Make a Difference

These are notes I made for myself when I was considering a career change many years ago. Last week several friends indicated an interest my notes so I am sharing them here. At some point I would like to flesh this list out with more references.

NGOs and other mission driven organizations tend to focus on one, or maybe a few core issues. The reason for this is obvious… trying to take on all the world’s problems would be too hard. The focus must be narrowed or nothing could be accomplished. The same is true for people. You can’t make a difference if your focus is too wide. You need to decide what you desire to change. If you don’t have a focus, you can’t hit a target.

The counterpoint is no issue exists in isolation. The world we live in is a very complex system. It’s hard to address a single issue independently of it’s context. That means to make sustainable progress in one area, you often need to work on related issues. Sometimes, working on a related problem is the most effective way to address a specific issue.

Core Objectives

Preserve Life

If someone is dead, there isn’t much you can do for them. Deep poverty is at the root of many issues. Over time the percent of people in crushing poverty has decreased, but the number of people has staying largely the same due to population growth. Today, something like 20% of the world’s population is at severe risk from poverty.

  • starvation – short term: relief, feeding programs / long term: agricultural development, land reform, attack underlying poverty
  • illness – clean drinking water, effective prevention, universal primary health care, drugs discovery / cures for disease, work on life extension
  • exposure – short term: emergency shelter; long tear: building affordable housing, economic development which makes housing affordable
  • accidents, etc – emergency services like police, fire, search and rescue, improving safety of things that take lives (product safety)
  • suicide – interventions, counseling, hope
  • individual violence – rule on law, mediation, etc
  • state violence – diplomacy, replace lethal technology with targeted & non-lethal options

Death penalty: Data indicates that the death penalty is not an effective deterrent. It’s also clear that the use of the death penalty is not wielded in a justice way in the US, so minimally legal reform is needed. I lean toward abolishing the death penalty since we have numerous example of innocent people being erroneously convinced… with no way to reverse that. Even if someone is guilty I am divided. On the one hand I believe in the value of each human and the chance for redemption. On the other hand some crimes are so heinous and permitting the perpetrator to live poses a grave risk to society.

Abortion: I believe that we should compassionately discourage abortions. We should support be truly pro-life, not just pro-birth, and avoid devastating impact of “unwantedness”. I think abortion should be permitted in the case of rape or the mother’s health is threatened, even though I know I won’t have been born if my birth mother decided to get an abortion. I don’t think criminalization is the answer. What is the answer? I don’t know. We don’t know for certain when life begins nor do we know what legislation will actually be effective. Look at how effective prohibition was at stopping people from drinking and getting drunk.

Euthanasia: I believe terminating a life because it’s not “high enough quality” / “productive” is wrong. Who says when a life isn’t worth living. How do they know? There are numerous people that some would say should be terminated who had a profound impact and/or found joy in spite of some severe condition.  At the same time, medical technology has enabled us to preserve a physical body, even when it seems all traces of a person are gone. In other words, the person being “alive” is an illusion, while at the same time causing great expense and possible pain for those left behind. Everyone is going to face physical death… we should ensure that when that time comes that it is as humane as possible. I believe in a hospice approach is appropriate at some point.

Have Life’s Physical Necessities / Poverty

What is a necessity? This is a hard question to answer because people’s expectations can vary so much based on what they have been exposed to. It is often said that “yesterday’s luxury are today’s necessity”. I believe that many people, after being exposed to images of a rich lifestyle, have allowed their desire for affluence to cloud their judgment about what is necessary. I certainly am not a good judge of what is “necessary”. Before the industrial revolution, necessities seemed to included water, food, clothing, and shelter. Many of these items are listed above under “Preserve Life”. Today, some amount of health care is likely added to the list and access to communication / computing technology.

It seems to be that the very best way to insure that everyone has the basic necessities of life is for there to be a robust, economic eco-system. While capitalism has been very effective, I believe unconstrained capitalism in our modern, technologically leveraged world is leading to winner take all outcomes which are not good. Likewise, I think measuring business exclusively by “shareholder value” is a serious problem. On the other side, so called planned economies are a total train wreck.

Property rights seem to be a key ingredient a healthy system, but unbounded rights seems to lead to unjust distribution which ultimately harms the majority of people. Not sure what the right balance is. The bible has the concept of Jubilee years which forced a redistribution of land. While land was wealth, it was also a key enabler for people to generate wealth (farming). So I think Jubilee was more about insuring everyone had opportunities to earn a good living rather than a sharing of wealth.

