Spencer Critchley recently wrote in the Huffington Post, discussing The Starfish story and how it’s used “to justify a charitable effort that's not making real change.” As you might expect, I think he’s quite wrong.
Instead of directly focusing on the constructs of his argument, I ask this question: We’ve got a system that often focuses on two methods. Should we aim to create larger, overarching policy changes in our government, or should we use behaviour change to drive markets to adapt?
The answer is both.
To choose one over the other is like asking whether the chicken or the egg came first - you won’t find an answer. It’s better to just avoid the whole conversation and understand that both parts are necessary for truly effective solutions for environmental and societal problems.
Throwing starfish back into the ocean is important to the grand scheme of the solution, and downplaying the necessity of community support for an environmental or social initiative is a mistake.
At the same time, we need to solve the underlying problems of why there’s so many starfish on the shores. In many ‘shored-starfish’ problems, we won’t find the answer in a timely fashion. They’re simply too complex. Should we all keep driving our gas-guzzling cars and taking excessive flights across the world until we find a top-down solution for climate change?
In the meantime, let’s not think about whether we need to change our ways or wait until someone else demands it of us. Working towards the solution with a two-pronged approach is the way forward.
At The Starfish Canada, we strive for both of these things. We inspire and engage youth that are tomorrow’s leaders in the environmental movement. At the same time, we teach these youth how to engage governments and stakeholders through workshops. We also use our reach to describe the current state of natural resources in Canada and proudly advocate for management solutions.
I also hope funders that are driving nonprofits come to ensure that campaigns and programs work towards both causes simultaneously. This ideology might require a shift in the way society thinks about nonprofit work (more overhead costs, allowing for failure, etc.). Dan Palotta’s ‘Uncharitable’ tackles some of these ideas in a fundamentally thought-provoking way. The Dogwood Initiative’s trailblazing ‘Failures Report’ showcases how nonprofits can model their approach to truly allow for more transparency. Shifts like these allow for nonprofits to become more dynamic and work towards effective solutions.
Nonetheless, let’s stop thinking that behaviour change and governmental, top-down approaches are two separate methods of advocacy. They don’t need to be, and thinking about them in this fashion is what may be leading to the failures of charitable work.