Author Archives for Marianne Hughes

September 21, 2009

Simple Acts of Kindness

In the September Shambala Sun magazine there is an article written about Huston Smith, the renowned philosopher, now ninety, who introduced Americans in the fifties to “The World’s Religions” through his writing and his teaching. This was territory completely unknown to the culture at the time.

In this article he remembers another famous spiritual adventurer, his friend, Aldous Huxley. He quotes Huxley as saying: “It’s a little embarrassing to have spent one’s entire life pondering the human situation and find oneself in the end with nothing more profound to say than…try to be a little nicer”. When I read this quote I remembered being equally struck by something the Dalai Lama said: kindness is my religion. And, of course, from the Bible, “do unto others what you would like them to do unto you”.

And as is often the case, I sit here on this Sunday morning sort of dumbstruck, as if I’d been given the most complicated of Zen koans, pondering the depth of these words that are so profound, so demanding and so completely, utterly and entirely simple.


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September 8, 2009

A Swift Kick or a Gentle Nudge?

It is difficult on this Labor Day 2009 not to worry and fret about our collective ability in this country to do what is best, even in our own best interest. The two major policy debates of the day – health care and unemployment – came together this weekend in a heap of statistics, misinformation and just plain rage that leaves me, like so many, wondering: how will we move in the right direction? What is right action?

Heartbreaking stories of financial ruin and despair from job loss and crushing unemployment caused by the recession or untreated illness and bankruptcy from the effects of a completely broken health care system. And, at root of both issues we find the profit motive and really bad policy choices over the last two decades. Read More

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August 17, 2009

Sand Dunes and Democracy

The debate about how to reform health care in the United States rages across the country in a series of town hall meetings, constant cable coverage and apparent confusion and misinformation. I have been watching all of this from the distance that you can only gain by being on vacation. And, because my family has vacationed in Wellfleet, Massachusetts on Cape Cod for the last 25 years, I have been reflecting on the messiness of democracy while walking the dunes of the national seashore and riding the waves on the protected beaches of this part of the Cape.

It is a powerful reminder of how advocacy, policy and structural change is at the heart of creating a more just and sustainable world. Had President John F. Kennedy not signed a bill in 1961 authorizing the establishment of the Cape Cod National Seashore, (the goal of which was “to preserve the natural and historic values of a portion of Cape Code for the inspiration and enjoyment of people all over the United States”), I could be meandering through condominiums, McMansions and strip malls. Read More

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July 27, 2009

Foxy Thinking

Many of us are familiar with the concept of the Hedgehog and the Fox originally sited in an essay by British philosopher, Isaiah Berlin where he divided the world into hedgehogs and foxes based on their ways of thinking and being in the world. The hedgehog knows one big thing as compared to the fox who darts from idea to idea.  This concept was most recently brought into strategic planning and nonprofit management circles by Jim Collins through his well read monograph, “Good to Great and the Social Sectors“. There he talks about discovering your “hedgehog” by asking three fundamental questions: What are you most passionate about? What are you best in the world at? And what drives your resource engine? The theory of the case is that your hedgehog, your one big idea, your strategic direction, lies in the answers to these questions. Read More

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July 20, 2009

The Birds, the Bees and the Trees

So much is in the ether about “social innovation.” There is a new office in the White House dedicated to the idea as well as a prestigious journal, Stanford Social Innovation Review and multiple books.  The following are only two such examples: Geoff Mulgan’s The Process of Social Innovation 2007 and David Bornstein’s How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas,Updated Edition.

One of the best things that I have read recently is Social Innovation: What It Is; Why It Matters; and How It Can Be Accelerated. In this article the authors define social innovation as “new ideas that work, to meet pressing unmet needs and improve peoples lives”. They introduce us to the stages of innovation from the generation of ideas through prototyping and piloting to scaling up and learning. And they introduce us to the idea of the “bees and trees” i.e. that social change depends on small organizations, individuals and groups who have new ideas and are more mobile, quick and able to cross-pollinate connecting to the trees, which are big organizations like foundations, government and corporations which have the resilience, roots and scale to make things happen.

They posit that it is these alliances that will ensure that new and creative ideas will be translated into new products and services. At IISC we have spent a lifetime steeped in this struggle. We are bees learning constantly, experimenting continually and daunted by the time, effort and cost of turning many of these ideas into real and replicable products and services. While it remains a struggle, it is also our core commitment to “change how change happens” and so it is our dilemma to solve.

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July 13, 2009

Intersections and Social Innovation

You can hardly turn a corner around here without bumping into another example of emergence and transformational change! There is a very interesting convergence playing out between the launch of the administration’s new Office of Social Innovation and what is becoming known as the Fourth Sector.

An aspiration articulated by the new Office of Social Innovation is to challenge the long held assumption that social innovation is the purview of the nonprofit sector only and to look for creative solutions in those organizations and collaborative initiatives that transcend the boundaries of the three sectors. It is exactly these new forms that are maturing finally into what is being called the Fourth Sector made up of organizations that are being described as For-Benefit organizations.

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July 6, 2009

Leading with Joy

My son, David, recently wrote an article for the Providence Phoenix about John Maeda, President of Rhode Island School of Design and author of The Laws of Simplicity, The Laws of Simplicity – The MIT Press.

