The 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic last month offers concrete lessons our failing social sector today. “Rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic” might be the most famous related metaphor, and it’s certainly one we can apply to social innovation.

Like the fateful night the ship hit the iceberg, today we sense that our current global systems for education, health care, government, economics, and the environment—and even our process of making meaning—are sinking. Social innovators risk being paralyzed by fear.

But there are things we can do to steer a course clear of global disaster.

Lesson 1: Cultivate Imagination
"Even God himself could not sink this ship," said one Titanic crewmember.

The failure of the crew to imagine disaster made them unable to prepare for it. Today, our leaders suffer the same lack of imagination, and it is the biggest challenge to social change. When complex solutions are beyond our imagination, we can invent only modest stopgap solutions. Einstein summed up this dilemma when he said, “Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.”

We need to build more complex systems to replace failing ones. This requires that all social change leaders challenge and develop their imaginations, and that human consciousness evolves to match the complexity of the global challenges we face.

Lesson 2: Don’t Just Allay Fears
The band played on as the ship sank “to allay the fears” of passengers.

Much of what we call social change is good band playing. Social justice work too often allays real fears of a world in crisis instead of creating lasting solutions for those we claim to serve. We need leaders with the courage to take action and get at the root causes of the challenges we face.

Lesson 3: Build Better Systems, Not Better Lifeboats
Too many of our social entrepreneur models are made to man the lifeboats. Our inability to imagine complex, system-wide solutions leaves us with models that save only a lucky few. Even our “cutting edge” programs are just better lifeboats—some are bigger, others faster, and all have better metrics—but we need a plan for all.

Lesson 4: Communicate Best Practices
“Shut up, I’m busy…” was the response from the Titanic to a warning about dangerous icebergs hours before the Titanic hit one. In fact, despite having state-of-the-art communication systems, the Titanic failed to effectively alert three nearby ships that actually could have rescued all of its passengers.

We get so caught up in their daily work that we often forget to build powerful collaborative networks and to share best practices. Communication and support between cross-sector organizations is one of the best ways to stay afloat.

Building new global systems is not impossible, but it also isn’t easy. All of us—and funders in particular—can make the first move by asking ourselves or our grant applicants four simple questions:

1. How does your organization cultivate imagination among its leaders?
2. What public policies will you change that will help transform the entire system?
3. Does your solution save a lucky few or is there a plan for everyone?
4. What organizations are in your network, and how will you communicate and collaborate with them to accomplish your goals?

With evolved leadership we can change course. In fact, the future of this ship we call Earth depends on it.

Read more stories by Rich Tafel.

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