I learned this lesson when a leading foundation asked me to review the effectiveness of a Campus Food Systems Project designed to bring more local and sustainable food to several university campuses across Canada.
I started working up a laundry list of all the things universities could do on behalf of local and sustainable food when my two advisors — Sarah Archibald, then of Sierra Youth Coalition and Caitlin Colson, then of Meal Exchange — interrupted me to say that was the wrong way to start. First we have to ask what local and sustainable food can do for universities, they said. After that, we can ask what universities can do for local food.
Within a day, I cooked up a list of over 20 benefits that would come to a university if it provided higher-quality, more local and sustainable food. The university would gain new allies within the local farm community and local food industry; it would enjoy positive “earned media” that would spread their reputation as a positive force in the community; it would provide more part-time jobs for students; it could offer more interesting experiential learning opportunities for classroom tours; it would fulfill pledges the university had made on sustainability; and so on.
Like most people, I was already aware of the power of asking the right question. A question well-asked is a question half answered, is a saying I grew up with. The great Albert Einstein once said that if he only had an hour to solve a problem, he would spend 55 minutes getting the question right, so he could solve it in less than 5 minutes.
But the particular formulation I learned from Sarah and Caitlin gave me a whole new sense of how to reframe opportunities, and how to do advocacy. The other shoe dropped.
It amazed me how easy it was to shift from asking what an institution could do to do the right thing by food, to what an institution could do for itself if it had a more dynamic appreciation of food. By rephrasing the question, we made the institution co-leader and a co-beneficiary of the right answer.
Learning how to ask questions led me to ask another question: why doesn’t this new way of opening conversations and negotiations with institutional leaders happen more often?
I think the answer is that most advocates are still in the headspace corporations used to be in, before the 1950s. The old way a business did sales was to convince people why they should buy a particular product. But the new post-1950s way was to market, not sell. That changed market from a noun to an action verb.
The idea was to shift retailing away from selling a product the company wanted to sell, and toward selling a product the customer already needed, and possible wanted. Focus on the benefit to the customer, not the need of the company; stop selling, start marketing, the new thinking went. If there’s resistance, don’t move to the hard sell; promote more benefits the product can provide or link to.
Sell the benefits, not the product qualities, was the new watchword. Don’t advertise the product as made of stainless steel; advertise that it’s easy to clean and will last a lifetime.
This was a game-changer for business thinking some 60 years ago. Shifting to a marketing perspective will be just as transformative for advocacy organizations today.
As of now, very few people in the sustainability and food worlds have caught up with the capitalists of the 1950s. Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute and Steven Peck of Green Roofs for Healthy Cities come to my mind as exceptions – people who promote pollution-free energy as energy efficiency, as Lovins does, or who promote green infrastructure as profitable and beautiful job creation, as Peck does.
For the most part, movement people are satisfied with pushing companies and governments to adopt a project because it’s the right thing to do for health and the environment. They see themselves as pressure groups, lobby groups, or advocacy groups, not innovators promoting better ways of increasing opportunities for mutual benefit.
Increasing pressure is what today’s advocacy organizations know. Reducing resistance is not part of their thinking. My longtime friend, Jim Harris, used to liken such green strategies to people who called on all their big strapping friends to help push a car, instead of checking first to see if they could release the emergency brake on the car.
It’s time for advocacy movements to consider the benefits of shifting their questions and checking into the possibilities of releasing the brakes.
Three things happen when we shift our emphasis to highlighting the benefits of change:
First, we’re no longer defined by the public as opposing something conventional, but as proposing something new. The emphasis in the image others have of us goes from being “critics” and “negative” and “naysayers,” to being “innovators” and “positive” and “entrepreneurial.” We go from being attackers to helpers. We get to call ourselves Solutionaries.
The late Jack Layton, who worked with me to develop the Coalition for a Green Economic Recovery during the 1990s, described his change of thinking along these lines as going “from opposition to proposition.”
Benefit 1: when we change our own self-definition, we also change our public image.
I think it would be beneficial to many advocacy organizations to consider this.