Maeda embodies and articulates facilitative leadership and has embarked on building the collaborative organization which he calls an “open source administration”. Web2ExpoSF 09: John Maeda, “Open Source Administration Interestingly, even today, the idea of an accessible, communicative and transparent leader is seen as unusual and breakthrough telegraphing just how hard it is to move from the old to the new.

What is so unique to John Maeda is his combination of talents that are so apt for this moment in time. He is an artist, a designer, a techie; an educator and an MBA not to mention young and hip with a “genuine ability to distill, simplify and inspire”. Like President Obama he models what it means to lead today from a place of thoughtful creativity, wholeness and…

While John Maeda and Barack Obama are among the famous there are so many leaders across the generations, the sectors and the world that are showing the way simultaneously changing the world one individual, one family, one organization and one community at a time.

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June 22, 2009


Almost forty years ago this month Robert Kennedy was assassinated. His vision and his voice is seared into the hearts and lives of a generation. In this you-tube video listen to his description of the gross domestic product where he talks about how the GDP measures everything except that which makes life worth living. It is timeless and powerful.

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June 15, 2009

Where To Go

Like most of our clients IISC is answering the most daunting of organizational questions: Where are we? Where we do we want to go? And how are we going to get there? In other words, what’s our strategy? What is the roadmap that we can use to guide our collective action in the next three years? And while ever believing that we had a handle on the future was an illusion at best, the next three year time frame poses a level of uncertainty that can just knock your socks off.

The economic crisis in and of itself would be enough to challenge the best of strategic thinkers but the fact that we are moving through a global systems breakdown and the complete rewiring of who we are and how we function in the connected age takes the challenge to the 10th power.

And, so we are experimenting on ourselves in the hope that we can create a strategy development process that is short, sweet and doable and that we can bring to the sector.

Strategy guru, Henry Mintzberg, dedicates his book, Strategy Safari: A Guided Tour Through The Wilds of Strategic Management, to people interested in open fields rather than closed cages by quoting the introduction to Winnie-the-Pooh (Pooh Original Edition):

“There are some people who begin the Zoo at the beginning, called Way In, and walk as quickly as they can past every cage until they come to the one called Way Out, but the nicest people go straight to the animal they love the most, and stay there.”

We are in the open fields and looking for the animal we love the most. We will share our journey as it continues to unfold.

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June 8, 2009

Deep Change

It is Sunday morning and the last day of a conference that I have been attending called Deep Change: Transforming the Practice of Social Justice. We are at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the beautiful state of North Carolina. The South is a perfect location for this convening for as one of the participants said, “I long for the South to heal because if the South heals the United States heals and if the United States heals the world will heal”.

Eighty frontline organizers, intermediary organizations and funders have gathered here to learn together, deepen their connections to one another and thereby create a shared sense of identity and an expanded field of spiritual activism. This coming together is a fractal, a small slice of a movement renewed and re-grounded in “an ethic of sustainability, spirituality and a broader understanding of freedom’ committed to infusing spiritual practice into the pursuit of social justice.

I am one of the veterans here. My own activism launched 40 years ago as an anti-poverty community organizer on the Mexican border town of Laredo, Texas. Movement work at that time was inspired by and rooted in the spirituality of the civil rights, farm workers and anti-war movements. Many activists were animated by their Jewish understanding of social justice or of their Christian roots in the social gospel. As the movement and sector evolved political analysis and spirituality became disaggregated as the movement turned its attention to building effective organizations and leaders. This detour was probably an important leg of the journey but one that needs to be left behind as we seek new ways to build a just and sustainable world.

My own experience during that time had the wilderness quality of wandering and confusion for I could never understand how or why we had created this kind of oppositional thinking. I am so very grateful and inspired by this new generation of activists who are committed to re-integrating inner and outer transformation in the pursuit of social justice and transformative change.

As part of this extraordinary gathering we were enchanted and changed by our encounters with the artistry and talent of two of North Carolina’s best: Spoken Word poet, Glenis Redmond, and bluegrass musicians, Baby Cowboy.

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June 1, 2009

Leonard Cohen and Me

I was one of the lucky Bostonians to see Leonard Cohen (famed poet, folksinger and Zen monk) perform to a sold-out Wang Center audience this weekend. He is seventy five years old and noted that the last time he was in Boston was fifteen years ago when he was sixty and just “a kid with a dream”.

There was a tremendous sense of the sacred in his performance, from the way in which he interacted with his back up singers and his band to the care and honor that he showed to the audience. In a New York Times article Cohen was quoted as saying: “There’s a similarity in the quality of the daily life on the road and in the monastery. There’s just a sense of purpose in which a lot of extraneous material is naturally and necessarily discarded, and what is left is a rigorous and severe routine in which the capacity to focus becomes much easier.

And it was that sense of purpose and level of focus that was experienced in the concert hall and that monastics have been modeling through the ages: get rid of the extraneous; focus on the moment like a laser beam and you will be fully alive…hmmmmm…must try that…again and again and again!

After the concert, I was prompted to go back to a Shambala Sun interview with Leonard Cohen that I read and that has stayed with me, it is about love and a very Zen understanding of life.

In fact, Mr. Cohen appears to see performance and prayer as aspects of the same larger divine enterprise. That may not be surprising, coming from an artist whose best-known songs mingle sacred concerns with the secular and the sexual and sound like “collaborations between Jacques Brel and Thomas Merton,” as the novelist Pico Iyer put it.

One of Cohen’s most quoted verses captures it all:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

How do we apply THAT to Social Change?

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