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Can't Not Do: The Compelling Social Drive that Changes Our World

ISBN: 978-1-119-13159-5
224 pages
August 2015


With so many social challenges facing our world, trying to effect change feels daunting. The problems are complex, the politics murky, and the players innumerable. Yet, every day there are regular heroes making a significant impact on our most intractable social issues.

“Can’t Not Do” is a catchphrase for the urge that captures the heart of effective social change agents—explaining, in their own words, their passion and drive: “I can’t not do this.” “It’s not that I can do this, it’s that I can’t not.” “I could not imagine not doing something about this issue.” The surprising truth from the trenches is: we already have numerous proven solutions for our many social challenges; what our world needs most, and what most changes our children’s future, are more people prepared and committed to act on their social impulses for the long haul. Innovation helps. Money helps, too. But greater numbers of committed people help the most.

If you feel an internal, persistent call to do more for the world, Can’t Not Do will help you to bridge the gap between “wanting to do” and “doing”—to access the drive of an effective change agent, to break through self-imposed barriers, to learn key principles for success, and to start seeing yourself acting as a change agent.

There is no “secret sauce” someone is born with and no special club needed to be successful at social change. Rather, successful change agents share some fundamental orientations to the world and to their committed cause and, over time, learn certain lessons that help them become more effective. These lessons are reflected in Can’t Not Do in seven seemingly simple questions that provide guideposts and unlock the reader’s potential to make a difference for a social cause they care about.

This isn’t a self-help book. It’s an inspiring narrative intertwined with a “street-readiness” dialogue, between the author and you, between you and your inner aspirations. These are authentic success stories, vital questions, and unconventional answers that can guide and inspire you to realize your greatest potential.

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Table of Contents

Prologue: The Power of Can’t Not Do xi

Introduction: Why Our Social Drives Matter More Now—Multipliers 1


Chapter 1 David Risher, the Lost Key, and Eradicating Illiteracy: Are You a Determined Optimist? 15

What’s the Point? 19

Haven’t Had That “Aha” Moment? 23

This Work Does Not Have to Be an Epic Endeavor 27

So What’s Mine? 29

Optimism + Determination 31

= Grit 34

Chapter 2 Lisa Chin Is Not Doing This to Be Happy: Who Are You at Your Core? 37

What’s the Point? 40

A Cause Connected to Your Core for Someone Else 42

The Right Time and Place 45

Putting Optimism to Work: 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 = 10 49

Chapter 3 Eleuthera Lisch, Stepping Out from Behind the Fourth Wall: Are You Willing to Go to Hard Places? 53

What’s the Point? 56

Some Hard Places Aren’t Places 59

What If You Have to Leave a Hard Place? 62

Failure Never Feels Good to Anyone, Including Me 64

Finding Meaning in a Hard Place 66


Chapter 4 Jeff Tollefson, Losing It All and Becoming Richer: Are You Ready to Be Humble and Humbled? 71

What’s the Point? 75

Power (and Humility?) in Philanthropy 77

Humility Has Power 81

Your Mindset 84

Level 5 Leaders and Humility 85

My Own Lesson in Humility 86

Even the Great Are Humbled 88

Chapter 5 Lori, I Got Married a Little Too Early to the Right Woman: Can You Actively Listen? 91

Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood 91

What’s the Point? 93

Levels of Listening, Where Are You? 96

You Hear Interesting Things When You Listen 97

Chapter 6 Suzi Levine, Learning When Not to Raise Her Hand: Do You Believe 1 + 1 = 3? 103

What’s the Point? 106

1 + 1 = 3 with Connectors 108

Learning to Connect 109

Pacing the Floor Like an Expectant Father 111

Director or Connector? 114


Chapter 7 Heidi Breeze-Harris, a Sick Pregnant Lady with an Idea: What Is Your Can’t Not Do? 119

What’s the Point? 124

A Different Kind of Career Dedicated to “Can’t Not Do” 125

Can’t Not Do for Others 126

Can’t Not Do Takes Time, A Long Time 129

What Is It in Your Life That You Can’t Not Do? 130

Chapter 8 Why Your Social Drives Matter More Now: The Equation 133

The Equation 135

What’s Possible 137

Conclusion Surrendering to the Intention 141

A Meaningful versus a Happy Life 142

Start the Journey 146

My Family, Where It All Starts . . . and Ends 146


Appendix 1 20 Questions for a Personal Checklist: Finding Your Focus 151

Appendix 2 20 Suggestions for a Personal Checklist: How You Do This Work Well 157

Appendix 3 Which Stories Fit You Best? 161

Appendix 4 Additional Resources for Getting Started: SVP Stuff, Books, Websites, and Blogs 163

Appendix 5 Chapter-by-Chapter Summary 167

Notes 175

About the Author 181

Acknowledgments 183

Index 187

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Author Information

If you're out to change the world, PAUL SHOEMAKER is there to connect you to people, ideas, and organizations that matter. Shoemaker is the Founding President of Social Venture Partners International—a global network of thousands of social entrepreneurs, philanthropists, and business and community leaders in 39 cities and 8 countries. With insights from 17 years of this unique vantage point, he is a global thought leader on how individuals can be effective social change agents. In 2011 and 2012, Shoemaker was named one of the "Top 50 Most Influential People in the Nonprofit Sector" by The NonProfit Times.

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Press Release

August 31, 2015
Can't Not Do: The Compelling Social Drive that Changes Our World

What can I do to change the world? The common reaction to that question is to feel that it’s futile, that the world is just too big and complex to affect change. But what about the people who are making a difference every day? We regularly hear about everyday heroes who are making significant impact on daunting social issues. How do they do it?

