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To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns,

to surrender to too many demands,

to commit oneself to too many projects,

to want to help everyone in everything,

is to succumb to the violence of our times.

Thomas Merton

I spent time cleaning up the garden this weekend, pruning back the plants that had grown with such vigor over the course of the spring and summer, readying the garden for winter. As I was cutting back a particularly prodigious shrub, I was reminded of the gardener’s adage that “roses don’t need much care-just 5 minutes a day.”

This shrub-not a rose, but the California native Matilja poppy (or fried-egg poppy)-had grown out of control. Its flowers had been beautiful all summer, but now it was unhealthy, overtaxed and collapsing on itself. See where I’m going here?

I am often in conversations with clients and colleagues, and reflect regularly about how we can be most effective in achieving the social change and sustainability goals we set to reach. Most of them are ambitious, inspiring, even overwhelming to work with. Yet even with the smaller projects and objectives that can add up to greater change, I often see individuals and institutions “out ahead of ourselves and unable to catch up” as a colleague recently shared.

In order to truly build capacity, we need to pay greater attention to the work-in planning for it, accepting it, managing it, and completing what we’ve started. I do a lot of work supporting the vision, values, and strategy of sustainability efforts and in many cases execution and implementation is out of balance with the vision and values guiding the effort. How can we work for sustainability if our own individual and organizational efforts are unsustainable?

To grapple with the concept of capacity, I think of this broader quasi-buzzword in terms of the ecosystem created by its constituent parts. Capacity is comprised of several elements we need to consider to assess and manage our individual and collective ability to create impact:

  • Clarity: Strategy and vision are meant to set a clear path for any effort-even when these exist, the connection between strategic pathways and the specific work to be performed isn’t always outlined in a way that can focus effort and prevent mission drift and overwhelm;
  • Capability: Do we individually and collectively have the time and resources required to achieve what we have set out to accomplish? We are often asked to do more with less, or are seeking support for a broader vision-to avoid burnout and realize intermediate victories we need to scale our work appropriate to the time and funding available;
  • Competency: This is the “is it plugged in” question, as it’s challenging to feel that we have the capacity to achieve our goals if individually or organizationally we don’t have the skills to do so-learning and leadership development is essential AND can be a limiting factor in the near-term;
  • Confidence: Knowing that we are able to do the work we’ve set out (provided we have the competency to do so) is often supported by our ability to make the right decision about how to move forward with a particular project or strategy;
  • Collaboration: To be truly effective, we can’t think about capacity in an individual or institutional vacuum-the reality is that the amount of work we take on and the goals we set are more often than not bold and visionary…working together gracefully is becoming the standard of practice in social change and sustainability work, and across sectors.

Ultimately, determining our capacity is an informed choice about what we can or cannot take on-informed by the elements outlined here and shaped by other external and internal factors. We can all work with greater attention to the Merton quote so that we stay as focused as possible, and in our efforts to heal the world don’t unintentionally “succumb to the violence of our times.”

November 2013