A Nonprofit Moral Imperative: Action in the Face of Social and Political Polarization

The last two years should serve as an alarm bell for nonprofit organizations across America that work to meet the rapidly expanding needs of disenfranchised and marginalized communities, particularly those of color and immigrant populations. Since 2016, we have seen our nation turn away from one that enjoys and celebrates the economic and social prosperity that comes from diversity into one that has enabled and empowered the racist and bigoted subculture, that has never really disappeared, to rear its ugly head. This nationalist movement is one that favors walls, division, xenophobia and intolerance over love, acceptance, inclusion and community.


            Those of us that live in or work in these communities, which have, perhaps, worked for years to advance equity, inclusion and compassion, are seeing how the hate-filled rhetoric is affecting our people on both perspective sides of the issues. This administration threatens the very progress we have made as a society -- as a people -- in its opposition to issues that are critical to our ability to survive and thrive. Issues that have been led by the social sector such as climate change, health care, immigration, gender and marriage equality, preservation of national parks and resources, and support of the homeless and impoverished have been disregarded and, in most cases, rolled back, to fuel the expansion of the military industrial complex, dirty energy and crony capitalism.


            But who are we as change makers if not resilient and courageous? In my new book, ‘Your Greatest Good: How to Change Yourself to Change the World’, which will be available for pre-release in September 2019, I call out resiliency as a critical characteristic for accomplishing and sustaining positive change of any scope, scale, or focus. I define it as the toughness necessary to “persist in spite of roadblocks, setbacks or challenges that impedes your path forward.” It is more than just adapting well to a changing environment; it is the ability to maintain forward momentum in the face of adversity. There is no greater adversity to us as shepherds of the greater good than the forces of our own present administration. We will need to be resilient and acknowledge the current state, adopt an unwavering resolve that life is meaningful, and exhibit the courage to act. And that is exactly what it will take. Action is what has always been required to bring about large-scale transformative change. As a nonprofit, socially driven, or healthcare organization, it is morally imperative to advocate on behalf of those you serve, though few actually do so effectively, if at all. Most, giving the benefit of a doubt, are cornered into inaction by fear of operating outside of the guidelines of their tax-exempt status.  Others are afraid of speaking in opposition to the views and beliefs of their largest donors and supporters. While no decision should ever be taken lightly, the mission and, perhaps more importantly, the purpose, of the organization must be the primary catalyst for action. If your mission is to serve the under-served, to enact social change, to preserve the environment, to combat climate change, to address poverty, hunger, or homelessness, then your organization and its funding is in the cross-hairs of policy makers in the executive and legislative branches of our federal government. Funding, the life-blood of the social sector, is being eliminated or drastically redefined at the very moment I type these words.

But funding alone is not our most vital resource. We are. We the People. As organizations that serve a higher purpose, we rely on partnerships and cooperation with local businesses and governmental agencies because we recognize the correlations between health outcomes and livable wages, housing stability, educational attainment and civic engagement. We understand that our own success is inextricably linked to the ability of those we serve to survive and thrive. And the only way we can ensure continued and increased opportunities for our constituents is to work together, to communicate and to advocate, loudly and clearly, on their behalf. This is permitted, and critical for all nonprofits, no matter what tax-exemption status you hold. Advocacy includes any activities that elevate the voices and demonstrate the needs of your community. They may include organizing, civic engagement, public education, policy research, publishing white papers and/or opinion papers, and coalition building. Collaboration is the single most powerful tool we have as nonprofits to leverage the abundance of resources around us, unite our similar efforts, and develop actionable plans to achieve common goals. Nonprofits have been at the front lines of the fight for social equality and change in this country for many years, and now is as critically important time as ever to stand for those that cannot stand on their own, to speak out for those whose voices go unheard, and to continue the good fight.     

James R Scheu, Founder & Chief Innovations Officer, nLab Concepts

Authentic Leadership: Enhancing Culture through Liberated Relationships

More and more often, we hear stories about nonprofit organizations surrounded in controversy and conflict of interest, or mired in scandal from crimes such as embezzlement and larceny. Just this past week, an article by Paul Sturm in the Nonprofit Quarterly highlighted the downfall of a nonprofit organization after the Executive Director uncovered a $750,000 embezzlement scheme perpetrated by one of its own employees. While the details are certainly horrific, none were more shocking than the board of director’s decision to fire the Executive Director for uncovering the improprieties in an effort to cover up their own incompetence and inability to effectively govern. Though the events that led to the nonprofit’s demise and the ongoing legal challenges are somewhat exceptional, the issues of exercising sound oversight, accountability, and fiduciary responsibility and leading with collective integrity and value-based principles continues to be a major shortfall in many nonprofit organizations across the country.

There are many articles, e-books and consultants that offer guidance on the importance of stewardship and how to establish sound governing principles that limit power struggles, encourage positive and constructive communication, facilitate shared vision and direction, avoid conflicts of interest, and foster genuine commitment. In fact, it has been said that if nonprofit boards did just that – focused on the mission, placed the needs of the organization above those of individual visions and agendas, and worked collaboratively to ensure the continued success of the organization to which they serve – much of the dysfunction and scandal that seems to plague the sector would disappear.