Paul Shoemaker, Founding President of Social Venture Partners International—a network of thousands of leaders supporting social change in nearly 40 cities and 8 countries around the world—has spent the last 17 years connecting people and organizations that are on the same journeys to change the world.

In CAN’T NOT DO: The Compelling Social Drive That Changes Our World, Shoemaker shares the lessons he’s learned during his career bringing together the people who found their own “can’t not do” and are contributing to a better world. CAN’T NOT DO provides the tools and answers to convert positive intention into positive action, not only with compelling narratives of people who have done it, but by distilling the core lessons learned by successful social change leaders to become more effective. Through foundational questions, personal evaluations, and concrete instruction, Shoemaker shares the necessary wisdom to achieve real progress.

Shoemaker argues that we don’t have to be famous or wealthy to make a deep difference. We have the solutions, technology, and resources necessary to fight many of the world’s largest social problems. The most vital missing link needed is more people – committed people—who can marshal resources with passion to make change happen. “Because of the world we live in, full of social multipliers, one person can have such positive impact,” he says.

Shoemaker tells dozens of inspiring stories of change makers who were determined to follow a passion, their “can’t not do,” and lead for change. Some do this full time, others, just a few hours a week:

  • After an eye-opening trip to Ecuador, David Risher found a padlocked building in an orphanage. “That’s our library,” explained the orphanage leader. David’s children carried e-readers during their trip, and he was struck by the orphans who had the same drive to learn as his own kids, but without the basic tools needed to read. He found his “can’t not do” and founded Worldreader, an organization that uses technology to bring reading materials to areas where they’re most needed. Worldreader is helping fight illiteracy by helping half a million schoolchildren in 50 developing countries start reading.
  • After attending a conference on eradicating fistula, a painful condition developed during childbirth that affects 2 million mothers around the developing world, Heidi Breeze thought this was a terrible injustice that needed to “go away.” Ironically, Heidi, who was one month pregnant when she attended that conference, went through a harrowing childbirth experience herself. Without emergency intervention, she would have likely suffered the same fate as the women she was now determined to help.  Heidi became inspired to found One by One. She helped raise over $3.5 million for fistula treatment, prevention, reintegration and education.  Those funds educated 300,000 rural people, screened over 4,500 women for fistula, and have helped repair over 2,000 women.
  • Kerry McClenahan is a working mother who founded and owns a communications consulting business in Portland, Oregon. She doesn’t have a lot of extra time.  At a meeting in 2010 she learned for the first time that over one third of the five year olds in the Portland area enter kindergarten academically behind their peers by two years. She felt his was a huge injustice, when the odds are stacked against these children so early. She found her can’t not do at that meeting. She had never felt that kind of passion for any topic or outside interest in her life. She reprioritized a few things to make room for something she found more important and rewarding. Since then, she has consistently spent a few hours a week helping Portland’s Ready for Kindergarten Initiative, leveraging her marketing and communications skills to help improve their community outreach and messaging.

These are just three of the many agents of change who Shoemaker profiles in Can’t Not Do. In telling their stories, Shoemaker wants readers to push past their wall of doubt and act on their own inner urges to make a difference.

To get started, Shoemaker proposes that we answer seven questions that get to the heart of why certain people reach their greatest potential for social change. These questions are explored in detail throughout the book:

  1. Are you a determined optimist?  Determined optimists are people who believe a solution to a given social problem is possible. They are realistic, focused, flexible and adaptive, and have a resilient attitude. Tip: you only need one can’t not do at a time. Focus and go deep.
  2. Who are you at your core? Look in your roots.  Look through your life at the experiences that had the most effect on who you are today. What sends that “chill up your spine?” Talk to others and ask them what defines you. Take notes, ask for feedback and find the patterns that will lead to what you feel optimistic about.
  3. Are you willing to go to hard places? Shoemaker feels this is the most important of the seven questions. People have fears and insecurities about this type of work, and that’s OK. Social change is hard and takes you out of your comfort zone.
  4. Are you ready to be humble and humbled? Authentically humble people have a sort of ego-less quality, a willingness to be vulnerable, to ask for help, to say “I don’t know.” This work is not for the faint-hearted nor for the big egos that can’t accept more than one dose of humility. If you don’t get humbled more than once, you’re probably still on the sidelines, not yet in the real game of hard, good social change.
  5. Can you actively listen? Being a great listener is one of the most powerful assets a person can possess. It is a skill that can be learned. Every time you listen deeply, you do more to create another leader for the cause. You help others see their personal power and engender trust.
  6. Do you believe 1+1=3? Globalization, connectedness and technology have accelerated the impact one person can have more than ever before. The biggest challenge is not know-how, not even money. It’s connecting the right people with the right ideas in the right way. During 17 years at SVP, Shoemaker and his team engaged over 4,000 partners and worked with over 300 nonprofits. Connecting creates more potential, more possibilities, more relationships.
  7. What is your can’t not do? This is the fundamental question. Some of the people profiled in the book shifted their whole careers, others found a few hours a week for an extended period of time, and everything in between. Helping create change is not for “extraordinary” people. We can all make a significant impact if we’re optimistic and committed. What lessons can be taken away from each of the people in Can’t Not Do that can be adapted and applied to our own lives?

Paul Shoemaker wrote Can’t Not Do to get our attention, to provide inspiration and motivation and provide pathways for action. To do, not just think; to act, not just plan.

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