Sustaining the Triangle’s growth and making it a better place to live, work and play will depend on how well individuals and organizations can adapt to sweeping, rapid change and work together to fix the region’s most pressing social problems.

That will require the willingness to take risks, make mistakes, share decision-making, learn from successes and failures alike, and foster a new generation of community leaders. Those messages were the focus of What Matters, an annual event hosted by Triangle Community Foundation on April 1 at the Raleigh Convention Center.

“Nothing great is ever accomplished easily,” author Dan Heath, senior fellow at the Center for Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University, said in his keynote speech at the event. “But together, we’ll make it possible.”

The event included workshops on collaboration and the next wave of community leaders, and the presentation of $25,000 to collaborative that won a competition for an innovative idea addressing community needs.

Struggling amidst prosperity

The Triangle is home to stark contrasts, leaders of Triangle Community Foundation told the 450 civic and business leaders from throughout the Triangle who attended the event.

“In the midst of prosperity, many among us struggle daily to survive and thrive,” said Lacy Presnell III, chair of the Foundation’s board of directors and a lawyer at Raleigh firm Burns, Day & Presnell.

Lori O’Keefe, the Foundation’s president, said the Triangle is the fastest-growing region in the U.S. and ranks fourth in economic growth. Raleigh is the sixth-most-affordable city to live in, Durham is among the 10 most-educated cities, and the region’s quality of life ranks highest in the U.S., she said.

Yet four in 10 public-school students in the region are enrolled in a program for lunch that is free or at a reduced price, one in five children live in poverty, and nearly half of all home renters spend 30 percent or more of their incomes on housing costs, she said. And nearly one in five public school students who enter ninth grade do not graduate in four years, she said, while people of color earn $7 less an hour than whites.

“As proud as we are of this region,” she said, “we must not lose sight of the real challenges we face as we continue to grow.”

People and change

Change is inevitable, and making the best of it can be hard work, said Heath, founder of the Change Academy at Duke, co-founder of publishing firm Thinkwell, and co-author with his brother Chip Heath of three New York Times bestsellers, including Decisive, Switch and Made to Stick.

People tend to resist change as a result of tension in the human brain between its rational, conscious and deliberative systems and its emotional, unconscious and automatic systems, he said.

He likened that conflict to a small person, representing the rational part of the brain, who is seated on and trying to ride a large elephant, representing the emotional part of the brain.

“The elephant likes the way things worked yesterday because that’s what’s comfortable,” Heath said, citing a comfort with business as usual as a key reason that “community change is hard.”

Yet while trying to steer, the rational part of the brain also has flaws, including “decision paralysis,” he said. “The rider tends to overcomplicate things.”

And despite its reluctance to take risks, the emotional side of the brain can be a source of “enormous strength” and is “responsible for the most basic urge to change, the desire to move to make some progress, to grow,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine something happening without the elephant being part of it.”

Framework for change

Making change happen requires “crystal clear direction about where we’re headed,” motivation for the emotional side of the brain, and the need to “shape the path,” make it easy to “get to from point A to point B, remove the obstacles, create a culture conducive to change,” Heath said.

He cited a Stanford University study of a food drive in a single dormitory there. Testing the hypothesis that “there are nice people and they give, and there are jerks and they don’t,” the study canvassed the dorm to rank all students from the most to least kind.

Then it tested two versions of a letter promoting the food drive, with one version providing only basic instructions, and the other suggesting that, if students could not figure out what or how to donate, they should bring a can of beans and pick a time to drop off the can. The second version provided a map showing where to drop off the donation.

Among students who received the basic instructions, eight percent of the those identified as “saints” in the canvas and none identified as “jerks” donated food. Among those who received the detailed instructions, 42 percent of the “saints” and 25 percent of the “jerks” made a donation. Those findings suggest the food drive was “three times better off betting on a jerk with a map than a saint without one,” Heath said.

In times of change, he said, people are quick to put people “in buckets,” treating them as “saints and jerks,” he said.

“A crucial lesson for leaders of change,” he said, is that “when the path around us changes, people change, so we’ve got to be thoughtful about shaping the path.”

