Stone Soup and Social Business: a Confession

You know the folk tale called Stone Soup, right? I was doing some work on WCA's manual for POCA volunteers today and I realized I needed to put this in. (Note: thanks to Kevin Campopiano for originally pointing this out.)

A poor soldier is traveling home from the wars, somewhere in Europe or Russia. There’s been a famine, and nobody he meets wants to share their food with him. He arrives in a village, and the villagers look over his ragged clothes and battered wagon and tell him that he should move on, they’ve got nothing for him. I have everything I need, he tells them cheerfully. In fact, I was planning to share my food with you.

 He gets out a big iron pot, fills it with water, makes a fire, and when the water is boiling, he takes from his pocket a velvet bag and with great ceremony, opens the bag and drops an ordinary-looking rock into the pot. You see, I am very fortunate, he says to them. I have this magic stone, which makes delicious soup out of nothing at all. And he closes his eyes blissfully, inhaling the steam. I love stone soup, he murmurs.

The villagers look at him like he’s crazy, but he keeps sitting there, looking rapturous and periodically licking his lips. After a little while he says happily, This is going to be an especially fine batch, I can tell. But you know what would make it even more delicious? Some carrots. Stone soup with carrots is an incomparable delight.

His happiness is hard to resist. A villager approaches him and cautiously offers him some carrots from her secret hoard. The ragged soldier is overjoyed and makes a huge performance out of lovingly cutting up the carrots and adding them to the soup. When he’s done he inhales deeply and says, It’s perfect! The only thing that could make it more perfect would be a cabbage…

So of course someone else goes and gets a cabbage out of their stash. The soldier couldn’t be more enthusiastic. It’s contagious; before long, everyone in the village has opened up their hoard and contributed something they were previously determined not to share: mushrooms, onions, potatoes, beef, fragrant herbs. The atmosphere is so festive that soon people are getting their guitars out and singing. It’s a party. The soup turns out to be the best meal anybody’s had in ages, and there is indeed plenty for everyone. By the end of the night, the villagers are offering the soldier outrageous amounts of money for his magic stone, but of course it’s not for sale at any price.

Stone Soup is a fable about social business and multi-stakeholder cooperatives, at least the way we do those things in the community acupuncture movement. Like a lot of fables, it revolves around a trickster. In this case, it’s about tricking people to act for the common good instead for their own selfish interests. In Stone Soup, everybody wins, but they were tricked into winning.  

 Stone Soup is a comedy; its opposite is called “the tragedy of the commons”.  According to Wikipedia, “the tragedy of the commons is the depletion of a shared resource by individuals, acting independently and rationally according to each one's self-interest, despite their understanding that depleting the common resource is contrary to the group's long-term best interests.” In the tragedy of the commons, there’s no trick involved. Everybody knows exactly what’s going on, and everyone ends up losing instead of winning. The idea originally referred to farmers in England sharing a parcel of land for grazing. Each individual farmer benefited personally if he let his animals overgraze the commons, but the result was that the commons were ruined and nobody benefited. You could say, for lack of vision; or for lack of a trick in service of a vision.

It’s very hard for people to look past their own self-interest and see something bigger, something that includes both their own self-interest and other people’s too. It’s especially hard in the context of business, and even worse when the business in question is healthcare. OK, I confess: POCA is based on a Stone Soup trick. WCA before it too. I tricked you. Some of you don’t need me to confess to this; you figured it out a long time ago, and you’ve been making soup with the exact same technique for years now. But I think it’s time to explain the technique to everybody. If you’re a POCA volunteer — and we need a lot of POCA volunteers — you have to understand how to make Stone Soup.

