This past summer my colleagues and I interviewed over 50 influential community leaders across the ideological spectrum, from conservatives, senior corporate executives and chamber of commerce leaders to labor union leaders and community organizers.  Nearly universally, and always without prompting, people across the spectrum, said they want to solve big, thorny problems like education, health care, transportation and the like, and volunteered that they would be willing to pay more to help (yes, in taxes), IF they believed their money would not “go down a hole.”

And all indications are that money is going to be pretty tight for the foreseeable future.  This means we’ll all have to work harder to to keep our colleagues, our supporters and our fellow citizens focused on the possibilities, on a positive vision of what can be accomplished.

In the next year, the economic news and the ideological battles will undoubtedly provide plenty of moments where we find ourselves questioning whether we can make headway on some of our most important goals, like ensuring real access to education and health care for all.  We’ll be told by self-styled “realists,” some sincere, many not, that we simply can’t afford to take those on, not now.  On these occasions it will be important to keep two points in mind.

First, it’s not true.  As bad as the coming recession may be, as far as the dollar may fall, the U.S. will still be a very wealthy society, more than able to devote more resources to investments that will improve both the quality of life, and the economic productivity, of great numbers of people.  True, the $2 trillion we’ll have spent on Iraq is a huge lost opportunity, but if we invested a fraction of that in some key areas that build our human capital, we should more than earn it back. 

Second, one clear lesson of recent years is that , faced with the choice between tightening our belts or going into more debt for a goal like health care for all, we’d be fools not to choose the latter, as Paul Krugman has observed.  We inherited large deficits in the early 90s and worked hard to pay them down and build a surplus, only to have that surplus and much, much more spent on ruinous tax cuts.

The temptation for too many of us, too often, is to focus on all the reasons why something can’t be done, and we will have to resist it.  As I’ve written here in a previous post, we need to stop to asking whether something can be done, and instead ask “How can we do it?”  There is a world of difference between the two.  And we’ll have to pose the “How can we do it?” question in a way that makes people want to solve it.

Chip Heath, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, uses the example of President Kennedy’s goal of landing on the moon to show the power of a positive vision, and one that is influential because it is “sticky” – that is, a message that is simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, and emotional.  (Prof. Heath gives a provocative, entertaining, definitely non-wonky synopsis here).  Sadly, many negative messages have proven to be incredibly sticky the past few decades; probably the dominant message for the past 25 years or more is that government (meaning, all of us together) can’t do anything right.  That points up the difference – the negative messages appeal to fear and distrust, while the positive messages encourage us to work together toward a common goal. 

Two things, again, to keep in mind about the “negative” story about what we all can accomplish:  first, it’s not true, and even more importantly, people want to hear that it’s not true, they want to believe in the good possibilities, as we heard in the interviews I mentioned above.

So in addition to holding out a positive vision of where we can go, social innovators need to work on building faith that there is a common good and that people working together- in the independent, business and public sectors – can succeed.  Abstract appeals, though, won’t work.  We need “sticky” stories – they need to be simple, concrete and resonant.  We’ll need to show examples of where things have worked, have been done well, and also offer infectious pitches for how we can do great things.  The success of the Harlem Children’s Zone is one such success that has been very influential.  In our gang prevention work in Los Angeles, for another example, we’re focusing on the “Summer of Success,” a program of comprehensive investment in one neighborhood in Los Angeles that reduced gang homicides to 0, from 20 the previous years.  Promoting a vision of success plays to the strengths of innovators and social entrepreneurs, the target audience SSIR seeks to serve. 

A good first step for us to take, as individuals and as a society, would be to think about what it is that once made Americans think we could put a man on the moon, but now makes us doubt whether, for example, we can eliminate gang violence, provide world class education opportunities to people at all stages of life, or create excellent, affordable and accessible health care for all?

imagePeter Manzo is the director of strategic initiatives for the Advancement Project, a civil rights advocacy organization, and a senior research fellow with the Center for Civil Society in the UCLA School of Public Affairs. Previously, he was the executive director and general counsel of the Center for Nonprofit Management.