In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Katherine Tam chats with social-change strategist Jacob Harold about his new book, The Toolbox: Strategies for Crafting Social Impact (John Wiley & Sons, December 2022). The COVID-19 pandemic pushed the social sector to come alive and adapt to the crisis with new technologies and collaborative strategies, Harold says. With more challenges, such as climate change, still ahead, Harold has issued a set of tools anyone can use to influence social change in their work. An edited version of the conversation follows.
Why did you write this book?
My new book, The Toolbox: Strategies for Crafting Social Impact, offers a set of nine tools to help you build a better world. We are in a moment of tangled challenges: war, pandemic, climate crisis, racial reckoning. It all can feel overwhelming. A lot of us are trying to figure out how we do good in this tangled moment. I wrote The Toolbox as an attempt to offer people in whatever sector a set of tools that had worked for building a better world at some moment in the past.
I wanted to offer a set and not a single tool because it’s become clear to me that there’s no single answer—and there’s no easy answer. Instead there are tools. There are different ways of thinking and acting to try and build a better world, and that’s what I’ve tried to capture in this book.
There are millions of government officials whose job every day is to make their community better. There are millions of corporate leaders who are either creating a company with a fundamental social purpose or at least trying to be thoughtful and serious about the consequences of that company’s work, and we don’t even have the right nomenclature.
I wrote The Toolbox as an attempt to offer people in whatever sector a set of tools that had worked for building a better world at some moment in the past.
We don’t have words to describe the profession of trying to make the world better, even though there are millions of people in it. It is a compliment to humanity that we have figured out how to make it people’s job to support each other, to support their communities, and to support the ecosystems around them.
A challenge we face is equipping those people with the tools they need to do a good job. That’s a challenge that I, for one, am glad that we’re facing. If we do a good job of preparing those people to tackle the great challenges that are in front of us, I have faith that humanity can figure it out. We can go into this uncertain future and make a difference that sets up our kids, grandkids, and great grandkids to continue that process of learning, building, and doing in a way that we can be proud of and that opens a pathway toward a brighter future.
What are your tools for building a better world?
In The Toolbox, there are nine tools. They range from tools that are focused on the individual level, like storytelling, behavioral economics, or design thinking, to those that operate at the group level, like game theory or community organizing.
There are also tools that help us get a sense of scale, like mathematical modeling, and then those that look at a broader context of markets, institutions, and complex system science. Across this range of tools, there are different ways of understanding how we think about the world and how we act within it.
How does design thinking help with social impact, especially during times of uncertainty?
There are two lessons in design thinking that I believe are essential to apply to the work of social change, whether you are in a nonprofit organization, at a foundation, in a corporation, or in a government agency. The two lessons are so simple as to seem obvious, but I think if you look at the record, you’ll see that they are not applied with the consistency that the world demands.
The first lesson is the importance of listening and absorbing information from those who are closest to the action. The second is iteration—to have a cycle or process where you’re constantly learning, measuring the results of your actions, and applying that to a next iteration.
Design thinking is consistent with the ethos of The Toolbox because you don’t enter a design thinking process believing that you know the answer. Instead, you enter with a process and a mindset that opens you up to the possibilities and allows you to experiment and learn and hopefully get to a solution.
How has the process of creating social impact changed since the beginning of the pandemic?
In the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve lost a million fellow citizens here in the United States, and millions more across the planet. We’ve also lost a bit of innocence.
We have been reminded of the power of nature. We have been reminded of the fragility of some of our institutions. To me, the question is if we can we take that as a lesson that we apply to the work of building something better as we face other grand challenges ahead of us, like climate change.
The pandemic, I hope, has brought to those working for social good, whether in the nonprofit sector or business or in government, both a bit of humility and a recognition that what may have seemed stable around us is not so stable—and also some confidence that change is possible.
We did see during the pandemic an extraordinary societal ability to pivot and to shift. We saw this in the nonprofit sector as organizations figured out, “How are we going to do fundraising online if we can’t meet for the annual gala?”
You saw jazz trios doing fundraisers online, providing a connection to art and beauty to folks who were stuck at home and a connection to those institutions that mattered in their community. You saw food distribution happening not just at a food pantry but in the parking lots of giant stadiums.
We saw that the social sector, broadly defined, can actually move and come alive in moments of crisis. My hope is that we can take that ethos, that sense of potential, and apply it going forward. Because the pandemic is not the last challenge that we’ll face. It’s not the last dislocation that will shift our context so radically that we have to reassess how we’ve done things.
We saw that the social sector, broadly defined, can actually move and come alive in moments of crisis. My hope is that we can take that ethos, that sense of potential, and apply it going forward. Because the pandemic is not the last challenge that we’ll face.
Why is it important to speak honestly about both the successes and the weaknesses in doing social-impact work?
Hippocrates instructed physicians to “do no harm.” I think it’s important for those of us who are working for a better world to recognize that it is possible to do harm while you’re trying to do good—in fact, many of the tragedies of the past rise out of an authentic attempt to do something good.
There are a few ways that we can address this. One is to have quantitative measurement systems that allow us to get a sense in the short term of our traction—meaning the success that we are or are not having in our work—in whatever sector on whatever social issue.
The second way is to have a feedback loop that is qualitative, that is human. The best way to do that is to ask the people who you’re trying to serve if what you’re doing is helping and to have your ears open to signals that something’s backfiring, working, or having unintended consequence.
