Is Your Social Mission a Bridge or a Raft?

Gareth I. Jones
6 min readMar 30, 2023

There are quick and urgent ways to deal with problems and slow and expensive ways.

Illustrations by Matt Joyce

During my time as an UnLtd Future Pioneer I learned so much that I thought my brain would melt after some of the sessions.

But in so many lessons on system change and impact business models, there was one idea that started to develop which helped me to understand system change much better.

It was an analogy about bridges and rafts.

Bridges are strong, safe, stable structures that connect two sides and provide infrastructure that continues to serve its purpose long after it has been built.

Rafts are risky, flimsy methods to get across the same river. They’re temporary, but fast.

If your job is to get food and supplies from side of the river to the other, then you want a bridge. If you don’t have a bridge then you make do with a raft and wish for a bridge one day.

With system change, or social business models, there are rarely bridges in place. So we resort to rafts: short-term, quick, urgent, and high risk.

If you’re taking supplies over a river on a raft you might lose 50% of your supplies, but you can go today.

The problem comes when you’re relying on the raft day-in-day-out.

Building a bridge takes time, a long time. You need agreement from multiple stakeholders, you need permits, approvals, investment, diverse skills. You need a team, you can’t build a bridge alone. You need to persuade people, convince them that it is important to focus on, prioritise and commit investment to. That it will last generations, and future generations will have a responsibility to maintain and sustain it.

You can launch a raft immediately. You don’t need anyone else’s permission, you don’t even need anyone else to provide the raft, you can just build it yourself.

With a bridge you can take trucks full of supplies and resources, with a raft you can take whatever you can get into your backpack or balance on the boat.

As a social entrepreneur, with a heart that is set on changing a system, you need to factor all of this in. Do you want to move fast and alleviate the pressure and pain that your audience is currently experiencing? Do you want to invest years in the hope that you can create longer term change and leave a lasting legacy?

It can be painful seeing people suffer in this moment, and that suffering can lead to a sense of frustration and anguish when it seems like the authorities or powers that would be are not moving fast enough, or doing enough to solve the problem.

A good example of this is the food system. There are people starving right now in this moment, they need food today, tonight. Kids, the elderly, people who if they skip a meal will feel the loss.

On the other side, there is food being thrown out at the end of the day from supermarkets, restaurants, and cafes. Indeed from our own houses — we are estimated to create 4.5 tonnes of food waste per household per year.

The raft is how you get the food from landfill and into the cupboards of those who need it. It is every night, it is expensive, there is waste and people are hungry all over again the next night.

The bridge would be reducing food waste and hunger. It is deep systemic change that requires economic independence and better stock management.

When we think in terms of rafts and bridges, we can think about how we solve the short term need while building the long term sustainability.

We can spend our days on the raft but make sure we lay a brick every morning on the way there and every evening on the way home.

Sometimes we’re chopping veg and sometimes we’re boiling rice.

Even if you’re working flat out on the raft, make time for the bridge. It might be small steps, but over time you have something to show. It’s the old saying: the best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago, the next best time is today.

We might not think of those small jobs as adding up, it can feel like we need to make big leaps and when they’re out of our control it can feel frustrating and futile.

When reviewed after a month, or a year, you can track progress.

Often the pace of the system can feel overwhelmingly painful. People in the system who are paid full time and don’t have to bear the suffering of those who most need the services seem to have all the time in the world when you feel like we need urgent action. There is a knack in finding the balance of tolerating the slow process and bureaucracy and cajoling it to get it to improve.

This doesn’t happen on day one. It happens when they learn to trust you, when they recognise you’re not a threat and that if you succeed — they can come out of it looking good.

Maybe this is cynical, but in my experience it is consistent.

Success has many fathers but failure is an orphan.

If it looks scary and risky it is hard to get supporters to commit. It will feel threatening because it is a comment on their inability to provide, empathise, and innovate without challenge. You have to criticise positively, not directly questioning the competency of those who should be doing the work. There’s a lot of diplomacy involved in doing this well.

If it succeeds, everyone will claim to have played their part. This is fine. If your heart is truly focused on the cause then you won’t need your name in lights or the ceremony that gives recognition — your priority is that the situation changes, no matter who takes credit.

You need to pick your battles, and if it matters more to others that they take credit then let them have it and invest your precious and scarce time into something else — not arguing the toss.

There’s a deeper system change indicator in this that I will write more about in future posts.

I always find this creates the moments where relationships break down. You put in an application for permission to build your bridge and the planners tell you that your plans are half a centimetre out so you need to resubmit from scratch and, by the way, the planning committee doesn’t meet for another four months.

You feel despondent, why don’t they get it? Why don’t they make it easy? Why don’t they see how urgent this is — we can’t wait four more months!

You can’t assume everyone else will be as enthusiastic as you. You can’t rely on everyone getting it, or giving as much as you want to.

That’s ok. It isn’t — but it has to be.

You can win people over, but don’t get bogged down in convincing those who do not have that heart. You can show them, and you can invite them. Sometimes you might need to drag some people but you can’t drag everyone, that will take too much of your energy.

Learn how to work with them, tolerate them, and make it easy for them to play their role.

As I’ve cited before, the wonderful quote from Christopher Reeve resonates here: at first our dreams seem impossible, then improbable, and then, when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable.

Momentum is invisible, it can’t be pointed to, but you know when you have it and when you don’t have it. You just don’t always know what will be the tipping point.

Things will never be perfect, and that is what makes things perfect. You will always have a role in this challenge and the deeper you get the more niches and angles you will see and appreciate.

Are you building a bridge? Or are you happy on your raft?

Thanks Matt!

Thank you to Matt Joyce for the artwork — I wanted to do something special for this post and love how the images have turned out.

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Gareth I. Jones

Founder of TownSq, focused on building communities of entrepreneurs, supporting startups and B Corps - businesses that are better for the planet.