Can’T Not Do: the Social Drive That Changes the World

Editor’s note: This month’s FGN features an excerpt from Social Venture Partners International Founder and former President Paul Shoemaker’s new book, “Can’t Not Do: The Social Drive That Changes the World. Paul will be featured at the National Forum on Family Philanthropy’s Breakfast Plenary on Thursday, October 15th where he will share lessons learned from his many years working side by side with philanthropists and social change leaders around the world. This session will feature a conversation with donor and family philanthropist Connie Ballmer on the drive that propels her family’s giving, and an interactive conversation with the audience on their own giving values and motivations. Paul will also be a featured author at the Family Philanthropy Book Party on Wednesday, October 14th at the Forum.



I can’t not do this.
It’s not that I can do this,
it’s that I can’t not. I don’t
have time to not make an impact.
I could not imagine not.

I don’t remember the first time I heard someone use one of these grammatically incorrect phrases. But I hear these statements consistently, to this day, from educated and literate people. I know you have heard of “can-do” people, they are eager and willing, we admire them and hope our children become like them when they grow up. But many of the world’s regular heroes go way beyond can-do – they can’t not do.

These people make a decision at some point in their lives that there is something, some burning cause, in their world that they have to do something about. That they can’t not do something about, like kindergarten readiness, leadership development, homelessness, environmental challenges, board governance, youth violence, and so many others. Sometimes the cause is a social issue, but it might also be some expertise or personal passion you want to leverage for good in the world. There is a reason, a power, in why they all said something like can’t not do. These people have found a cause that grabbed them and won’t let go. They may face indecision and uncertainty many times along their journey, after all, they are regular people, not superheroes. But they dig deeper for answers, sometimes unconventional, and ultimately find the conviction and dedication to jump in for the long run.

Some of these people have made a career change to commit their lives to their cause, while others have decided they could find and dedicate a few extra hours a week within their busy schedules. Some people bring money to the equation. Some bring street smarts and know-how. Some bring time and motivation. Some bring innovation. Some are willing to connect with others, to go to hard places to find root causes and be humbled in the process. There are many different routes and ways people create change once they have found their can’t not do.

Can’t not do is a catchphrase I’m using to capture the essence, the heart, of these people and their choices in a unique and, I hope, memorable way. It’s the framing for the stories I want to share with you. I am beyond passionate, almost desperate, to tell these peoples’ stories and what I’ve learned from more than a decade and a half of day-in, day-out interaction.

I started sharing parts of my new book with a few friends. After I sent a draft to my friend, Jim Pitofksy, he called his wife, Becky. She said something he hadn’t heard her say before, but he liked it. Way back before they got engaged, her mom apparently told Becky, “Don’t marry the guy you think you can live with. Marry the guy you think you can’t live without.”

As I started sending out drafts to friends to get their feedback, I kept getting more comments like that, using that double negative syntax in one form or another. Some of them told me that phrasing an idea or question in that way makes it stickier, more memorable, visceral, harder to dismiss.

I’ve been so privileged to work at the intersection between philanthropically minded people and nonprofit change agents—a truly unique vantage point, down the street and around the world. My experiences are real-time, nothing theoretical or from a research lab. I’ve worked very hard over the past year to distill all those years and people and experiences, successes and failures into a book that shares inspiration and ideas for all of you that are ready to dig in deeper and more intentionally to help create positive change in your community and world.

As I’ve talked and worked with more and more of these regular heroes, I have realized that they share some fundamental beliefs about the world, possess some common “readinesses” and, over time, have learned some of the same lessons. Can’t Not Do developed out of these commonalities and my experiences, and I believe it can help you translate your ideas and can’t-not-do impulses into action that betters our world.

Can’t Not Do is not, repeat not, a self-help book; it’s a help-the-world book. If this helps you feel better, and it probably should, that’s a nice-to-have side benefit. For me, if this book ends up helping you live a happier, healthier life, that’s good, but that’s  ultimately a means to an end. At the end of the day, I don’t care as much about helping you feel better for yourself as I do empowering you to do better for the world around you. This is a how-to book for people who want to help change the world, a street-readiness dialogue between you and me and you and your inner aspirations. Just in case you think I am some turtleneck-wearing, bongo-drum-beating, bleeding heart, woo-woo guru, I’m not. This is on the ground, in the trenches, real world. It’s messy, human work, full of as many failures as successes. These are authentic stories, vital questions, and unconventional answers that can guide and inspire each of us to realize our fullest potential to create positive social change.

