the water we swim in

the water we swim in

We recently passed Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s new book A Path Appears around the office. From the publisher: “With scrupulous research and on-the-ground reporting, the authors assay the art and science of giving, determine some of today’s most successful local and global initiatives to fight inequality, and evaluate particularly effective forms of help such as early childhood education.” As we took turns reading the book and flipped those final pages, we were each struck by different chapters. This post is the second in a series inspired by the book. Read the first post.


After reading A Path Appears, this was the quote that really sunk its teeth into me and wouldn’t let go:

“To be harnessed effectively, idealism needs to be grounded in a practical sense of how to get results and a grassroots understanding of the lay of the land.”

Idealism is something we see in nearly every social entrepreneurial effort and in the work of so many of our clients. They—and we—believe the work they’re doing will make a difference.

Idealism is tricky, though, and I’m glad Kristof and WuDunn mention it. At my worst, I can get swept away by or grow cynical towards grandiose idealism. The need for harnessing idealism in an effective way cannot be overstated—practicality and cultural understanding are vital to seeing idealism succeed.


It’s interesting that you mention being cynical towards grandiose idealism, because I think I’m also guilty of that. Too many people, especially young social entrepreneurs, think they have found the next big idea that would solve one or more of the world’s major issues. But helping people is harder than it looks. When I was younger, I thought I understood the word idealism and I used it often. After taking some time to look at it again, I’m not so sure anymore.

Oxford Dictionary defines idealism as “the unrealistic belief in or pursuit of perfection.” It almost sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Does this also mean an idealist is someone who is unrealistic and impractical? I thought we referred to our global thought leaders as visionaries. There should be more hope and fight in us, rather than playing a feeble role that sets us up for failure.

Idealism is usually a term applied to an idea, objective, or plan considered to be unrealistic. Does this then mean the global elimination of poverty and injustice is idealistic and, therefore, not worth fighting for? These perceptions of idealism, as they relate to international relations, may be ambiguous, but they probably trace their roots back to some discouraging interpretations of human nature and/or diverse cultures that coincide with a historic judgment on the difficulty of peaceably achieving radical change in world affairs.


I agree we tend to think in idealistic terms when we imagine a global solution to a nasty problem. But I think idealism has its place, especially if it’s rooted within a community. Kristof and WuDunn portray so many heart-wrenching failures by social entrepreneurs who lacked the cultural aptitude for their solutions. Understanding the needs of the people is one thing, but developing a solution that’s birthed from the community is another.

The culture piece reminds me of this parable by the saintly David Foster Wallace: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’”

Culture is the water we swim in—it surrounds us so wholly that we are usually unaware it’s there. This is, I think, the larger issue—even bigger than idealistic altruism. Often, people move so quickly to solutions that we forget to pause and take in the people with whom we are working. People can be blind to the culture of others, and may automatically assume they live under the same cultural rules that we do.

With your travel and aid work around the globe, I imagine you have tons of experience in this very thing.


I have been lucky enough to visit many places, meet incredible people, work on a variety of projects, and experience many things in my life, but progress never came without communication and connection. It was important to enrich my time by immersing myself in the local culture. I was respected more by the community if I wore the local fabric, swallowed a plateful of fufu, joined the dancing circle, learned phrases in the local language, and made an effort to visit with people in the community.

I first travelled to Africa when I was 18 years old and, I have to admit, I was both naive and idealistic. I truly thought I could change the world. I spent the summer volunteering at the Buduburam Liberian Refugee Camp just outside Accra, Ghana, which easily became one of the most transformational experiences of my life.

I remember one incident very vividly: One morning, I was walking from the volunteer house to the organization’s main office. Rugged, red dirt paths radiated through the camp, connecting humans with homes, barbershops with bars, and schools with sewer streams. I had my head down, paying close attention to the bumps and dips in the street so I wouldn’t trip. I must have been walking fast and dodging people along the way, much like I normally did on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston where I went to college, when a hand grabbed my arm. I looked at the person holding me and she said, “Polé, polé.” The phrase meant to “slow down,” but more in the sense that I needed to lift up my head, ease my pace, smile at the people I was passing, and take in the colorful culture around me.

