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Foundations

Is This 21st Century Philanthropy’s Defining Moment?

The Grantmakers for Effective Organizations’ (GEO) conference wrapped up last week leaving participants with much to ponder. (If you missed the three guest posts in the GEO conference blog series, you can still read Kathy Reich’s post, Sean Thomas-Breitfeld’s post, and Pia Infante’s post.)

Over the course of the three days of the conference, I often wondered whether this might be the moment at which our generation of philanthropy recognizes and begins to address the fact that it is born from — and thus must consciously address —  inequity. Philanthropy, by definition, is the result of wealth inequality: those who have achieved enormous wealth decide to give some of that wealth away. While wealth inequality is on the rise, so is racial inequality, according to an update to the landmark 1968 Kerner report, which was released this past February.

This situation is quite similar to that at the end of the 19th century. The Gilded Age brought enormous wealth to “robber barons” like Andrew Carnegie who then gave to philanthropic endeavors, like the Carnegie libraries that cropped up across the country and can still be seen in many cities today. But Carnegie’s philanthropy was sometimes seen as perpetuating a system of wealth inequality, as The Los Angeles Herald warned at the time: “[Andrew Carnegie and other philanthropists] have aimed to betray, and succeeded in betraying, the American laborer. It has been the old and only too true story of the rich becoming richer and the poor poorer, year by year.”

The parallels to today are fascinating. The technology boom brought untold wealth to some (like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg) who have then made large philanthropic investments.  But several speakers at the GEO conference asked philanthropists to take a hard look at how much their philanthropy has truly sought to disrupt the system of inequality from which it was born. As Kathleen Enright, President of GEO, said in her opening keynote remarks: “If you aren’t recognizing the racial disparities in the solution you are attempting to solve, then you aren’t solving it.”

And many other speakers seemed to agree. Nikole Hannah-Jones argued that many philanthropy-backed education reforms of recent years (like charter schools) have focused on fixing surface problems instead of the root cause: “What would our public schools look like if we stopped spending money on trying to make separate equal, and instead integrated our schools?” And Brian Barnes of TandemEd similarly argued that “Philanthropy’s blindspot is that it will only push for change so far as change doesn’t challenge its own interests, positions and reputations.”

In fact many of the speakers and panelists at the GEO conference were asking philanthropists to take a hard look at whether their philanthropy was disrupting or perpetuating the system of inequality from which it was born. Which begs the question: could this be the moment in which philanthropy moves from a band-aid for society’s growing wealth inequality, to a beacon leading society toward a more equitable path?

Certainly GEO is not representative of philanthropy as a whole. By definition GEO members are philanthropists who are seeking to do more with their philanthropy — they are striving to become more “effective” philanthropists. But perhaps this group of philanthropic leaders can start to move philanthropy to become more — to truly remedy the disparities that caused its birth in the first place. That would be transformative.

Photo Credit: Puck magazine cartoon of Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropy by Louis Dalrymple, 1903

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GEO Guest Post: From Uncomfortable Truths to Courageous Action

Note: The third guest blogger in the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) conference blog series is Pia Infante, Trustee and Co-Executive Director of The Whitman Institute. Her post is below.

The 2018 GEO National Conference came to a close yesterday, and 950 of us headed back to our respective cities, families, teams, and desks with fresh connections, conversations, and challenges to integrate back into our daily lives.  I’ll admit that there are times when I come home from a conference and go right back to business without much thought. This is not one of those times.

Kudos to the 2018 GEO Conference Planning Committee and Staff for weaving together an explicit focus on racial equity with thought provoking content and design.  GEO’s focus and commitment to racial equity could be felt and seen in multiple dimensions – from the big questions being posed on the big stage, to the content found in many of the breakout sessions and auxiliary events, to the lineup of plenary presenters.  No two plenaries were alike, except in the distinct choice to elevate the leadership of women and people of color.

On Monday, I was struck by the number of times — in both plenary and breakout sessions — that uncomfortable truths emerged about philanthropy’s complicity in maintaining structural and economic racism.  Many speakers pointed out that despite the philanthropic and the nonprofit sectors, inequities for black and brown communities continue to rise at every marker — wealth, housing, education, incarceration, technology.

Judy Belk kicked off a first uncomfortable truth by asking us not to look away from the signs of distress evidenced by unresolved homelessness and displacement on the picturesque streets of the San Francisco Bay Area. Another tough pill to swallow rang out during Brian Barnes’ opening comments:

Our commitment to enacting equity and justice is valid solely and only to the point that it does not tamper with the safety and security we have for our families, ourselves, and our professional roles.  In other words, at the very point that our sincere belief in the morality and value of our efforts actually begins to threaten our reputation, our resources, or our relationships, almost all of us will abandon ship.”