Trees and Labs

On Earth Day 1970, Andy Lipkis went from being your typical 15-year-old Los Angeles teen to a tree-loving activist. By the time he turned 18, he had founded TreePeople 
( and was already organizing tree-planting parties that put thousands of seedlings in the ground around Los Angeles. Eleven years later, for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, he spearheaded the planting of one million trees as a symbolic and tangible way of absorbing pollution in the city. Not one thousand, one million trees. He started with little more than his passion, but 40 years later, he still heads up the organization, now an environmental leader. I first met Andy in 1988. There was something about how deeply committed he was to this cause. I had never met anyone quite like him. He was unique in his energy, his single-focused, sustained drive. He was a regular guy . . . but then again, he wasn’t.

Seventeen years later, I met Suzi LeVine. In some ways, Suzi is a regular gal . . . but then again, she isn’t. She can be a hurricane of energy and began focusing that energy with two brain researchers who were tucked away in a building on the corner of the University of Washington campus. She thought the findings of these researchers could change thousands, maybe millions, of young lives and was not willing to let that opportunity languish without doing what she could to contribute.

Patricia Kuhl and Andy Meltzoff at the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS),
the world’s first brain-imaging facility focused on children, were learning that the amount of brain development in the first five years of life is astounding. About 85 
percent of brain development happens between birth and five years of age, and that percent often shapes a child’s success in life. They also knew that, in the United States, one-third of children show up for their first day of kindergarten two years behind, developmentally. That almost-incomprehensible gap is what the researchers were working to close, but it wasn’t going to get done in academic journals; they had to get their findings and expertise out to the public and into the hands of parents and schools. That’s what Suzi began helping to do in a powerful way. Like Andy, there was something compelling about how deeply committed Suzi was to this cause.

Andy and Suzi are not unique in our world. There are others out there, regular heroes making a significant impact on some of our most intractable social issues. And you probably have never heard of them. Most people making significant change in our world are not famous like Bono or Angelina Jolie or Bill and Melinda Gates. Andy and Suzi are regular people like you and me, like millions of people who want to help change our world. They are regular heroes and they have an overwhelming passion for impacting their community for the better. There are some big problems in our world. To most of us, they seem so large and impassable that we find it hard to imagine a way forward. But, time and time again, we increasingly see regular people making a difference, sometimes the difference. It might look like they are tilting at windmills. The problems are complex, the politics are murky, and the players innumerable. Yet, there are people who take personal responsibility for tackling the issues. In Andy’s case, it would become his life’s work. For Suzi, it was what she could fit in alongside her professional career. In both cases, success came from committed action arising from a deep personal drive.

The World Does Not Lack Solutions

We know how to solve the majority of the world’s most difficult social problems. This is the surprising truth: we already have proven solutions to most of our social challenges. I not only believe this, I’ve watched it play out in schools, neighborhoods, and communities as the founding president of Social Venture Partners International,  a global network of thousands of social innovators, philanthropists, entrepreneurs, and business and community leaders that fund and support social change in nearly 40 cities in eight countries around the world ( I am convinced that coming up with more solutions to our problems is not our world’s greatest challenge, although we do need innovation. Nor is it finding more money for social change, although that always helps.

What we need most is more human and social capital. Simply put, more people committed for the long-term to making a change.

We need more people in the game, committing to that one cause, that one challenge where they feel they can make a real dent. History has proved that if enough people hammer away long enough at a social problem, we start to change our world for the better. And the amount of positive change one human being can help create today has never been greater.

Order your copy of Can’t Not Do: The Compelling Social Drive that Changes our World by Paul Shoemaker here.

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. Read more and order here.



Make sure to check out Paul Shoemaker’s TEDxFargo talk on Connecting the Right People, In the Right Ways


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