John Marks, founder of Search for Common Ground, visited the Hague Humanity Hub which is a proud partner of ImpactCity. During a masterclass he described the basic operating principles that he has found underlie successful social entrepreneurship. In other words: doing good & doing business. The audience was a mosaic of diverse backgrounds such as former diplomats, humanitarian aid workers, entrepreneurs, students, government officials and engineers. Read the recap of this inspiring masterclass.
In order to promote sustainable change, John saw that he needed to work with, not against, the people with whom he disagreed. Like many successful social entrepreneurs, he was infused from an early age with the notion that he not only could make a difference in the world, but more importantly, that it was his obligation to do so. John founded Search for Common Ground in 1982 to transform the way the world deals with conflict – away from adversarial approaches and towards collaborative problem-solving.
Together with Susan Collin Marks, his wife and SFCG’s Executive Vice President, he led it for 32 years and developed it into the largest peacebuilding NGO in the world with 600 staff members and offices in 35 countries. The organization has been nominated for the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize.
What does Search for Common Ground do?
“Our modus operandi is to understand the differences and act on the commonalities,” John notes. “Within that framework, we use such traditional conflict resolution techniques as mediation, facilitation, and training. In addition, we utilize less conventional methods, such as television and radio production, music videos, participatory theater, and community organizing. Thus, we employ a broad mix of tools, and we operate across whole societies. One of our specialties is producing ‘soap opera for social change,’ which we are now doing in 17 countries.”
John is convinced that popular culture, containing convincing messages, can have an important impact on changing mass attitudes and behaviors, and thus contribute to peacebuilding.
SFCG has aided US diplomatic missions in an effort to ease foreign tensions and reduce conflict risk. One of its biggest achievements was helping to organize the Wrestling Diplomacy with Iran in 1998 under President Clinton that helped normalize tensions between the United States and Iran through sport.
The principles of effective social entrepreneurship
The workshop provided a practical framework for the next generation of social entrepreneurs, starting from vision and moving into effective action. The ideas presented were drawn from John’s extensive experience, as well as from the wisdom of participants. The goal was to lead participants through the possibilities that abound when they grasp their inner potential to make a difference and to carry out the work that the world so badly needs. Here are the bits of wisdom that John shared with us:
Start from Vision
Modern challenges are simply too complex and interconnected to be settled on an adversarial basis. Projects need to be started with a solid understanding of the differences and with focus on the commonalities in order to create a win-win situation.
Be an applied visionary
Break down your vision into finite achievable pieces to accomplish your work one step at a time; be incrementally transformational. Next to starting small, the next steps also become clearer along the way.
Enroll credible supporters
Support is more readily given to people that can get things done and to that end having connections helps. For example, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs was an early supporter and helped introduce the NGO to other governments.
John recognized that storytelling is a recurring feature among all cultures he encountered so having a few good metaphors that illustrate your mission and ideas helps tremendously. As an example, SFCG created a media production inspired by the Football World Cup in which players from different backgrounds, ethnicities and cultures would form teams and compete. The metaphor of this project is simple: if players don’t cooperate they don’t score goals.
“On s’engage, et puis on voit”
‘You engage, and then you see’ as Napoleon phrased it. Conflicts evolve and areas of need emerge, so flexibility is paramount. By becoming engaged you see what the possibilities are and where you are heading. It doesn’t work to try to map out everything in advance.
Woody Allen principle
80% of success is showing up, especially in the peacebuilding sector. Persistence and presence will make you more successful than simply parachuting in to solve specific crises.
Make yes-able propositions
Always consider the interests and positions of other parties and propose projects that they can immediately agree to. This also applies for example to the rules and framework of project guidelines when seeking funding.
Chutzpah – culot
Sometimes audacity will bring your project forward. As an example, when SFCG only had three employees, John created Common Ground Productions to be their TV and radio production division. While they had virtually no resources or track record, they had business cards printed, saying they were in the media production business. The next year, they found partners and produced their first broadcast programme.
High tolerance of ambiguity
A social entrepreneur should be comfortable with not knowing where they are going and dealing with the unexpected, and be prepared to deal with high levels of complexity.
John employs a style of management modeled after the Japanese martial art of aikido. In his words: “It’s the opposite of boxing, where you hit an attacker and try to reverse his energy flow by 180 degrees. In aikido, you accept the energy of the other person and blend with him, diverting his energy by a few degrees and finding a way to make both of you safe. This means that, as a manager, I accept people as they are and look for ways to reframe situations and perspectives so that conflict is defused, allowing people to work toward common goals.”
If possible, leave some space for your intuition and find a careful balance with rationality.