Are You Willing to Go to Hard Places?

By Marina Smith

Paul Shoemaker is the Founding President of Social Venture Partners International— an organization committed to driving social change efficiently and effectively. SVP has created a network of thousands of individuals dedicated to linking their passions to progress and social change. Shoemaker has made his own impact by connecting people and organizations with the causes they are most passionate about and with the human resources most salient to their missions.  

In his newly released book CAN’T NOT DO: The Compelling Social Drive that Changes Our World (Wiley), Shoemaker traces the paths of dozens of change-makers who acted on their determination to make impactful change. In telling the stories of these individual change-makers, Shoemaker touches upon a vision of the world central to UniversalGiving®: with the right people, drives, and passions, individuals are capable of serving the global community in meaningful ways.

We interviewed Shoemaker to discuss what it means to find your passions and to truly dedicate yourself to your cause.

Can't Not Do

You focus on the importance of human capital, and the impact that individual change-makers can have. What have you noticed that all of these individuals have in common?

Not everybody is looking to support a social cause, or to dedicate their passion to social good. The common thread that links the individuals featured in Can’t Not Do is that there are people at a certain stage in life, mind, and perspective, who really want to dig more deeply into a certain personal cause. They are seeking to learn how and where to go deeper. They want to make a more significant impact, and they are looking for a pathway to do that. Not every person’s pathway into deeper social change is the same-there are lots of steps and paths that people can follow to connect to issues in a deeper way, but everyone who is successful in making a difference is willing to fully commit him or herself to a cause.

How can people best connect to causes and find what they are passionate about?

We are at a point in history where the impact one person can have has never been greater, and there are many pathways to help them find and act on their passion. There are three questions posed at the start of the book: 1. What are you a determined optimist about? 2. Who are you at your core? and 3. What are you willing to go to hard places for? Some people have an epiphany, some people take 40 years, some people’s interests are very general, some are very specific. Find a passion that responds to these three questions.

Why is it important to dedicate yourself to a cause?

I liken finding a passion to having a child: If I have a child, I will do anything I can to keep that kid alive. If you get into this work, you need to throw your blood, sweat and tears into it. If you really are serious about this work (this doesn’t necessarily mean making it your career), you are going to come across times when it is the hardest thing in the world. If you are looking to make a difference, you need to be aware of the issue and of the ways you can most contribute to the solution. It feels hard and painful, but it also feels really right. You will trudge on through it. You don’t care how hard it is and how painful it is. If you don’t feel those challenges, you won’t be as impactful as you can be, and you won’t evaluate the ways in which you can most contribute.

The title of your book, Can’t Not Do, comes from the phrase people often utter when you ask them how they feel about creating a particular change in the world. It speaks to something that goes beyond what they can or should do, and becomes something that, in their life, they simply “can’t not do.”  When did you find your own Can’t Not Do?

I’m not passionate about one social issue versus another. When I got into this job, I started realizing that the way I could give to the world most effectively was to help others realize their own effectiveness. My job is to be a messenger and to help people understand that they can utilize their tools and talents to be the most impactful advocate they can be for the cause they care most about. I want to help people to recognize their power to create social good. If more and more people step up to that bar, and realize their full potential in affecting change, that’s how you create social good.

What common problems do you see people face in their mission to make a difference?

This is not a self-help book. I’m not here to make you feel better — I want you to help the world feel better. What holds people back from making an impact? Basic, core human stuff: fear. There are three types of fear that commonly come up. First, there’s a fear of the unknown; people have been successful in one part of life, but making an impact requires that they learn something completely new. Second, there’s a fear that global problems are massive, and this creates a black hole where we feel like it’s not possible to solve anything. I believe that we do know how to solve problems, and we don’t lack for resources or solutions. The last fear comes when people believe things are solvable, but don’t believe they can effectively be involved in promoting change. People can find the path to help, and to create change-they just need to be determined. Any one of these three fears is a valid human emotion, and can definitely hold someone back from following their passions.

Why can one person have more impact now than in the past?

There are solutions and people out there in the world that know how to solve the problems. Knowing that there are solutions is not the biggest challenge-we know the ways to solve problems. There are a lot more solutions than people think there are; the challenge is connecting people who are passionate about issues and giving them the platforms to effect change.

The second part of this answer has to do with technology. Technology has changed so many parts of our lives- there is so much connectivity, and technology makes so many things possible that didn’t exist before.

How do we take our new tools and apply them?

We can utilize technology to solve all those big, scary, hard social problems. We haven’t employed technology to the extent that it can be employed.

How can individuals make a difference, in a world that seems so controlled by corporations, politics, and big business?

Money always matters, but people and social capital have the most impact. There are so many resources that we have beyond finances, and in order to make money effective, we have to use them. Everyone has individual skills, and people need to learn to use more than money to solve problems. Money absolutely matters, but anyone who says that money alone will solve the world’s problems is wrong-every aspect of change has a human face.


You can learn more about individuals making a difference through grit, determination, and commitment in Paul Shoemaker’s book, Can’t Not Do, released yesterday. Thank you, Paul, for your commitment to serving our global community, and for supporting the vision of UniversalGiving to “Create a World Where Giving and Volunteering are a Natural Part of Everyday Life.”™

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