Meeting the Need that Meets Me

“Purpose”; “meaning”; “calling”– these and similar concepts have become very popular in recent times. For many of us, it is no longer enough to work hard to support our family and pay a weekly visit to our place of worship be that mosque or mountain. We want to be a part of “changing the world”; “shifting the needle”; “making a difference”. This is because we are evolving and so is spirituality and faith – thank God.

As it dawns on us that charity (love) should begin at home, but that it certainly cannot end there, we might begin to feel a pull towards something to do that is bigger than ourselves. And we might – especially at the beginning of a year – look to volunteer at a creche or visit the sick or elderly. If we are feeling very brave, we might go on a mission trip or even think to start an NGO.

This can all be very useful, but to what extent is it ego-driven – all about my purpose; my calling; my giving back? Or possibly an appeasement of guilt or a way to shine up my personal brand? In the end, our true purpose – the kind that will have lasting impact – is found and met not by what we do, but by who we are; by how we show up in the world every minute of every day. Is it authentic? Is it about what I say it is? Is it rooted in love? Are my eyes, my mouth, my heart and my hands aligned as I reach out beyond myself?

I have come to this through involving myself in seemingly “big-hearted” works that in the end were much more to do with my ego than the subjects of my seeming love and compassion. This has been a deeply painful realisation.  

So now, I am just trying to show up differently. If there is someone selling litchis at the tollgate I will buy the litchis because this is someone’s livelihood. Do I need hangers? Perhaps not – but I can afford to buy the hangers. I will buy them as this will feed someone’s child. If I hear that people have lost everything in a fire in a small town or a flood somewhere, I will send what I can. So, what I am trying to do is meet the need that meets me, whether that is a national news story or a car guard who has perhaps done very little to guard my car.

Please note: I am generally awful at this. I get very irritated and frustrated and I often find myself miserly and tight spirited.  But I believe that my weak efforts to show up well are better-intentioned and hence more impactful than my grand gestures. I also believe that they mix with grace to create an impact beyond themselves.       

What is Your “One at a Time”?

Today I was touched by an e-mail forwarded to me by a dear friend Dr Leann Munian. She is a Paediatrician who was writing a farewell note to her colleagues before transferring to another hospital.

In the note she wrote a fascinating line about a major shift in her thinking and her career that took place some time ago after a stint in Syria with Gift of the Givers: “…I returned to the hospital of my birth, “to save the world”, “one baby at a time”.” What a remarkable thought process; that changing something as huge as the world can happen one very small baby at a time. But it jogged my memory, because my dear friend and colleague Dr Rama Naidu puts the same thought in a slightly different way. Now for some context, this man is a world class agent of change who has impacted on countless numbers of people during his remarkable career. But he works in small groups of between 8 and 80 people at a time, facilitating their growth and development. He says: “We change the world one conversation at a time.” This echoes one of my gurus Peter Block who talks about changing the world “one room at a time; the room you are in.” Another friend and colleague Dr Louise van Rhyn founder of Partners for Possibility – the world-renowned South African program that pairs school Principals from under resourced schools with business leaders in a transformative co-learnership – talks about changing the world “one partnership at a time.” There simply must be something in this thinking if all these doctors are saying the same thing! But it sounds fanciful, even flaky, especially within the parameters of our Western thinking that is so dominated by outcomes, measurement and numbers. In the NGO field, tell a potential funder you save the world “one baby, one conversation, one partnership at a time”, they will smile and tell you to come back and talk when you have “taken your project to scale”. In the business world, have a conversation that is about change outside of the context of a rising bottom-line and you will quickly hear terms like “soft skills” being used. We play this game because we must – or must we? It seems that all of us in any form of people-based, healing, transformation/change, “nation building” work have been on a journey to understand and accept that change and growth can only happen one of anything at a time. And this is on the positive spectrum. Just ask Adam Catzavalos how one racist WhatsApp message can change your life for the worse. This may seem frustrating because we want positive change to happen quicker than this. It just doesn’t satisfy our hard-wired need – and the world’s expectation – for us to “deliver results” (aka numbers). It has taken me literally years to come to terms with this “one-by-one” thinking and I thank my friends above for always reminding me about this when I get frustrated by my own or our country’s seeming “lack of progress”. This column is about each of us playing our part in the change we wish to see for our country and our world. So, the question is what is your “one at a time”? For my paediatrician friend it is a baby. For Rama it is a conversation. For Louise it is a partnership. For you it could be one customer at a time, one article at a time, one learner, one client, one staff member, one patient, one child. The trick? Be for that person or situation everything you wish to see the world become. Then the world will change. Not tomorrow or next week. But right now. Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.  His writing is dedicated to the memory of 17-year-old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered and Emmanuel Josias Sithole: beaten and stabbed to death.