There are science informed lessons at poverty action lab which was formed by several luminaries from real world economics community.

  • Access to capital: micro finance, banks, etc
  • Affordable housing: building programs, lower cost techniques like 3d printing
  • Accessible tools / technology:
  • Good government policy
  • Effective distribution systems. Famines to date haven’t been inadequate global food supply, but food not getting distributed to those in need.
  • some sort of safety net for those people that can’t make it on their own without help. There is fairly good data that suggests providing this doesn’t not reduce peoples interest in working. Maybe carrying the people who are an exception (able to work but rather be lazy) is a small price to pay to be sure everyone is ok.
  • Technology development: Often technology can address problems. For example, our food yields are 3-4x what they were at the start of the 20th century. Material goods are generally more available in higher quality for less money.

Basic Freedoms and Core Human Rights

People are entitled to basic freedoms and justice. At the core is the rule of law. If the law isn’t king, controlling the actions of both individuals and the state, no one will truly have durable rights. Basic security and property rights are the bedrock of a functional society. Without these basic rights people are reluctant to make a personal investment because any results can be taken away by government, criminal elements, or others by the force of arms. In particularly unstable locations making any progress increases the odds that a person will be targeted. Throughout history, there have been people who viewed “conquest” as a means to accumulate wealth. Unfortunately, this method is worse than a zero sum game, since not only is there a loser and a winner, but the pot gets smaller because value is destroyed during most confrontations. “Trade” is far superior since it can actually grow the wealth for everyone, but the results take longer to experience and doesn’t work when there is no security. See The Birth of Plenty for the connection between economic development and property rights.

One attempt to capture what are these basic rights is the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While I appreciate the entire list, I think it is a bit more expansive than what I would consider “core” rights, but I haven’t spent enough time in study and consideration to make my own list.

What can be done?

  • legal reform to insure fairness (so people trust rather than take into their own hands)
  • police to enforce rules fairly
  • civil society – avoid polarization and keeping people focused on solving problems
  • peacemaking (negotiations or military/police)
  • peacekeeping (military or non violent witnesses)
  • advocacy – for the disempowered
  • economic development
  • transparency for power holders (remove asymmetric knowledge) – press, government and private projects such as sunlight foundation

Insure Sustainability of Life

We are called to be stewards of the earth. We need to live not just for our generation, but for the generations that follow us. Having luxuries today which would deny those who come after us the basics of life is immoral. Over the years many people have worried about depletion. So far, we seem to have engineered around things are produced plenty. Can this continue?

  • Climate Change – Our planet is warming due to human activity and this is causing more severe weather events. See the skeptical science for the evidence and rebuttals to many of the classic myths to suggest this isn’t the case. Address by minimizing the production of green house gasses, finding ways to sequester carbon, and possibly engineers to reflect more of the sun rays. Check out climate labs, read Saving Us for other ideas.
  • Healthy Environment- regulation, protection, cleanup: see environmental defense, nature.orgworld resource institute
  • Resource Depletion – changing consumption patterns, renewable products/energy, conservation, green tech
  • Q: Can developing nations skip over fossil fuel strait to green energy in a cost effective way which doesn’t hurt, maybe helps their economic growth?

Meaningful Life

There is more to life that just physical existence. People need to have the opportunity to see beyond the day-to-day physical life that they live. Life is more than eating, sleeping, and working. I believe humans are wired for “meaning”. When people lose all sense that their lives have meaning, hope drains aways which has a negative impact on the individual, and can corrode society when this is wide spread. Since I am coming from a Christian perspective, many of solutions come from that tradition.

  • isolation / loneliness – community, church, etc
  • beauty – good design, art, music, theater, access to nature, etc.
  • finding mastery – education, internships, communities of learning
  • finding purpose – coaching, leadership training
  • have impact – build businesses and organizations which promote thriving/flourishing: programs and products which benefit others
  • ignorant of spiritual principles – evangelism, teaching, church planting, mentoring / discipling, counseling

Be Joyful

Ultimately, we would like everyone to experience contentment and joy. This goes beyond having our basic needs met. In fact, it can exist in the face of great deprivation. Part of being joyful is loving others. If someone is concerned only about themselves, they will never find happiness or joy. There is good evidence that many people don’t know what will make them happy: ex: give or spend $50… which will make you happier. – need to know what will make them happy and practice those things. Flow,, etc.

