Part 1: What is “Do Good, Plus Do No Harm” About?

1. What is “Do Good, Plus Do No Harm” About?

“Answer Balance” © Scott Maxwell. Fotolia #7281912. Licensed to Brad Sargent/futuristguy.

“Answer Balance” © Scott Maxwell. Fotolia #7281912. Licensed to Brad Sargent/futuristguy.

Do Good, Plus Do No Harm. Did you wonder where the title for this book came from?

While the theme hearkens back nearly 2,500 years to the Hippocratic oath, the expansion of details comes from my own personal experiences – some delightfully constructive and others woefully destructive. I have served as a volunteer in community non-profits since my junior year in high school, and started at a time when that wasn’t required and definitely wasn’t common. It’s been over 40 years now. I’ve worked with many different kinds of groups that were chartered for the purpose of charity. In other words, they were designed for doing good.

In retrospect, I realized that almost no one ever talked about how things could go terribly, horribly wrong while we were supposed to be implanting positive impact. Leaders rarely took preventive measures to stop toxicity before it took over. Even worse, some of them did nothing to make things right when some noticeable level of harm was inflicted – on leaders, on participants, on recipients.

Not every organization I was in turned out to be bad while doing good. But enough so that I couldn’t simply overlook the irony. I was volunteering because I wanted to make a difference in the lives of others. It just wasn’t right that peace-makers should create conflict zones. But what to do about it?

“Realitopia” – Making a Difference Out of Destructive Experiences

I’m “wired” in a way to always ask “Why?” Being so analytic can be exhausting – like being a “human MRI” machine that composites cross-sections to create a full internal picture of the subject. So, when I was on the unfortunate receiving end of bad (even evil!) host organizations while attempting to serve, I was driven to figure out what happened and why. If I couldn’t stop the corrosive actions of so-called “leaders,” or change the structures in their self-serving systems – and I did try – at least I could learn something so I could recover myself, and help others not fall into the same traps I had.

Thus, over the years, I collected or created frameworks for helping sort through safe versus unsafe environments for vocations and volunteering. I’ve shared these concepts and skills regularly with those I’ve mentored the past 20 years. So, this book isn’t all just about theory. The material has been field tested for how it actually helps people process why things go well or poorly with teams, projects, and collaborations. And I didn’t merely synthesize the thoughts of others like some mega-book-report. No, through suffering a series of worldview welts and teamwork bruises, I discovered an important principle:

If we aim our trajectory for a goal of utopia, but leaders and systems full of dystopia dominate the journey, we won’t even be able to create an imperfect but positive and possible realitopia.

Our drive to do good can draw us to great work. Also, our deficiencies can overtake us in an uncountable numbers of ways, especially when we get a group of flawed (but sincere) people together. Having more people can just compound the difficulties. But things just shouldn’t be like that, should they? Surely there must be ways to avoid that kind of culture clash, and resolve those levels of miscommunications and conflicts, mustn’t there? It can’t be all up to the leaders to make everything work perfectly, or to expect participants to just serve like mindless, uncreative drones, right?

So, in deciding to write something of use for people like me who have a passion to serve as agents of social change, I knew I had to keep things in balance: Do Good, Plus Do No Harm. Otherwise, it turns out an automatic (and sometimes epic) fail – at least, that’s been my experience. What has been yours?

Getting the Big Picture of Balance Points

This first volume in the Opal Design Systems is about seeing broad themes in for-benefit service, and getting a better picture of balance in it. Do Good, Plus Do No Harm introduces the essentials. It helps you build them together into a more comprehensive and coherent system for doing the work that matters to you in making the lives of other people better. I hope this material helps us invest ourselves far more effectively toward personal and social transformation, and figure out better how to evaluate the quality of impact we make.

This initial chapter introduces the everyday frameworks of concepts and skills that I use, many of them that I’ve developed myself. I’ve broken it down into three major points that overview my entire system:

  • What is “Do Good, Plus Do No Harm” About? – The need for balance by both doing good and preventing abuse.
  • The “What, So What, and Now What?” of This Training Curriculum – Building blocks, benefits, and next steps.
  • The “What If …?” – What could things look like in a world of good where we do no harm?

After that, every chapter has three sections. I’m going for the main themes in each topic to make it easier to get the big picture. Each section has several subsections. I’m keeping the number of subpoints to a minimum, and trying to match the amount of the material to the importance of the point. That makes the length of any given piece unpredictable, but the key is understandability rather than consistency in how long all the articles are. (Plus, I have worked through far deeper layers of details, but I’m saved that advanced analysis for other volumes.) I’m also using images, media case studies, and what I think are intriguing anecdotes to mix it up and keep interest level high for the many different ways that people best learn. And I hope it sounds like we’re just sitting down over a cup of coffee or tea and talking, and I’m sharing what wisdom I think I’ve gleaned over the years.