Let’s start by looking at WCA as an example. WCA benefits possibly thousands of people, but it can’t really benefit any of them without benefiting all of them. The nature of a low-cost, high-volume social business is that it needs a lot of people to support it; and if they do support it, for the most part they’ll benefit proportionally to what they put into it. This is different than a conventional capitalist business, whose focus is on extracting profit disproportionately for the owners, and also from a charity, whose focus is on benefiting people who are not necessarily contributing anything to the organization. Stone Soup feeds the people who make it, and so it’s a great approach for people who don’t have a lot of resources.

Stone Soup is a poor person’s trick. The scariest and most difficult part of it is the time after you’ve dropped your “magic” stone in the water and before anybody else has put anything in the pot. This is the part where you have to believe in something that nobody else can see, and you have to believe in it so hard that you can get other people to change their attitudes and help you make it. You wouldn’t attempt this unless you were desperate. You wouldn’t try it if you had other resources and other options. The part where there is nothing in the pot except a rock, and everybody’s looking at you skeptically, is not something you do for kicks. (Ask anybody who was on the original POCA Steering Committee.)

Even some people who are into social business don’t want to go through this to make Stone Soup. Their idea of social business is that you somehow make a bunch of money in a conventional capitalist way, but at some point you find a way to use that money to “give back”. Maybe you figure out how to have a “triple bottom line” of “people, planet, profits”. In the Stone Soup model, you’re not even thinking about profits, you’re thinking about survival. You don’t have anything to give back, because you’re not starting with anything. You just need to eat, and you know that other people need to eat too, but for some reason everybody’s gotten paralyzed and nobody’s eating. Somebody needs to start somewhere, even if it’s only you and all you’ve got is a rock.

When I started WCA, I needed to eat and I needed to work, and I realized that other people needed acupuncture. Eleven years later, WCA is a lot bigger, but it’s still about people’s need to eat, work, and get acupuncture. Profit isn’t part of the equation. This is true for almost all of the other POCA clinics. The best part about WCA being much bigger, and about all these other POCA clinics, is that nobody quite has to go through the part about the empty pot and the rock in the same way anymore. You don’t have to sit there totally alone with your boiling water and the skeptical crowd; you’ve got a community of other people cheering you on. And enough people have tasted Stone Soup that they know what it is and they know that it’s good, and it’s worth putting their carrots and cabbages into the pot. Maybe they haven’t put their cabbages in your pot yet, but their sister in another city has been putting her cabbages into the pot that is the POCA clinic in her town, and she swears by it — so they’ll try it. The pot that is POCA as a whole is so big and so full of good things these days, that you really have to look hard to see that down at the bottom, under all the ingredients, there’s a rock. But if you’re going to successfully keep the pot going, you can’t ever forget about that rock.

The great satisfaction of Stone Soup is that you are simultaneously nourishing yourself and other people at the same time. That is what working in a POCA clinic, whether as a staff member or as a volunteer, should feel like: nourishing and also, creative. But in order to keep it feeling that way, there are a few important cautions. You can’t be too picky; you can’t be a control freak; you have to be aware and responsible; and you have to take risks. Momentum is  important.

Stone Soup is perhaps not your favorite kind of soup. If you had a choice, maybe you’d prefer to eat a soup that came from a recipe in a book that a real chef had carefully followed in a nice kitchen — a soup made from ingredients that you had personally selected from a lovely farmer’s market. Maybe instead of the chaotic melange that is Stone Soup, you’d prefer something somewhat more artful and elegant, like cream of heirloom tomato soup.

However, cream of heirloom tomato soup is not on the menu. In fact, there is no menu. We’re not even in a restaurant. From the perspective of conventional capitalism, you’re always supposed to be in a restaurant, and the point of everything is to order what you want, and the more of it, the better: the Restaurant of the Haves. Where we are is the Campfire of the Resourceful Have-Nots.   There are not many Restaurants of the Haves in the acupuncture world, and the few that there are don’t seat many people. You can stand outside one of those in the cold for a very long time, or you can come sit down with us at our fire — the company is better, I promise.

