14 min read

Manifesto for a Moral Revolution: Practices to Build a Better World [Summary]


Even with problems aplenty (climate change, inequality, political corruption), there are thankfully still many of us who want to be part of the problem-solving. 

When you encounter these problems, I imagine you, like me, feel the calling to jump right in. You want to make your mark on the world and leave things a bit better than you found them. When the feeling strikes, you wish you’d started yesterday. 

However, the world of change-makin’ isn’t always easy. 

Our next steps aren’t always clear. 

Effecting serious change takes a long time, maybe a lifetime.  

So, when faced with difficult decisions, burnout, or the need for guidance, having a set of practices or principles to fall back on can be invaluable. 

They can remind us of what’s important, offer us a tried and true way of looking at a new problem, or just give us reassurance that we’re on the right path.

This book, Manifesto for a Moral Revolution: Practices to Build a Better World by Acumen Founder & CEO Jacqueline Novogratz might be able to help.

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The Book: Who It’s For & What It’s About

Manifesto for a Moral Revolution book

Novogratz wrote this book for the change-maker. 

She wrote it for those of us who feel both frustrated with the state of the world and still hopeful and hungry to take action. 

She wrote this for those who want to be part of the solution towards building a better world that celebrates our shared humanity and honors the dignity within every one of us. 

It’s first a call to action, making the case that what the world needs most right now is a shift in our moral calculus, what Novogratz calls a Moral Revolution

A shift from “What’s in it for me?” to “What can I do for others?”.

Novogratz’s Manifesto offers a set of practices that she has been able to observe, extract, and articulate from a career of building a better world. 

In this post, I’ll summarize each of the 13 practices she shared as well as some of my key takeaways so that you and I might be able to join in this moral revolution ourselves.

learn-arrow-2 If you’d prefer not to review any of my notes or reflections before reading the book, find a copy from Bookshop.org, Better World Books, or Indiebound.

Practice #1: Just Start

Jacqueline interacts with young, ambitious people all over the globe who want to make a change. 

She’s often met with the questions, “How can I be of use?,” “How can I find my purpose?,” or “Where will I make the most impact?”

Jacqueline’s advice here, and fittingly, her first prescribed practice: just start

There’s no plan, strategy, or thinking that will have you uncover your purpose. You do so by taking action. 

You take action. You learn. You take action. You learn. 

Again, and again, and again. 

You don’t plan your way into finding your purpose. You live into it. 

You live into your purpose one step at a time. 

You must make the choice not to fear failure, as it’s inevitable Jacqueline tells us. She says, “To rule out failure is to rule out success.” (p. 17) 

Your skillset, know-how, and network are all valuable assets in your effort to make an impact. But Jaqueline believes those aren’t the most valuable. 

What’s most valuable is stamina. 

The ability, as Jacqueline describes, to start. Over and over and over. 

Think less about what the perfect next step is, and just take one. Imitate others who inspire you and gain from their experiences and lessons. 

Don’t obsess over finding your purpose—Jacqueline reminds readers it took her 20 years to manifest Acumen.

Practice #2: Redefine Success

Jacqueline believes our economic systems as they are, breed a zero-sum culture of success. It’s about what’s taken, not given. It’s about winning the money, power, or fame game. 

We’re celebrated for what we might contribute to the economy vs. what we might contribute to the world. 

Jacqueline points out that what matters most is overlooked in the conventional definition of success: 

Laughter, respect, the security of productive work, a sense of belonging, dignity–these are things that matter the most to our experience as human beings, yet our financial and economic systems too often fail to acknowledge them when calculating ‘success.’ (p. 30) 

However, she also offers a powerful reminder that we are in control. 

While the current political, economic, and social systems perpetuate a culture of individual gain, we must remember that people (us) make up these systems. 

And so, Jacqueline goes further, we have the opportunity to rebuild it and redefine the important beliefs behind success. 