On Tuesday, among a number of uncomfortable truths that Nikole Hannah-Jones delivered, was the failure of funder-driven education reforms in making her case that separate but equal is deeply unequal — and that integrating schools is the only way to ensure that black and brown students are guaranteed a quality education.  Nikole noted dryly that philanthropy “cares about data-driven results until it points to an uncomfortable result [action], then we’re looking for the find the next best data-driven result.” This observation of the way our sector may simply pick and choose self-reinforcing data was not lost on me, especially when so many efforts to solicit and act on feedback seem to be embraced more widely of late.  It brings up the question: “Whose feedback are we listening to?  Whose data informs our strategies and decisions?”

On Wednesday, Fred Blackwell seemed to speak directly to this when he said:

I’m a believer in results, a believer in using data to drive strategy and decision making.  But [if you are] using data that isn’t disaggregated by race, I don’t know how you are setting strategy, don’t know how you are responding, don’t know how you are measuring impact.”

In that same conversation, Christina Livingston posed a question, “What can funders really do differently to hear from communities – what are tangible practices and mechanisms that not only provide information but substantively form strategy?” While on the surface, this is not a question that appears to make our sector uncomfortable (because we embrace feedback loops, right?), the discomfort may come when community and nonprofit partners challenge us to take actions that fall outside our comfort zones.

In that vein, I’ve been taking note — from The Whitman Institute’s stellar network of partners and from the powerful sessions and speakers at the GEO conference the past few days — of concrete ways that we can move from uncomfortable truths to courageous action.  It’s not rocket science, but for those of us inspired to continue to move our institutions in these ways will require us to lean into vulnerability, collaboration, and courage.

Pass the (Decision and Strategy Making) Ball to Community
Instead of trying to get a slam dunk based on our own top-down strategies, what if we passed some of that strategy- and decision-making to community leadership who have direct experience with the issues we seek to address? We’ve heard in various forms that we need to be a sector that listens more closely and becomes willing to follow the direction and recommendations of communities bearing the brunt of generations old structural inequities.

Change the Lineup
I wasn’t intending these recommendations to be totally referential to basketball, but it is playoff season.  While we can and should strive to educate those in power about racial (in)equities, we will not achieve true equity until we diversify the lineup of who sits at the decision-making table.  Remember the graph that Kathy Reich showed us that in philanthropy: 89% of chief executive identified themselves as white, 85% of board members identified themselves as white, and 40% of foundation boards identified themselves as entirely white.  Given that the inequities of our time (economic, environmental, social, political, technological) all fall disproportionately on black and brown communities, our rosters should show a drastically different executive and board makeup by 2038.

Change Up the Plays
The breakfast panel on affordable housing noted that a half million dollar investment in a policy and advocacy strategy resulted in the passing of a measure that would go on to produce 2 billion dollars of new affordable housing.  If we haven’t considered the role of advocacy when funding for complex social change and social benefit, perhaps it’s time we did. If we have only looked at single issues with singular solutions, it might be time to study up on how interrelated our one issue is to many others.

Let Go of Habitual Structures of Distrust
If we really examine our funding protocols, we may find they are based on the premise that we should be inherently suspicious of nonprofits and communities, and that they need to prove their trustworthiness before we enter into relationship with them.  By adopting a trust-based approach — which includes rigorous listening, inquiry, relationship building, and thorough research as due diligence — we can reverse this distrustful paradigm while saving tons of time and trouble.  Before that long climb to the top of our inbox, let us reflect and revisit the underlying values and premises of our grantmaking structures and be willing permanently to bench those habits that don’t align with our values and missions.

Play the Long Game
In terms of relationships and resources, we hear repeatedly that philanthropy’s fickleness and attention deficit disorder wreaks havoc on the health and sustainability of our nonprofit partners and communities they serve.  While we still talk on plenaries and read in GEO reports that multi-year, unrestricted, flexible funding is ideal — the actual practice is still relatively rare in the sector. Why? We know better, when shall we comprehensively and collectively do better?