Approaching work with honesty and humility is not just ethically important. It’s strategically important if we are going to head off some of the challenges or negative consequences that might come down the road. This is broadly a theme in the book: the ethical is the strategic.
Have a feedback loop that is qualitative, that is human. The best way to do that is to ask the people who you’re trying to serve if what you’re doing is helping and to have your ears open to signals that something’s backfiring.
You need to be thoughtful about bringing the experiences of others, the distribution of consequences, and a stance of deep truthfulness to your work, even when that means you have to admit that something you’re doing is going off the rails or having unintended consequences. An ethical stance positions you better for success in the long term.
How do we acknowledge our differences to create the space to find common ground and to help each other?
One of the lessons I have learned over the course of my career is about the limitation of perspective. Each of us brings one view—one set of experiences—that offers a lens that we understand the world through. But it’s imperfect. It’s not complete.
That ethos has led me to try and hold in my head both humility of perspective and confidence that each perspective matters. For example, for me, as a straight, white man, writing about the Civil Rights Movement and Black Lives Matter is fundamentally limited by the nature of my own experience, by the views that I’ve had, and in ways that I’ve been treated. All of us have to figure out both the limitations and the advantages of our own perspective. With that, one hopes to have enough humility to learn and enough confidence to still act.
One thing we want to avoid is being too frozen by guilt to recognize the advantages of our own perspective or experience in such a way that leads us to act. That recognition needs to lead us to act but to act with humility and with a recognition that our experience—and our perspective—is only part of the broader picture.
How do we use technology to bring promise but also mitigate the peril that it could bring to social-impact work?
Technology offers both promise and peril for the work of social good. It offers promise because, fundamentally, it offers access to connection and information. Each of those is a fundamental ingredient of effective social change.
We aren’t able to act solely on our own and hope to shift the contours of the world. We have to act together. The right sorts of connections allow us to act together as a whole—not just as a stack of individuals, but as a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Technology does facilitate that sort of connection in extraordinary ways.
Another critical ingredient to effective social change is information, whether the information about which nonprofit is most effective that a donor uses to help allocate their capital, the information about which intervention has the best evidence that a nonprofit uses to determine what their strategy will be, or the information that an investor uses to think about the social consequences of their investment portfolio.
Information is a lifeblood of social change, and technology helps to enable that. But at the same time, we have to recognize—as I think all of us have—that these technologies have accelerated the pace of human evolution. We are all just trying to catch up.
In particular, we’re trying to catch up cognitively and emotionally. Our brains are overwhelmed by the number of connections, by the sheer quantity of information. We have to develop new techniques and a new kind of psychological resilience to handle this.
It will play out differently for each person and in each sector. But my hope is that in the social sector, we can capitalize on the power of connection and information while still maintaining fundamental humanity that isn’t mediated by technology.
My hope is that in the social sector, we can capitalize on the power of connection and information while still maintaining fundamental humanity that isn’t mediated by technology.
What we can do is keep a sharp eye on how things are evolving. We can experiment along the way. We can learn, change, and pivot. And all through that, we can figure out how to hold onto that fundamental human passion that drives the desire to make a better world. We can do that in a way that is enabled by technology instead of obscured by technology.
In the debate over environmental, social, and governance [ESG] issues, why is it important for businesses to consider multiple bottom lines?
The debate over ESG has highlighted some critical questions, and I think these are questions that we’re going to be wrestling with for decades: questions about the degree to which we can measure the social impact of an individual company or investment and the degree to which that is that correlated with the financial performance of that company or investment.
These are exactly the kinds of questions that we as a species should be wrestling with from now until the end of time. Because we’re never going to get perfect answers to them. The fact that we are engaged in these sorts of debates is, to me, indicative that we’re growing up, that capitalism is growing up.
We are confronting the consequences of an untrammeled market and confronting the challenges of understanding the consequences of our actions. That’s really healthy, and I’m proud of the markets for wrestling with these questions.
We need a better policy environment that sends clearer signals about the consequences of, for example, negative externalities. And we need the emotional maturity to wrestle with these sorts of questions in a way that doesn’t shut down the conversation and instead reinvigorates it, getting investors, government officials, and corporate executives to the table to engage with questions of, “My company pollutes a lot; what are we going to do about this?” or “My products make people sick; what are we going to do about this?”
We need a better policy environment that sends clearer signals about the consequences of, for example, negative externalities. And we need the emotional maturity to wrestle with these sorts of questions in a way that doesn’t shut down the conversation.
Another thing that’s interesting about the ESG debate is how parallel it is to a set of debates in the nonprofit sector. For years, the only data that was comprehensively available was financial data from the IRS Form 990 that nonprofits file, at least in the US context. That led to things like the overhead myth—the idea that the best way to judge nonprofit performance is by looking at financial ratios, such as overhead.
This led to all sorts of negative, unintended consequences, with donors more focused on an accounting ratio than they were on the results created by the nonprofit. It’s taken years and millions of dollars to build up infrastructure to gather information about what really matters, which is the result of the work of nonprofits.
In the ESG—and the broader socially responsible investing—debate, we see a similar tension between the financial data that provides a fundamental and critical baseline and the programmatic—or results—data that help us as a society understand what comes out of these organizations.
These tensions can be very healthy. They can be very productive. Whether it’s an individual donor giving $50 to a homeless shelter or a private-equity firm thinking about a multibillion-dollar investment, I believe we as humans are fully capable of holding in our heads parallel sets of information about financial reality and the social and environmental consequences of the work of a given organization.