Making Mandela Day Count

I must admit to being a bit of Mandela Day Grinch. I know this admission is akin to treason in our country and the fact that it is being made by a passionate advocate of citizen participation makes it even worse.  Not only that but I also run an NGO that would benefit greatly from people giving 67 minutes of their time in service on 18 July. So, why the negativity? The idea of Mandela Day is extremely profound indeed; a nation of people stopping to serve those less fortunate than themselves for 67 minutes each year is a legacy that few in history other than Mandela could have left. However, in practice it is difficult for Mandela Day to live up to the extraordinary vision that it holds. To remind you, this vision is essentially two-fold; firstly, 67 minutes multiplied by hundreds of thousands of people adds up to a vast number of charitable hours. This can make a big difference in our country. Secondly, by stopping to serve for 67 minutes, the hope is that our eyes will be opened to the vast array of needs around us; a sense of our common humanity will be activated and we will go on to serve throughout the course of the rest of the year and into the future. So, the actual 67 minutes on the day should be more of a catalyst than an end in itself. It should be a start-line for a shared reality characterised by purpose and service. We need to work hard to ensure that these noble aims are maintained and upheld because all too often, Mandela Day becomes an exercise in ticking boxes or a free pass out of the office. So often we have hosted groups of people at our homes for orphaned and abandoned babies in Durban only to find that their motivation for being there is not quite what Mandela Day is all about. This renders their service ineffectual and sometimes even counter-productive. If it is only to claim the value of your donation against your tax or to get a selfie to show the world how caring you are – both fine as a by-product of your service but not as an end in itself – then Mandela day can be more trouble than it is worth for NGO’s who are having to continue to do their work around people who are not actually there to help. The other issue with Mandela Day is fairly and squarely the responsibility of those of us who run NGO’s. We need to be very well organised to get the best out of those who are serious about making a difference on the day. We need to give people clear choices of what they can do. We should correspond with participants before time, make sure we know what they are skilled in or passionate about and identify specific needs for them to work on within our organisation. We should be well prepared for their arrival in terms of having the necessary materials or tools for them to do their work.  Their time must be honoured and well utilised; structured so that they are not sitting around doing nothing or involved in meaningless tasks. We must ensure that those 67 minutes are fulfilling and productive for people, otherwise why would they serve in our organisation – or any other organisation – again? If people are donating goods as well as their time, we must ensure that there is no duplication. There is nothing worse than someone arriving at your NGO with a donation of a brand-new fridge that you asked for only to bump into another person also bringing a fridge. Mandela Day is an opportunity for NGO’s to raise the profile of what we do; present a professional image to our supporters and play a role in creating sustainable giving and service. It must be said that many NGO’s do Mandela Day extremely well. The Domino Foundation is one of them. For our part, we have put together a website called Here we have categories that will appeal to just about everyone: care, collect, cook, craft, or contribute. Spend your 67 minutes caring for a baby; cook baby food for 67 minutes (either at home or on-site), do 67 minutes of DIY at our Hammarsdale Child Care Centre; use your crafting skills to help create a wall mural; collect second hand adult and baby clothes or toys. There is something for everyone, teams and individuals alike. My hope is that this year – in the midst of such grotesque violations of the spirit and legacy of Mandela –  we can restore the true meaning of Mandela Day and make a real difference in people’s lives. Join us. Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency. His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens and Emmanuel Josias Sithole.