We may be aid workers, social entrepreneurs, researchers or travelers—all with a purpose or plan—but we’ll never get where we want to go by moving fast on a course toward a pre-determined destination. We must learn to observe, listen and engage with the culture before we try to inject ourselves and change it. From pilfered Toms shoes to abandoned flush toilets and poorly designed farming techniques to unsustainable microfinance programs, I am well aware that big ideas come and go. The ideas that last and influence are those that are woven in the fabric of the culture.


Ideas woven in the fabric of the culture is a beautiful way of describing the work of the social entrepreneur. The greater we are able to root ourselves into the culture, the greater we can respond with ideas that find traction within the community.

I love how we often joke at Aggregate that “Anthropologist” should be added to our job description. So much of what we do is developing that grassroots understanding of a culture or community. We study communities—pockets of people struggling with a common problem and striving toward a common goal. Through our study, we are able to discover solutions that respond to the real needs of a community rather than just meeting the desires of our clients.

I find that it’s by using an anthropological lens to view our work that we’re able to turn idealism into reality. It roots our idealism within the community we’re working for.


At Aggregate, we seek deeper explanations that help influence our ideas, recommendations, and proposals. We enrich our work—and, therefore, our clients’ work—with our intimate understanding of a certain group, organization, community, or issue area. Ultimately, this helps inform our strategic approaches to communicate value propositions that make philanthropic efforts effective.

Each day, I’m blown away by the caliber of this team. Professionally, we are able to match our altruism with practicality, and build upon a company culture and tradition of strong realistic idealism.

the empathy cycle

the empathy cycle

We recently passed Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s new book A Path Appears around the office. From the publisher: “With scrupulous research and on-the-ground reporting, the authors assay the art and science of giving, determine some of today’s most successful local and global initiatives to fight inequality, and evaluate particularly effective forms of help such as early childhood education.” As we took turns reading the book and flipped those final pages, we were each struck by different chapters. This post is the first in a series inspired by the book. Stay tuned for two more posts, coming soon.

I’ve written before about why I and my colleagues choose to do mission-driven work, and Alison recently shared why Aggregate makes donations throughout the year. But what are our underlying motivations for these donations and deeds? Do people give because it’s the right thing to do, or because it makes them look good, or because they enjoy helping others?

I make a yearly personal donation to the Michael J. Fox Foundation because my grandfather, his brother, and my great grandfather all died of complications related to Parkinson’s disease. It is something I wish no family to ever go through again and I know it’s a long battle to get to a cure. And so, I do what I can to ensure a cure is eventually found. Similarly, I dedicate time and money to environmental conservation groups because I care about the health of our world and living creatures, and personally value being in nature.

Personal experiences often determine how I spend time and money, too. Last year I became a mom, which is challenging under even the best circumstances; you can imagine why I started zeroing in on ways to help other mothers and single parents. Now I can relate to and help carry the load for a subset of humanity that I didn’t previously empathize with.

More research is pointing to the fact that channeling money toward others—not ourselves—means the giver walks away happier, and healthier. Kristof and WuDunn peel back some of these layers in their chapter on the neuroscience of giving, citing multiple studies which reveal lower stress and longer lives of people who volunteer and donate. I wonder if our proximity to a cause also affects how we feel after giving time, money, or resources.

A weaker connection might reduce motivation to participate, in my case, prioritizing causes based on where I live, and what I’ve lived. So, then, what about causes that aren’t close to home, or the heart?

Some people balk at the idea of “outsiders” becoming involved in communities that aren’t their own. We’ve all heard, “If it’s not happening in your backyard, it’s none of your business.” I am a straight, white, cisgender female from a middle class family. I don’t fall within any minority or at-risk population. I did not experience racism directed at me growing up, or harassment and abuse based on my sexual preference, though many of my friends did. I will never experience many of the hardships so many people face worldwide, such as not having access to health care, well-funded schools, and healthy food. I recognize my privilege.

Why do I care about ensuring equal rights and opportunities for at-risk and minority populations if I am not a part of that population? I contribute to organizations working to eradicate these disparities because I have empathy for the people living with these issues each day. It is important for the health and stability of our communities for everyone to have equal opportunities and representation. Everyone should have access to these things I consider basic human rights, and as an ally, I have the power to follow the charge of those living these experiences to see where and how I can help. 