Key Enablers

Hmm… right now I have these listed as enablers but I could easily argue for them to be core objectives as well. For the time being I will leave them as enablers, because I think they cut across a number of the objectives listed above. I suspect that trying to solve any or all of the above issues will fail because our world is a system and addressing things as individual issues rather than working the system will fail. More thought is required.

Child Development

The first three years of life is critical when it comes to setting.  Harlem Children’s Zone has been very effective. See research by Todd R. Risley.


Education is a powerful enabler… but does not guarantee a good outcome since the content of education and how people then use their education can become either a force for good or for evil. Great good has come from education, but educated people have also stood by and let great evil be done by others if not led the way (see observations of Michael Polanyi). How to improve the linkage between doing good and education?

Strong Families & Communities

Humans are social creatures. We were made to be in community. Family is one of the core building blocks for an effective community. Family does not necessarily equal the American “nuclear” family… especially given how many American families have blown up. There is good evidence that intact families are extremely beneficial.


Humans are made to create and have the capacity for great expressions. This should be encouraged.

Women’s Rights

In much of the developing world, half the human resources, women, are not empowered. Changing this could be powerful according to

Open Society

Track down research on correlations between society trends and terrorism. Seems like terrorism is more closely linked with repressive governments than with poverty which is the classic link.


Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them. – Albert Einstein

Making a difference starts by recognizing a problem and ends when the overall situation has been improved. The challenge is that many issues are inter-related. To solve one issue, often means you have to deal with a number of related issues. Often times, working on these related issues might be more effective than focusing on a specific area.

Also need to consider what motivates people and not prompt things in a way that produces un-intended side effects. See Drive by Pink for rewards basis & intrinsic motivation.

An Alternative Approach

Since I made this list I have wondered if there might be a more humble way to have impact: to in the moment love my neighbor without a plan or agenda. Some musing about what this would look like was in my post relational openness. At some point I will write something about the exponential impact of love to further develop this thought.

Other Questions / Ideas

  • Is the market efficient for these things?
  • we don’t have good leaders?  what would a good leader look like?
  • population – a problem due to resource consumption or not an issue?
  • Inheritance… needs some sort of limitation, otherwise in-equalities too far
  • Limited resources?  Or does increased efficiency take care of this
  • What about pride, greed, sloth
  • keep power honest – press, investigation, politics
  • How to we move data –> knowledge –> wisdom –> effective action
  • the-gospel-and-the-poor
  • Everything Must Change by Brian McLaren
  • Copenhagen Consensus – Economy analysis
  • Effective Altruism, GiveWell

Why is Africa Broken?

Gapminder illustrates that from statistics, several countries is Africa looked to be in a better place than say, South Korea in the 1960s, but since then South Korea is approaching the western world in terms of life expectancy, etc while several African nations have made little progress. Bottom Billion by Paul Collier examines some of the issues. Interesting discussion about Will Money Solve Africa’s Problems. A suggestion from an atheist that maybe missionaries would help africa more than aid. Colonialism where rich natures use a developmenting nation to develop themselves rather than aiding that nation continues, even if not via direct run. Interesting paper Global patterns of ecologically unequal exchange: Implications for sustainability in the 21st century

Birth of Plenty

Book has an amazing graph showing huge raise in standard on living since 1820. Claims that this was powered by four factors:

  1. Property rights (which include civil rights)… otherwise tragedy of the commons
  2. Scientific method
  3. open source funding – capital market
  4. efficient communication and transportation infrastructure… and access to developments happening elsewhere

Small Ways

Meritocracy Oriented Society

I have suspected for a long time that societies that let wealth be passed from generation to generation without a strong check tend to suffer.

Think about the sabbath year concept -vs- effective capital market

I believe in a meritocracy, I don’t believe in the society run by technocrats. It’s easy for technocrats and policy wonks to become isolated, caught up in their ideologies. Time after time we have seen the value of the wisdom of crowds. We need to find a way to harvest the collective wisdom of the community without falling into popularism. To benefit from the diversity.

Businesses for Impacts

The only way to have sustainable impact is for something to be a government program of self supporting business.

See How Much does Deeps Purpose impact Bottom Line. useful observation

  • Heroism: The desire to change the world and society.
  • Discovery: The challenge of adventure and innovation characterized by entrepreneurs willing to work 24/7 in search of the new or unknown.
  • Excellence: When achieving high standards matters more than short-term performance.
  • Altruism: When a company serves customers, employees, and others first and assumes that profit will follow.

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