We can choose to reject the things that “no longer serve,” she writes. (p. 31) 

We can choose collaboration over competition. Contribution over accumulation. Humanity before the economy. 

But a word of caution from Jacqueline: going against the status quo might have you meet with resistance. 

Some systems, groups, and organizations might still demand conventional success for you to participate (have you ever tried to buy a home?!?). 

Don’t let that resistance encourage you to quit. Let that resistance remind you just how important it is that you do what you do and believe what you believe. 

Then, refer back to Practice #1.

Practice #3: Cultivate Moral Imagination 

Moral Imagination might be Jacqueline’s cornerstone term. Why?

Jacqueline believes that moral imagination is the linchpin to creating solutions to the world’s problems that are truly sustainable, equitable, and just. 

“Moral Imagination means to view other people’s problems as if they were your own, and to begin to discern how to tackle those problems. And then to act accordingly.” (p. 43)

Moral imagination feels to me not just practicing empathy, but also immersion. You mustn’t just attempt to empathize with those you wish to serve, you must attempt to immerse yourself in their experience. 

Get close to the problem. Get close to the people you hope to serve. Ask them what they need. Don’t assume. 

They’ll have answers. 

From there, Moral Imagination calls you to action. 

Start at empathy and immersion, then move to action. But Jacqueline urges, not just “applying a ‘Band-Aid’”. (p. 43)

Immerse yourself then act on long-term sustainable solutions. 

Practice #4: Listen to Voices Unheard 

“Privilege can deafen us to those who feel less worthy or valuable.” (p. 60)

It’s easy to forget that our efforts to solve the world’s problems aren’t about us. We have to remember who we’re serving. 

The key word here: serving. 

The conventional systems might’ve worked well for us! That doesn’t mean we can anticipate the needs and desires of those the systems have excluded. 

We have to listen. As Jacqueline tells us, we have to listen fully and completely. 

“If we want to see someone more fully and demonstrate that we respect him or her, we must learn to listen not just with our ears, but with all our selves—our eyes, the emotion we sense in the other, our knowledge of their history, of their very identity.” (p. 60)

If we’re truly to serve those that systems have historically failed, Jacqueline explains, then we must give those same individuals the agency to make decisions, co-create solutions to their problems, and determine their own path forward with their lives. 

While many have had good intent, those who have historically worked to serve the poorest among us haven’t invited those communities into the conversation around the solutions. 

And so, many of the “solutions” created haven’t solved the right problems or haven’t served the people most severely affected by those problems. In many of the worst cases, the poorest have been left with more precarious conditions than before. 

If we’re true to serve those who the systems have historically failed or excluded, Jacqueline explains, then we have to let them lead in the solutions to the problems they know best—they are the ones experiencing it after all.

Do not assume you know. 

Instead, ask questions. 

Then listen. Listen with the entirety of your attention.

“We miss so much by assuming we have the answers…” (p. 75)

Practice #5: You are the Ocean in a Drop

If we are to come together “subscribing to a revolution of morals,” as Jacqueline puts it, it’s critical that we can both acknowledge and honor the various identities in others while at the same time, grasp firmly our common ground that is our shared humanity. 

As Jacqueline says, we aren’t a drop in the ocean, but rather the entire ocean in a single drop. 

“Our shared humanity is strong and vast enough to encompass our beautiful diversity,” she writes (p. 93).

As Jacqueline has accumulated a career-worth of experience working with people from a vast collection of backgrounds, possessing all sorts of differing identities, she offers this advice: 

First, work to know yourself. 

Second, be open to the multiple identities others might possess. 

Third, the person or group with the greater power in any moment must extend their effort and attention to understand the experience and knowledge of those with less power  (p. 88)

Develop self-awareness. Be open to who others are. 

Extend yourself to achieve shared understanding where appropriate and necessary. 

Practice #6: Practice Courage  

To me, it’s Jacqueline’s belief that the courageous are rewarded. 

“…Life could be a great adventure if you are willing to dare.” (p. 96)

They’re rewarded with adventure, a chance to make a difference, or the opportunity to help many. 