Ideal vs. real

The social sector often gets so bogged down focusing on its ideal goal that it sometimes fails to see what is real and can lead to an effective solution, Heath said.

He cited the problem of predatory payday lenders and the response by advocates of the poor who promote overarching solutions such as financial-literacy training and connecting borrowers to banks.

Those advocates, Heath says, often fail to see that a poor person who borrows money from a payday lender simply may need money immediately to address an urgent need, such as repairing a car to get to work and avoid losing a job.

Rather than just trying to fix systemic problems that lead to predatory payday lending, he said, a simpler tactic for advocates might be to set up an alternative payday loan shop “where we don’t exploit customers.”

Shaping the path

A key to finding effective solutions to change is to “get better at meeting people where they are, shaping the path for them, not shaping the path” preferred by many advocates of change, Heath said.

He cited a challenge faced at the airport in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, where the men’s room had a problem with “spillage” that was “caused by poor aim.”

After considering a range of solutions, the committee decided to hire an artist who etched the likeness of a housefly into every urinal in the men’s room.

Suggesting that the male psyche tended to see a target around the etching, which served as the bull’s eye, Heath said spillage in the men’s room immediately fell by 90 percent.

“We’ve got to shape the path to make change a little easier,” he said.

What works

The rational side of the brain “adores problems and problem-solving, likes to hash things out forever in meetings, and nothing ever happens,” Heath said. “We’re so good at this, so instinctively drawn to this question, that it blinds us to another question that’s every bit as useful: What’s working and how do we clone it?” People tend to focus on what’s bad rather than what’s good, he said.

A landmark psychological study, for example, found that, shown two photos, people spend more time looking at the less positive scene; that people, asked to record their own experiences, tend to more spontaneously record the “bad things;” and that people, after learning details about the lives of friends and colleagues, tend to remember the negative details.

“This bias sometimes blinds us to successes that are sometimes right in front of us,” he said.

Bright spots

In the 1970s, Heath said, Jerry Sternin, then director of the new office of Save the Children in Vietnam, wanted to fight the problem of child nutrition. Rather than address the problem’s root causes by trying to reform the education system, cure poverty and provide access to clean water, Heath said, Sternin focused on how families in a single village actually were feeding their children.

First, he gathered data on all the children in the village, including their height, weight and age. Based on that data, he identified the children who were well-nourished for their age. Then he studied the parents of those children, watching how they prepared meals.

Most families in the village served their children two bowls of white rice a day, but the “bright-spot” mothers divided the same amount of rice into more meals during the day, making it easier for their children to digest more rice at each meal than the other children who consumed larger helpings but whose digestive systems could not absorb all the rice they ate. The “bright-spot” mothers also added small bits of other food to the rice. Sternin then invited the “bright-spot” mothers to share the way they were preparing meals with other mothers in the village. Six months later, two-thirds of children in the village were better nourished. And after word of the success spread, leaders of other villages traveled to learn how the mothers in the village were preparing food.

Eventually, the more effective approach reached over 2.2 million Vietnamese in 265 villages, Heath said.

Sternin “did not cure child malnutrition in Vietnam,” Heath said. “But he put an enormous dent in the problem with a meager budget, and never solved any of the problems allegedly responsible for child malnutrition. That’s the power of looking at bright spots.”

So community leaders should be on the lookout for bright spots. And rather than “spending all your time obsessing about problems,” he said, “steal some time to think about successes.”

Motivating the ‘herd’

A well-defended finding from social psychology is that “behavior is contagious,” a conclusion that supports the “obligation” that it is “not enough to think about our own needs, our own issues,” Heath said.

Heath screened a short video clip from an old Candid Camera-like television show. In the video, an an actor enters an elevator and then stands facing the rear. Another person, who is not aware he is on camera, then enters the elevator, facing the open door. But when several more actors enter and, with the first actor, stand facing the rear, the person who facing the open door turns around to face the rear.

The video clip includes several variations of elevator behavior. In one, the individual who is not aware of the camera mimics the behavior of the actors as, in sequence, they face the rear, then turn to the left, then to the right. In another, the non-actor takes his hat off and then puts it on again as the actors in the elevator put on or take off their hats.