You’re a living example of caring beyond yourself to look after essential issues, even if you’re not in the epicenter or on the periphery of those issues. So many organizations hustle every day to reframe stories and statistics to make them more relatable to potential donors who feel removed. In the midst of feeling overwhelmed, lending words and resources can provide us with a sense of productivity, as opposed to doing nothing and feeling guilty as a result.

This is why I genuinely struggle with those who take carving knives to altruistic intentions, which can never be purely selfless. Let’s be clear—I’m very in favor of of the “warm glow” theory of giving. It sounds like you are, too. It builds empathy, a basic building block of humanity.

Here’s the rub: empathy and happiness that results from giving is too often a luxury. While we bask in the afterglow of our good deeds, those trapped in the labyrinth of meeting basic needs can’t always afford to be empathetic. And according to the research I mentioned above, that exasperating cycle means shorter and less healthy lives for those who aren’t in a position to give.

Violence and disparities in health and education can chip away at empathy, or jeopardize it all together. One of the biggest and most heart wrenching recent examples of the importance of empathy, particularly as it relates to violence in America, can be found in the Mike Brown and Eric Garner cases. Perhaps if there was more empathy for and within these communities in general, resulting in more action and policy change across the board, these events never would have occurred. Wishful thinking, perhaps, but a compelling thought nonetheless.

While empathy is difficult to measure, organizations like Ashoka are working to study the long-term effects of encouraging empathy and trauma-informed care. In schools where outcomes are being studied, there have been reports of reduced bullying and ethnic and racial tensions, increased capacity for conflict resolution and openness to others, and increased attendance (source). It is critical to social and economic security to ensure we are teaching the younger generations empathy and setting them up for success—particularly at-risk youth who may not be able to afford empathy and generosity toward others when their own basic needs aren’t being met.

More and more, it seems empathy is a privilege. If empathy and the ability for action are a privilege, what better way to use that privilege than to help others?

why we choose this work

why we choose this work

Why did you choose your job? Is it the family business or is it something you dreamed of doing since you were a child? Is it something you never expected to do, but somehow here you are?

Before I even knew what a veterinarian was, I wanted to “fix animals so they could live forever.” I was lucky enough to grow up with animals in my life since birth and quickly formed a bond with all of our four-legged family members through the years. Two years into my biology degree at college, tragedy (or fate?) hit, and Organic Chemistry forced me to re-evaluate my life goals. At the time I was convinced my world was falling apart, but little did I know I was finally heading in the direction—it just took some painful shoves from the universe.

I soon realized I should make a career out of my volunteer experiences, and could spend my days helping people in my community and around the world. I studied political science and history, studied abroad, and later went on to study environmental sustainability and international development as part of my Master’s program, picking up communications skills along the way.

I choose to work in this field because I truly believe storytellers can change the world. Films can affect policy change. Books can start conversations that challenge long-held personal beliefs. Images can spark a nationwide protest. There are no limits to what storytelling can do, and I’m proud to take part.

As we celebrate Aggregate’s third birthday this month, I asked some of my colleagues why they choose to do mission-driven work. Check out their answers below.

Two of my role models—my mother and my grandmother—have always taught me to stand up for what’s fair and what’s right. Watching their tireless efforts led me on a path of mission-driven work that began in childhood.

As a community activist and Local School Council president, my mom dedicated much of her adult life to fighting for other families in our blue-collar Chicago neighborhood. As a kid, I spent many nights watching contentious school board meetings, and my mom always encouraged my involvement. As a very opinionated sixth-grader, I began writing columns explaining the issues, such as open versus closed campus, to my elementary school audience—often opposing my mother’s stance.

My grandmother is a Holocaust survivor who, at the age of 18, moved to the United States alone and started a new life, having lost her parents at Auschwitz. Through all these struggles, she has maintained a powerfully positive attitude. Although it is difficult for her, she is dedicated to telling her story, giving dozens of talks each year, and ensuring her message of tolerance reaches as many people as possible.