But how do we become courageous? 

We practice. 

Jacqueline sees that “courage is a muscle. The more we exercise it, even in small ways, the more courageous we become.” (p. 98)

And so, like any muscle, any skill, we can build our courage through habit. Do something courageous every day. 

Jacqueline challenges us to regularly ask ourselves: 

  • What is the cost of not daring? 
  • What is the cost of not trying? 
  • What is the cost of not speaking up? 

(p. 101) 

She tells us that fear is just a cue for when we might get the chance to build this muscle.

The more we practice being courageous, the more likely we’ll be prepared when we and the world need courage most.

Practice #7: Hold Opposing Values in Tension 

For a Moral Revolution to manifest, we must shift from right or wrong, either-or thinking, to both-and thinking. 

She continues to say that we need to “acknowledge the truths that exist in opposing perspectives.” (p. 126)

It’s not about being right. It’s about understanding. 

It’s about our shared objectives and shared goals. It’s about collective flourishing. 

Jacqueline urges us to dare “to recognize the uneasy truths that life far, far apart….” (p.126) 

A path forward won’t be strictly one way or the other. A sustainable path forward will have to hold contractions and seemingly opposing values and perspectives, together.

Practice #8: Avoid the Conformity Trap

That’s just how the world works… 

Well, it doesn’t have to be. 

We’re all far too familiar with hearing that phrase, implicitly telling us that we’re too idealistic. We’re too naive. We don’t understand reality. 

Jacqueline calls us to be vigilant for when a common narrative “muffles our conscience.” (p. 132)

We can easily conform to the beliefs about how things must be done. 

We can easily conform to the beliefs that certain things can or cannot be done at all. 

Jacqueline explains that conformity can be subtle. “No matter how determined we are to do the right thing, we all fall prey to conformity traps within the system we’ve chosen.” (p. 132)

You’ll find this subtlety a lot within the wide spectrum of sustainable businesses. 

Some businesses market change and others commit to changing business as their mission. 

The goal of changing business for the better is to create economies that are more humane for people and the planet. 

If the business community puts on a “sustainable” face but still puts profit above everything else (people and the planet), we might feel a bit better, but it still limits the scope of real change. 

If, on the other hand, we reimagine business with the impacts on people and the planet truly above profits, only then, might we change the whole system for the better. 

Jacqueline calls us to be attentive to the nuances of conformity that exist wherever we are. 

I think Jacqueline says it beautifully as she writes, “In creating more just, inclusive, and sustainable systems, the means, not solely the ends, matter. You make change when you model change.” (p. 136)

Practice #9: Use the Power of Markets, Don’t Be Seduced by Them 

Jacqueline believes that markets are one of the most powerful forces we have at our disposal for solving the world’s problems. 

The key she says is to remember that markets are a tool

And to that point, an imperfect tool.

It’s imperative that we remain committed to the goal of changing the world for the better (not short-term profit-making). 

Markets, as Jacqueline explains, can be an effective listening tool. They can offer us insight into what people value and what they can afford. 

But, markets must be wielded with restraint. 

She reminds us that our current economic system is limited to focusing on what we can count. It’s not necessarily focused on what we value most or what might be what makes for a healthy and happy global citizenry. 

To reimagine our relationship to markets, Jacqueline says, it begins with redetermining their purpose. 

Do we build and use markets to make the most people better off? Or do we build and use markets to create the most amount of wealth possible? 

Those goals won’t lead to the same outcomes. 

Use the tools that are available to us. But remember what you’re using them for. 

Practice #10: Partner with Humility & Audacity 

Jacqueline shares a clear and firm message, “If you want to create or renew systems, small is beautiful but scale is critical.” (p. 165)

She says that to create real systems change, you’ll have to go big. And by “go big,” she explains, you’ll need partners in every part of the ecosystem you’re operating in. 

Government, nonprofits, community members, investors, and business partners. 