When it comes to making change happen, Heath said, “it is incumbent on us to think about what signals we’re sending to the herd. What behavior do we want to make contagious?”

Learning from mistakes

Living in a time when “impact has to trump independence,” Heath said, collaboration is essential.

“Alone, separately, we can fight,” he said. “Separately, we can triumph.”

Yet tackling big problems through collaboration, he said, can run the risk of failure.

“The road to success usually runs through failure,” he said.

People who want to quit smoking, for example, typically try to quit five times or more before they succeed, he said.

“If we want to succeed, we need permission to fail, and funders need to give us permission to fail.”

Success also requires sharing stories or about failures, he said.

TROSA, a Durham nonprofit that provides residential treatment for people with substance-abuse problems and has created businesses that employ them, started a grocery that “never got off the ground,” Heath said. After sharing stories about the failed business, TROSA later opened a thrift store in space that formerly had been used by a Walmart store.

“How will we respond to failure?” Heath asked. “By showing each other our scars.”

Working together

The problems communities are trying to tackle, Heath said, are “daunting, long-standing, will not yield to easy solutions.” So directions for the “rider,” or the rational part of the brain, need to be “crystal clear,” he said.

There needs to be a reason for the “elephant,” or the emotional part of the brain, “to make the journey, often by being part of the herd,” he said. “And we have to shape the path, making it easy for people to be part of it.”

While it may not be apparent from day to day, Heath said, big changes do take place over time.

The school dropout rate has dropped 45 percent since 1980, for example, while the teen pregnancy rate has declined 35 percent, he said, and drunk driving fatalities have fallen 33 percent, the divorce rate is down 25 percent, smoking among adults is down 41 percent, and infant mortality is dow 40 percent.

“On any given day, it feels like we’re getting nowhere because we can’t see we’re part of society moving successful change,” he said.

The key, he said, is collaboration.

“Nothing great is ever accomplished easily,” he said. “But together, we’ll make it possible.”

Fostering collaboration

The What Matters event included a workshop on collaboration led by Third Place Studio in Durham. Meredith Emmett, president of Third Place Studio, said collaboration begins with “purpose” and must stay focused “on the why,” on the reason “everybody has come to the table.” Effective collaboration also requires that every participating organization has “a part to play” and must “get something in return worth what they are giving.”

Good collaboration also must include a “clear process for making decisions,” including communication among the parties between meetings.”

Stacy Bluth, executive director of the Hope Center at Pullen, a Raleigh nonprofit that works with young people aging out of foster care, said the agency is one of nearly 20 that have participated in an initiative led by United Way to improve outcomes for those young people.

What matters most in a collaboration, she said, are the clients. And participating groups need to avoid common pitfalls of collaboration, she said. Partners should make sure collaborating is the right thing to do, that they want to work with the other partners, and that they establish mutual respect and trust with one another.And by focusing on and involving the client in discussions about the collaboration, “differences in agencies and personalities go away,” she said. “It changes outcomes. If it’s their collaborative, they work harder. It’s the clients’ collaborative.”

Cultivating leaders

A separate workshop focused on the needs and ideas of the next wave of community leaders. Participants talked about challenges that young leaders face in the nonprofit world, and suggested possibilities to begin to develop new leaders that ranged from paid internships and “reverse mentoring” that matches employees of different generations, to service on nonprofit boards and the development of strategies for “on-boarding” new leaders to an organization.

Nonprofits should be thinking about how to encourage young people to give; how to make them feel supported; how to raise community awareness about the opportunity for young people to get involved; and how to inspire and prepare young people to be leaders, and help them measure their progress.

Awarding innovation

At the What Matters event, to promote and celebrate collaboration to address community needs, Triangle Community Foundation presented its fourth annual Innovation Award to Bull City Cool Food Hub Collaboration.

The $25,000 award will help support a center to process and distribute food at hub, which aims to provide a market for local farmers and a source of food for agencies that serve people in need. And thanks to some of its donors, the Foundation also announced it will give $7,000 to the other four collaborative groups that were semifinalist in the Innovation Award competition, which attracted proposals from over 50 collaborative groups.