As I mentioned earlier, this whole system doesn’t emerge out of my reading a bunch of other people’s ideas about what works and why. It comes out of my own story. And I have had a range of positive and negative experiences in serving with teams or attempting collaborations – and a wide range of questions that they implanted. (Maybe you’d concluded I thrive on questions. In fact, once I gave a guest lecture on how to interpret cultures, and my professor friend introduced me to his class as “someone who is working on answers to questions that no one else is asking yet.”)

Showing the Contours of the Curriculum

So, what story could I share to show the situations that developed the drive behind my producing this curriculum? I decided the best way was not through one story, but one time period when my reflections on three separate situations solidified the core of this curriculum. Over nearly a decade, I got to watch the contrasts between two kinds of organizations/leaders that, in my assessment, did much damage under the guise of doing some good. One led to compliance and conformity, the other led to chaos and an empty-calorie kind of positivity. All that versus one organization that I found does much good and basically no harm. Together, this set of three agencies provide archetypes of what I’ve seen played out in everything from micro-teams there all the way to mega-societies like compliance in the Stalinist Soviet Union and chaos during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. (These countries have long held my interest, and in the 1980s, I almost ended up pursuing a master’s degree in international relations, with a concentration in Sino-Soviet studies.)

The first two organizations happened to be local churches. The third one is an international, faith-based network that develops creative solutions for social change. While I do have extensive experience as a volunteer, consultant, and leader in Christian churches and agencies, I’m not writing this curriculum just for faith-based operations. This is not a Christians-only book, though I’ll write from my theological and philosophical assumptions – as would any other author, whether they’re aware of it or not. But I will occasionally refer to beliefs, practices, and legitimate critiques of my own faith community to illustrate concepts or illuminate where I learned something important that I suspect applies more universally.

And I also have a fair list of experience in other kinds of non-profits, project teams, and activism that are community-based, not faith-based. These include relational work with senior citizens activities, youth employment services, an environmentalism internship, high school student leader training, reporting on meetings of the local school district and city council, and political party involvement. (Although I’m not primarily political in my activities now, would it surprise you to find out that I attended my first local politics meeting at age 9, or that I even asked my parents if I could go?)

I’ve also done a lot of informational work through writing, editing, and resource development on a range of personal change issues in various recovery movements, and social change issues. These have been in both community-based and faith-based settings, and include such topics as domestic violence, sexual abuse prevention, literacy, post-traumatic stress disorder, resources for people infected or affected by HIV disease, political platforms on national and international issues, and appropriate technologies for post-harvest food preservation in developing nations. I’ve also served on the board of directors of two non-profits as secretary, and as historian/archivist for several agencies.

Ultimately, this book is about becoming transcultural, i.e., learning from one another and working together in interdependence for the common good. So, I will keep the balances of both kinds of endeavor sets in mind – relational and informational; external communities and internal belief groups – because all of those shape the contours of efforts for the common good. I believe all of these elements should become resources of learning for us, not sources of conflict among us. Shortly, I’ll be sharing a few stories from what I’ve learned in various personal experiences as we go along. But first, some basics about this book and how to get the most from it.

NEXT: Part 2: The “What, So What, and Now What” of This Training Curriculum – Building blocks, benefits, and next steps.


One thought on “Part 1: What is “Do Good, Plus Do No Harm” About?

  1. suffering a series of worldview welts

    that’s funny!

    Brad also writes, So, in deciding to write something of use for people like me who have a passion to serve as agents of social change, I knew I had to keep things in balance: Do Good, Plus Do No Harm. Otherwise, it turns out an automatic (and sometimes epic) fail – at least, that’s been my experience. What has been yours?

    you might say i’m endeavoring to be an agent of social change as i’m (ever so slowly) gearing up to openly confront rebellion in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Thing is—those I’m seeking to address don’t all recognize that the spirit their denomination has adopted and imposed upon the church is a very real stronghold of rebellion fomented by a stranglehold of lies.

    How does one confront this institutional rebellion, especially since the many regard this certain evil as good? I guess, the balance I’m seeking to operate with is Truth upheld with Grace. Essentially, it’s a speaking the truth of Scriptures in love. That, I believe, is our only legitimate ground of appeal concerning these things—Scriptures; and the only spirit in which we’re to work this all out together with—the spirit of grace and love. Love for God and for each other; for His Word and for His people.

    Herman Bavinck writes, “The only standard by which the church can be judged is Scripture itself. The true church really has only one mark: the Word of God. . . . The Word and the Word alone is truly the soul of the church” (Reformed Dogmatics 2011).

    “Without being constantly reformed by the Word the church becomes something very different. We must always keep the church under the Word,” says D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones.

    Recognizing the prophetic role of my confrontation, and in line with your Do Good, Plus Do No Harm ethic, I’ve taken the words of the LORD to Jeremiah to heart, “If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall be as my mouth.” And this was spoken to “a man of strife and contention to the whole land” (10:10,19).

    I appreciate your conversational approach.

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