Tackling our world’s problems requires everyone. You cannot make change alone. 

That makes building effective partnerships crucial. 

To build strong partners, Jacqueline advises to first come back to your purpose. What are you hoping to achieve? And what do you have to bring (resources, advantages, skills) to the conversation? 

By understanding this you’ll be able to better understand what partners might/might not be a fit. 

Jacqueline encourages us to be honest and open in our efforts to build partnerships, but at the same time be cautious and protective of our values and mission. Do your due diligence. 

Some partnerships that seem good will fail she reminds. Just like unexpected partnerships might end up proving the most fruitful and fulfilling.  

Ensure everyone is involved for the right reasons. 

Jacqueline concludes the explanation of this practice with advice she’s already given: to build partnerships, just start. Expect yourself to fail at times and encounter challenges. 

But, let the work teach you and start again. 

Practice #11: Accompany Each Other

Jacqueline introduces us to the Jesuit idea of Accompaniment, which means to live and walk alongside those you serve. 

Accompaniment is about repeatedly showing up. It’s about raising others up. Being slow to ever put your own competence or intelligence on display. 

Jacqueline says the opposite of Accompaniment is “separation.” It’s about systems that separate us from suffering, that reduce tragedies and people to statistics. 

To think about how we can incorporate Accompaniment as a practice of our own, Jacqueline suggests we think about the parents, mentors, teachers, and friends who believed in us in the past. 

It’s these people, she explains, who have accompanied us in our own lives, and it becomes our duty to return the favor for someone else. 

“Human beings thrive when we believe someone cares about us.” (p. 194)

Best of all, Jacqueline explains, accompaniment is something that all of us have the ability to do. You don’t need prior experience. You don’t need any set of credentials. You don’t need any money. 

The power to accompany others is available to all of us. 

Practice #12: Tell Stories That Matter 

The moral leader, Jacqueline believes, also has the duty of being the storyteller. 

And stories, she goes further to say, have real consequences. “I believe you become the story you choose to tell.” (p. 203) 

The stories we tell as leaders in our respective circles have consequences. Stories can define us. They can define our culture. 

Jacqueline calls for us as aspiring moral leaders to tell stories that inspire, unite, and offer up a vision for a better world we can all aspire to. 

She argues that the optimistic, the driven, and the inspirational among us are people who are best at owning their own narrative. 

They seek out the positive and dig for an opportunity in the challenges that they and others face. 

Jacqueline offers a quote from the philosopher Plato, “What is honored in a country is cultivated there.” 

Moral leaders have both the duty and opportunity to decide what’s celebrated with the stories they choose to tell. 

Practice #13: Embrace the Beautiful Struggle

In her final practice, Jacqueline reminds us that the work of changing the world isn’t easy. 

It’s not quick, either. 

Sometimes our own personal goal might just be to sustain. Occasions of burnout, frustration, and feelings of overwhelm are to be expected. 

So what do we do? 

For Jacqueline, she shares that her persistence has come from embracing what she calls the “beauty in the struggle.” 

Jacqueline elaborates, “Beauty inspires and motivates. Beauty sustains. The key for each of us is to define what beauty means for us, to think of it not as superfluous or indulgent but as an essential part of what it means to be human.” (p. 221)

As we’ve all heard before, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. 

So, what’s beautiful to you? 

What’s your vision for a better world that feels worth it? 

What beauty in the world do you wish there was more of? 

What we do and why we do it has to feel worth it so that in times when we might feel challenged most, we can remind ourselves.  

And then, start again.

Get your copy of Manifesto for a Moral Revolution: Practices to Build a Better World, from Bookshop.org, Better World Books, or Indiebound

And for more from Jacqueline Novogratz, check out our other Read Ensemble post featuring her first book, The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World.


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Cory Ames

Co-Founder & CEO, Grow Ensemble

I’m Cory Ames. I’m a writer, podcaster, social entrepreneur, and the Founder of Grow Ensemble.

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