Sturm suggests that nonprofit leaders, boards, and staff must collectively strive for a culture that rests on a foundation of integrity that embraces conflict and employs systems that seek constant improvement. While I do not disagree, I also believe that we must go further if we aim to be better. We must be honest.

Nonprofit boards exist to ensure the organization they lead upholds the trust of the public to which their charitable purpose serves. An article that was previously highlighted in the Harvard Business Review states that “effective governance by the board of a nonprofit organization is a rare and unnatural act…” I agree with that but also question why it seems to be so difficult for so many organizations to harness collective strength for greater good? Perhaps the simple answer is that we are not being honest – honest with each other, honest with the public, honest with ourselves. 

One book that has provided some level of clarity on this issue is ‘Emergent Strategy’ by Adrienne Maree Brown. Ms. Brown reveals that we exist and operate within a culture of lies. She suggests that within this culture, we have learned to lie, deceive, misrepresent through mistruths, disinformation, or omissions so that we do not have to ask for what is needed, articulate what we desire, or confront those that hurt or disappoint us. She suggests that the reasons we evade these truths can be found in our capitalistic desire to belong to a group, a community and that our personal value can only be identified through what we produce and how we contribute to that community. An example can be found in nonprofit founders that comprise their boards of personal friends and seek employees that are totally complicit, can be controlled and “know how to take orders”.

Another cause for our dishonesty is the systemic oppression of supremacy. If we are not a white, straight, educated, successful male, and we do not exercise that privilege appropriately, our opinions and our truths do not matter. Finally, we are taught that disruption is divisive. We have been led to believe that disruption can only be perpetrated by those that are moving towards profit, and progress is not important unless a profit can be made. To counter these reasons, Ms. Brown has developed principles that encourage open, honest and authentic communication within a concept called Liberated Relationships.  By exercising these principles, we build our relationships on honesty. When we avoid the programmed urge to tell white lies, misrepresent, or redirect because we believe it to be kind, socially acceptable, or strategic, we overcome barriers that prevent our own happiness and allow for an environment that fosters honesty and compassion, and builds trust. If we are also honest with the dynamics that exist based on race, gender, sexual orientation, class and ability – and recognize them as constructs – we can operate within them and evolve beyond them. Finally, if we build these relationships for the purpose of learning from them, growing alongside them, and transcending these constructs together, we can coevolve as individuals and as partners, and focus our collective efforts on the success of the organizations that exists to improve the lives and conditions of the vulnerable and forgotten. Within this authenticity, our organizations will rise above the scandal and controversy that exists in the depths of mistrust and greed, and move towards progress and equity.

Making a Case for Collective Impact

Reducing health inequities, improving the health and wellness of communities, addressing root causes of poor health by focusing on social determinants, and combating poverty in regions across the country have become the key foci of public health agencies, healthcare organizations, and service providers over the past several years. The critical nature of these issues has placed them front and center at conferences, symposiums, regional stakeholder meetings and organizational roundtables the last several years. These poignant calls to action have been successful at raising awareness, increasing legislative interest, and inspiring action in many agencies across the country, however, positive impact of these complex, deeply entrenched social issues continues to elude us. But the question remains: Why?

Collaboration has long been a strategy for addressing and solving public health issues. However, what I have come to realize is that we often collaborate for the sake of collaboration and completely miss the key outcome: Impact. Collaborating to share resources, insights and feedback, while important, has not proven to be impactful. Through collective impact, stakeholders from multiple sectors are aligned around a shared vision and driven towards positive outcomes. But collective impact has also become a watered-down term often used interchangeably with collaboration. Perhaps the reason for the confusion is because, while the concept is simple, the execution of collective impact is as complex and messy as the issues it seeks to address. What differentiates coordinated cooperation from collective impact is the intentional incorporation of the following components:

1.    Focused on Outcomes- Stakeholders and partners center the work around the desired outcomes rather a single program or intervention. 

2.    Data-Driven- In order to achieve outcomes and realize impact, data collection and sharing must be at the center of the work to understand progress in real time, and track trends. 

3.    Continuous Improvement- Through strategic, intentional data collection, stakeholders and partners can identify what is working well, areas for improvement and additional resources needed. 

4.    Community-Centric- A key challenge to many collective impact initiatives is they are often structured as a top-down approach, leaving out the most important group: Community. It is critical in collective impact to do things with the community that are for the community, rather than providing what we believe the community needs without their involvement or consent.

5.    Collective Leadership- A social process that replaces individual goals and agendas with a collective vision that shares power and influence, and intellectual capital with social capital. Collective leadership increases mutual accountability among the members, breaks down the silos created by systems, and dissolves power structures that obstruct meaningful change and impact.

Collective impact is a model that can, and will, lead to sustainable outcomes in population health initiatives that seek to address health inequities and improve social determinants of health in our most under-resourced communities. It requires champions of change that do not shy away from innovative solutions, adequate financial resources, a shared sense of urgency, and a commitment to community over individual motives. There is no other way to make lasting impacts in society’s most complex issues without the intentional integration of these key considerations.