But you can’t be too picky. The cabbage that someone wants to put in the soup is perhaps not the kind of cabbage that you would have chosen. That does not matter as much as the fact that they are putting something in the soup. Smile and say, “Thank you so much!” You can’t be a control freak. If you try to line people up in the alphabetical order of their donated vegetables and require them to drop them in the pot at timed intervals, you’re going to lose their support (and your dinner). Just go with it and have some faith. You have to be aware and responsible. For quite a while, everyone else’s attitude about the process of soup-making is going to depend on your attitude. Eventually they’ll develop their own relationship to the soup, but at first, you set the tone. If you don’t believe first, nobody else will. If you get tense and start complaining, other people will too, and there goes your soup. You have to take risks. See all previous advice about the wrong kind of cabbage, people dropping vegetables in at irregular intervals, and you believing first: these are all risks. Making Stone Soup does not involve much security. If you had security, you wouldn’t need a magic rock.

Finally, momentum is important. Actually, momentum is everything. For people to contribute, they have to believe that this thing is going somewhere, and if not enough people contribute and the soup doesn’t come together fast enough, it won’t go anywhere and you won’t be able to trick them into altruism. Conversely, the more people are contributing, the more people will want to contribute. That’s why it’s so important not to get hung up on trying to make your soup perfect. If a lot of people are contributing, it will definitely not be perfect; it will be deliciously imperfect.

I can make this confession now because the trick worked. It stretched out slowly over more than a decade, and sometimes it didn’t look like it was working, but it did.  I wasn’t entirely sure until the last POCAfest, when it was clear that the soup was delectable because it was full of the contributions of POCA volunteers who didn’t happen to be acupuncturists. People had no idea that this was the exact flavor of soup that they wanted, but it was. Now that we know how good it is, we need to make a lot more soup.

It can be disconcerting to realize that there’s a rock at the bottom of your soup. Maybe you didn’t really want to know that the clinic where you love to get acupuncture has nothing in its savings account, or that the co-op that inspires you is sometimes only barely strung together by extremely tired volunteers.  There’s an art to letting people know how precarious our soup-making enterprise really is without scaring them off. Maybe the best way to say it is that we need EVERYTHING. Regardless of how full the pot looks, we still need everything. We need all sorts of skills; we need word of mouth marketing; we need goodwill; we need money; we need encouragement; we need enthusiasm and imagination. Whatever you have to give, we need it, even if it seems to you like a negligible amount. That’s the beauty of making something out of nothing: everything that you give counts.

Author: lisafer

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  1. Wow, Lisa, I love this! Such a great way to explain the story of what we are all doing and why everyone – our community, patients, staff, volunteers and punks – ALL matter so much.

  2. “There’s an art to letting people know how precarious our soup-making enterprise really is without scaring them off”

    omg, i feel this ALL OF THE TIME. now i know what art I need to work on.

  3. I was talking with a friend today while treating her at PCA. She used the phrase “conspiracy with…” which made me think immediately of this post. So much of what I read these days involves one force conspiring over another- and too infrequently is there mention of forces that conspire with. Here’s where the stones come in handy, and not as objects to be hurled, but more like a seasoning.

    Salt is a rock after all. And salt is vital to life, and so are stones and dirt, and all of these things can be seen as commodities and often are treated that way, though despite their essentialness they are often treated as low priced commodities- not readily compared to the dazzle of gold or the flash of hydrogen. Commodity and Community and Commons all clearly have the prefix Com- with/together/jointly- in them. The stone, the salt, the togetherness that brings people together to make clinics, that brings clinics together to create networks, that brings stakeholders together as a coop- these are big chunks of rock. The smaller pebbles (the ones you can put in your mouth if you are thirsty but have no water) are the daily encounters we have as we fall in love with new patients, remember one’s from the past that sent the new ones along, the chocolate bars, the swiss chard, the birthday cards, the hugs, and the shared bowls of soup.

    Thanks for another great post- more good eating-reading-comestibles.