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A Reactive Nonprofit Leader Will Get Us Nowhere

By Nell Edgington



Let’s be honest, nonprofit leaders tend to be a pretty reactive bunch. Instead of creating or controlling a situation, they tend to simply react to it. And it makes sense.

A foundation suddenly changes their funding strategy, and a nonprofit leader must scramble to find a new revenue source. A shift in how or where the government provides social services and a nonprofit leader suddenly sees a dramatic spike in the number of her clients. A board chair finds a job in a new city and a nonprofit leader finds his board leaderless. Nonprofit leaders are incentivized and learn quickly to react to ever-changing internal and external circumstances.

But I worry that in the face of the relentless shocks that 2017 brought, many nonprofit leaders have gone from a mode of normal reactive to super reactive. And the problem is that when you are operating from a point of reacting to circumstances instead of creating circumstances, you are much less effective at achieving your ultimate goals.

Lately I have seen some nonprofit leaders swept up into the chaos wrought by our divisive political and social climate and thus become less effective than they could otherwise be.

Let me give you an example. A nonprofit leader who runs a national nonprofit recently became understandably concerned about a proposed federal policy change that would dramatically affect her mission. She became obsessed with emailing, calling, texting everyone and anyone in her network and encouraging them to call, write, email their members of Congress. She became so controlled by this need to react to this policy change — a change, by the way, that was ultimately outside of her control because the political will simply did not exist in the current Congress — that it made her sick. She became wild-eyed, exhausted, and ill and ultimately of little use to her staff, board or social change mission. If she had instead taken a step back, become quiet, and analyzed what was within her ability to change and what was not, she could have then developed a way forward from that knowledge. And I think she would have been much more successful.

If our actions come from a place of anger, frustration, or despair in reaction to the behavior of others, then we are only exacerbating the problem. This has become even more obvious since the 2016 election. The Trump Administration will take an action or make a statement that is so egregious, that goes so completely against what we as social change leaders have worked our whole lives to promote, and our initial response is to react, to fight, to bend in despair.

But we are only making it worse. We are feeding the demons of division, anger, and hatred.

I think Brene Brown would likely agree.  In her latest book, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone she argues that in feeding into the anger and hatred that swirls around us, we are only hurting our efforts for larger social change and a better, more just world:

If we zoom way out and take a wide-angle shot of our world that’s increasingly defined by twenty-four-hour news, politics and social media, we see a whole lot of hatred. We see posturing, name-calling, and people trading humiliations…Pain will subside only when we acknowledge it and care for it. Addressing it with love and compassion would take only a minuscule percentage of the energy it takes to fight it…Holding on to [anger] will make us exhausted and sick. Internalizing anger will take away our joy and spirit; externalizing anger will make us less effective in our attempts to create change and forge connection. It’s an emotion that we need to transform into something life-giving: courage, love, change, compassion, justice.”

I wonder how the tide might shift if each one of us stepped away from the noise and the hatred and instead came from a place of courage, love, change, compassion, and justice, as Brene suggests. Instead of reacting to the noise, we became silent and sought to truly listen, to understand, to find common ground with those around us.

I was raised in the Catholic faith, and although I no longer practice, I’m sometimes reminded of the beautiful prayers of that faith. One of my favorites is the Prayer of St. Francis. I wonder if in these historic words there is something for those of us who want to see a more just, inclusive, loving world. Perhaps as true leaders we must do what sometimes feels impossible and instead of reacting to hatred and anger, offer love and hope, as the prayer suggests:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy…

I am not suggesting that we pardon behavior or comments that we find objectionable. But rather, that we refuse to add fuel to them by stirring up the anger, frustration, and despair of our friends, our family, our employees, our donors, our board members, our fellow social change leaders.

What if instead of spending time forwarding, commenting or re-Tweeting depressing news or comments; obsessively refreshing our news feeds for the latest dose of adrenaline; or worrying over what the next outrage will be, we build effective organizations and work across organizations, we develop smart strategies and deep networks, we instill social change leaders with confidence and ample resources, we focus on what brings us joy and peace so that we are refreshed each day to start anew, we take good care of our families and friends so that we all have the energy and the optimism necessary to see our goals realized.

There is no doubt that these are incredibly challenging times. But what if the social change leaders who dream of a more compassionate, equitable and inclusive world work towards that goal from a place of calm and confidence, rather than a place of anger and fear. Indeed, I wonder if that is truly the only way forward.

Photo Credit: sarowen

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About the Author: Nell Edgington is President of Social Velocity (www.socialvelocity.net), a management consulting firm leading nonprofits to greater social impact and financial sustainability. Social Velocity helps nonprofits grow their programs, bring more money in the door, and use resources more effectively. For more information, check out Social Velocity consulting services and clients.


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2 Comments to A Reactive Nonprofit Leader Will Get Us Nowhere

Rand E. Morgan
February 5, 2018

Well articulated, Nell. Thank you for those thoughts. Several months ago, I had posted a similarly veined comment on a fellow community foundation’s blog. The blog had an understandably very impassioned, reactionary bent to it. I had suggested that maybe instead of reacting to the noise, and thus becoming additional noise makers, that we take a moment to quiet ourselves, do some real listening in an attempt to better understand, before taking any kind of appropriate action. Alas, my post was never added to the published replies.

Nell Edgington
February 5, 2018

Thanks Rand. I’m sorry to hear your comment was ignored. I strongly believe we can be so much more powerful and effective if we come from a place of quiet instead of a place of reaction. Keep trying to get your important message across to the foundation community!

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