might survive by: the telling and listening to of uncomfortable truths, putting trust before transactions, and transforming the business of social change. We are looking for fellow travelers on this journey, and share these observations and reflections in the hopes of finding others who have experienced similar patterns, and have perhaps found ways to overcome them, and have recipes to share for behaviors that will help achieve the SDGs.

If that’s you, please get in touch!


*Hat tip to Dick Hat tip to Dick Norgaard, whose paper “Metaphors we might survive by” (Ecological Economics, Vol 15, Issue 2, November 1995, pages 129–31) was a pivotal influence on Scholz.

**Thank you to Claire Sommer, Linzi Fidelin, and David Bank for valuable feedback on earlier drafts of this article.

*** Quoted in Christine K. Volkmann, Kim Oliver Tokarski, et al. (2012), Social Entrepreneurship and Social Business: An Introduction and Discussion with Case Studies, p.192

****One of the best commentaries on how the sector has to change can be found in Burkhard Gnaerig’s 2015 book The Hedgehog and the Beetle, published by the International Civil Society Center, Berlin.

Astrid Scholz

Written by

Chief Everything Officer at @SphaeraInc., a social enterprise putting the best solutions into the hands of people working on the front lines of change

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