I come from good stock.

Though my goals fluctuate and evolve from day to day, there are three things that will always remain: be relevant, be present, and be helpful. I’ve spent years traveling for work and for pleasure, from the poorest countries in West Africa to towns ravaged by tornadoes in the Midwest, and I’m sometimes consumed by how unrewarding this world can be, how many stories there are to tell about it, and what more could be done to change it.

When I was 18 years old, I traveled to Accra, Ghana, and spent the summer living and working in one of West Africa’s largest refugee camps—not so fondly referred to as Little Liberia. This was probably the most transformational experience of my life, and one that kept me on a path of altruism and philanthropy. Now, I am always searching for ways I can connect with the people around me and foster creative projects that serve a purpose for the community.

They were the people for whom John Steinbeck wrote and Woodie Guthrie sang. Dorothea Lange captured their lives on her Graflex camera. My father was among the migrant workers in California’s Central Valley following the Dust Bowl. He was an American tri-racial born to a 15-year old single mother and lived in deep poverty throughout his childhood. Against the odds, he went from being a migrant worker to being a well-respected researcher and scholar in his field. Stories like his don’t come about without the agency of many people who believe in social justice and creating equal opportunities. Most were not as famous as Steinbeck, Guthrie, and Lange, but the impact of their collective actions had a profound effect on my father’s life, and the lives of subsequent generations. All of those people have died, and recently, my father, too—but their powerful examples building an egalitarian society live on in a very personal way for me. That’s one reason I consider it a great privilege to do mission-driven work for fairer and better futures.

In college, I took a class that was essentially Protesting 101. Our soft-spoken but brilliant professor used the The Battle in Seattle as our central lesson in understanding grassroots organization and decentralized power. Throughout the class, I discovered how people with little power were able to amplify their voice, make a ruckus, and be heard. It was one of those sticky ideas that roll around in your head and keep surfacing in unexpected ways. It didn’t move me to become an anarchist but it did shift my trajectory for the work I would do.

This led me to Aggregate, where I get to help people and organizations make a ruckus and be heard (blocks away from the 1999 protest!) I choose to do mission-driven work because I want to partner with people who have stories and voices we need to listen to, and I want to do all I can to help them be heard.
The kind of work I do generally helps make other people look good, and I don’t want those people to be in it for themselves. It’s a much more meaningful use of my time to offer communications support to those who are helping others be better at life. Sleep comes easier if I can contribute to building sanctuaries and springboards for those that can’t always do it on their own.
films are films: measuring the social impact of documentary films

films are films: measuring the social impact of documentary films

Earlier this year, the firm that I founded—Aggregate—partnered with the organizers of the True/False Film Fest to conduct a survey of the filmmakers whose films screened at the Fest in 2014. True/False is a well-regarded documentary film festival, particularly among filmmakers who often talk about how well the festival organizers treat them and the obvious regard the organizers have for the art of storytelling.

The goal of our survey was to understand how these filmmakers felt about their films’ potential contribution to social change, any intentions they had to capitalize on that potential, as well as their views regarding measuring the social impact the films could have. While True/False is not specifically a social change documentary film festival, of those who responded to the survey, 72 percent believed that the film they screened at the 2014 Fest could contribute to social change.

As we were getting ready to share the outcomes of the survey, The New York Times reported on Participant Media’s efforts to establish an index that would enable them—and others who invest in social change films—to determine which films “spur activism” and those, seemingly, which do not. The Participant Index, based on my understanding from the article, measures the ability of a film to inspire “emotional involvement” as well as its ability to “provoke action.” So, while a film may generate an intense emotional response, if it does not also lead the audience to take action, it would generate a lower score and, perhaps, not receive the support of funders that want to invest in action that they believe will lead to social change.

It should not be a surprise to you that the filmmakers we survey expressed concern about measuring the social impact of their films: 66 percent were opposed to using metrics. And, while I believe very strongly in measuring impact, I share some of their concerns. If the “effectiveness” of storytelling is, for example, defined by actions taken by audience members in the short term, this could lead to a bias toward investing in didactic films (“This is how you should feel and this is what you should do.”) about issues with relatively clear paths toward resolution. And that’s not good storytelling.

My concern is that the path being taken by foundations and other funders of social change storytelling to demonstrate a return on investment—while paved with good intentions—has made a wrong turn.

Despite their belief in the potential of their films to contribute to social change, 56 percent of the filmmakers we surveyed indicated that they had no plans to do outreach specifically to increase the social impact of their films. Why? 42 percent said they didn’t have the time or budget to do so and 15 percent said they simply didn’t know how.

This was not a surprise. A few years ago—during a panel at True/False on social change films—I heard Steve James, the award-winning filmmaker of Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters and the newly released Life Itself, tell the crowd that, despite the social issues addressed in many of his films, he was a filmmaker and not an advocate. He felt strongly that he should leave it to those who know how to make change happen to determine how to use his films to do so.

What I believe is that (more) foundations should invest (more) in outreach strategies for documentary films to take (better) advantage of their emotional impact. Filmmakers could be involved in the development of these strategies, but advocates with knowledge of the issues, the influencers and the solutions—including foundations’ current grant recipients—should design them. And I believe we should measure the impact of THOSE investments, using metrics that assess REAL outcomes.

Yes, let’s measure the emotional impact of a film: the anger, the sadness, the sense of injustice, or the empathy or admiration for those who are suffering or who are creating change. But do not let us dismiss films that do not, on their own, provoke immediate action as being less than integral to social change. Think of the stories that have introduced you to new ideas, new worlds and new people. Think of the stories that have challenged your previously held beliefs. They are no less valuable to society because you didn’t sign a petition after viewing them.

There was an intriguing line in the New York Times article about the issues that were most likely to compel Participant audiences to take action. “Stories about animal rights and food production, it turned out, were the most likely to provoke individual action. But tales about economic inequality—not so much.”

In developing social change strategies to mobilize people to take action, one of the most important things to do is to understand where people are in relationship to the issue being addressed. Are they aware of it? Do they care about it? If they do care, do they understand the factors that allow it to persist or which led it to exist in the first place? If they do understand, do they believe that they—as individuals—have the capacity to impact those factors?

Sure, stories about animal rights and food production are more likely to provoke individual action—because people think they, as an individual, can stop going to SeaWorld or can start shopping locally. But ending economic disparities? Most audiences need a little help to believe they alone can do anything to have an impact on what most of us perceive as an intractable problem. Enabling people to understand how they could have a TRULY meaningful impact requires understanding the players and the policies that need to be changed. THIS is the job of the advocate: to take the baton from the filmmaker—who has generated the energy—and to share their knowledge and know how—to direct that energy wisely.

“Films are films,” wrote one filmmaker in response to our survey. “If they are a visually interesting experience, spark conversation and inspire people to engage new ideas, they’re successful. Films should not be reduced to advertisements, no matter how worthy the cause. They need to exist on their own terms. If they’re good, they’ll get people thinking.”

getting along is not social change

getting along is not social change

Alison Byrne Fields shares her thoughts on the tough work behind effective collaboration at “Collaboration Central” on PBS’ MediaShift.

Hint: It has nothing to do with “getting along.”

“Too often, we enter into a partnership or collaboration like we’re on a first date. We mask our faults with a coat of makeup or a new outfit, pretend to have interests and capabilities we don’t have, and assign super-human qualities to the person sitting across the table in the hopes that they might just be “the one.”

thoughts on how to survive a plague

thoughts on how to survive a plague

A few of the Aggregate team members recently got the chance to attend a screening of How to Survive a Plague, a documentary about the AIDS activist movement in the early days of the pandemic.

From: Alison Byrne Fields
To: Haley Sides, Melissa Duque
Subject: Thoughts on How to Survive a Plague

Melissa & Haley,

I’m really glad you finally got the chance to go see How to Survive a Plague. I’ve been in love with the film since seeing it with friends at Sundance at the beginning of the year and have been on a mission to encourage everyone I know to see it too.

There are so many things that I love about the film: how effective the use of old Hi8 and VHS footage is at conveying the intimacy and DIY nature of the movement, the message that self-interest is a perfectly justifiable motivator for becoming an activist, the “characters” in the film, how strategic the activists were to educate themselves about the science to better enable them to know what to ask for and to partner with researchers, the unexpected decision by the director, David France, not to demonize Big Pharma and to portray their researchers as heroes in their own right. This list could keep going.

A few months back, I had the opportunity to speak with David France, who said that his goal with the film was that the story of the HIV/AIDS movement would become part of the canon. After hearing him say that, I found this great quote on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s site about the Black civil rights movement in the United States:

“The civil rights movement is one of the defining events in American history, providing a bracing example of Americans fighting for the ideals of justice and equality. When students learn about the movement, they learn what it means to be an active American citizen. They learn how to recognize injustice. They learn about the role of individuals, as well as the importance of organization. And they see that people can come together to stand against oppression.”

Ensuring people see and know the story of How to Survive a Plague has that same power.

Tell me what you think. What stood out most for you?

– Alison

From: Haley Sides
To: Alison Byrne Fields, Melissa Duque
Subject: Re: Thoughts on How to Survive a Plague

Hi Alison and Meli,

Thank you for sending us to see How to Survive a Plague, Alison. Being born in the mid 80s, I was young and don’t have a strong recollection of the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 80s and 90s. This film beautifully portrays the extent to which AIDS activists had to go to compel society, the government and the scientific community  to act on this crisis. I found it amazing to see everyday people becoming experts and building legitimacy within the scientific community. The personal narratives of people living with HIV/AIDS combined with the evolution of activism around the HIV/AIDS crisis made for one of the most humbling, saddening, yet empowering documentaries I’ve ever seen.

The film also spoke to me on a very personal level. I found out in 2002 that a loved one of mine had just been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. This film put in perspective for me that in the U.S., between 2002 and only a decade prior, the difference in such a diagnosis is literally the difference between living with HIV/AIDS and dying from it. I couldn’t help but to reach out to Peter Staley after the film and thank him and others for fighting for not only his own life but the lives of so many others.  By the way, Alison, Peter messaged me back and said to give you a big hug for being such a great supporter of the film. (((HUGS)))

One aspect of the film that spoke to me the most was the question of how society treats people who do human things. I’ll never forget sitting in class my senior year of high school, less than a year after I saw my own family member come *this close* to death, and hearing a classmate angrily say, “Why don’t we just kill every person who has HIV/AIDS?!” As the ACT UP activist Bob Rafsky put it in the film, “A decent society does not put people out to pasture and let them die because they’ve done a human thing.” Bob did not live to see the tides turn in 1995-96, but his words, his drive, his desperate plea to society, is haunting. The work he and others did has forced society to confront the ways in which we stigmatize HIV/AIDS and those living with it.

That’s my take on the film. I hope every person I know, or don’t know for that matter, takes the time to watch How to Survive a Plague, and that it sparks more open, sincere dialogue about HIV/AIDS.

– Haley

From: Melissa Duque
To: Haley Sides, Alison Byrne Fields
Subject: Re: Thoughts on How to Survive a Plague 

Haley & Alison,

It’s been almost a week since we watched the movie and the home videos of Bob Rafsky featured in the film are still with me. The entire film was done beautifully and I respect and adore how David France was able to weave in the story of Robert Rafsky’s fight against AIDS. But I’m not talking about Bob’s speeches at ACT UP or his confrontation with then presidential candidate Bill Clinton; I’m talking about those home videos shared throughout the film documenting his relationship with his daughter, Sara.It’s those quiet moments between a father and his daughter that tell the story of AIDS that no amount of pamphlets, statistics or infographics could ever do. In the videos I saw a man fighting against AIDS, and fighting to have more time with his little girl. At times the videos made me smile and other times I cried as I watched Bob’s health deteriorate.

That night after I watched the film, I kept thinking about that little girl. I mean how could I not, my last image of her was at her dad’s funeral crying. I decided to search for Sara. I found out that she’s a research associate at the Committee to Protect Journalists Americas program. In 2008 she was awarded a Fulbright Grant to research photojournalism and the Colombian armed conflict. What an incredible woman.

Haley, I put the quote you shared from Rafsky on our wall. It’s a great reminder of what we are working towards.