Put Resources, Reputation, and Relationship on the Line for Equity
A handful of the uncomfortable truths that we heard on the big stage and in many sessions is that philanthropy is too self-preserving.  What would it look like to take more personal and institutional risks in order to address inequities? Perhaps it means having tough conversations with our boards. Perhaps it means taking a long reflective look at our own self preserving mechanisms and see if it is time to step aside and share power.  Perhaps it means getting more proximate to those experiencing the problems of poverty, criminalization, deportation, homelessness — and being in the uncomfortable position of outsider in a room full of those who do not benefit from our privileges. Perhaps it means getting out from behind our bureaucratic processes and having direct conversations about money and time commitment.  Whatever it looks like, I hope we are each willing to take some kind of vulnerable action in this direction.

Pass the Wealth, Too
Lastly, I do wonder what it would look like to put ourselves out of business as a sector in 20 years?  Often we hear from communities who have suffered from structural racism like redlining and upon whose lands and backs the wealth in this country has been built — that the ultimate goal is self determination.  As a sector, what would it look like to transfer self-generating and wealth-building mechanisms to our communities? This could look like resourcing long term reserves, providing land trusts, offering loan signatories, funding capital campaigns, or endowing community led organizations.  Many of us fear building a dependency on our grant dollars, so if we are brave and willing to risk our own comforts, it may make the most sense to figure out how to invest our endowments in ways that ensure self sufficiency for those to whom we should be most accountable — the intended beneficiaries of our organizational missions.

It seems appropriate to close with the uncomfortable truth, voiced by Martin Luther King, Jr., which Janine Lee lifted up as we began these three days of celebrating GEO’s last 20 years and visioning philanthropy 20 years into the future: “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”

Photo Credit: The Whitman Institute

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GEO Guest Post: Confronting Our Complicity in Racial Inequity

Note: The second guest blogger in this week’s Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) conference blog series is Sean Thomas-Breitfeld, Co-Director of Building Movement Project. His post is below. And don’t forget to follow the conference via #2018GEO.

If Monday’s plenary inspired us to dream about GEO’s 2038 vision, the discussion during Tuesday’s lunch snapped us back to the fierce urgency of now. When John Funabiki – a Professor of Journalism at San Francisco State University and Executive Director of Renaissance Journalism and Storytelling Center – interviewed Nikole Hannah-Jones – the award-winning investigative journalist who was named a 2017 MacArthur Genius Grant fellow – their conversation challenged all of us to confront our complicity in maintaining racial inequity in these troubling times.

Nikole’s 2016 article about choosing a school for her daughter in New York City’s segregated school district highlighted the systemic factors that keep our nation’s schools separate and unequal. But the article also zeroed in on how the personal choices made by middle-class parents – like Nikole and her husband – reveal that even though people may say they want “equality for all,” their choices indicate that what they really want is advantage for their own children.

Nikole warned that her job was to hold a mirror up and make people uncomfortable, and I wondered how much discomfort people were feeling as she spoke critically about funder-driven education reforms over the past decade. She said that too often funding decisions failed to deal with the root of the problem with public schools: segregation.

With school districts across the country abandoning desegregation initiatives – in the form of bussing programs to take kids to schools outside of their neighborhoods – many schools are just as segregated as they were before the landmark Supreme Court ruling on Brown v. Board of Education. In arguing for integration, Nikole said that the goal is not to have white kids and kids of color sitting next to each other in class, as if proximity magically makes kids smarter or better. Integration is a pragmatic strategy for ensuring that white parents and the government invest the same level of resources in schools with kids of color as they do in majority white schools. She reminded us of the lesson learned six decades ago: “separate but equal is not equal.” So for schools to be equal, we can’t keep them separated by race.

Earlier this year, my organization analyzed data from our survey of over 4,000 nonprofit staff about the nonprofit racial leadership gap, paying special attention to the respondents from California in this third report in our Race to Lead series. When we looked at the CEOs in our sample, we realized that half of the leaders of color were running organizations that they categorized as identity-based groups focused on communities of color, whereas two-thirds of white leaders didn’t categorize their organizations as identity-based groups at all. This data suggests that we have segregation in the nonprofit sector too.

While we certainly need to take steps to diversify historically white nonprofit institutions, I also want to affirm the critical role of people of color identity-based organizations. As someone who worked most of my career in identity-based advocacy and organizing groups, I know that those organizations are great places to work, support the leadership development of staff of color, and make critical change in the communities most impacted by systemic and structural racism.

The problem is not that leaders of color work in identity-based organizations, the problem is that those organizations don’t get the same level of investment. Roughly three-quarters of CEOs of color in our sample agreed that organizations led by people of color have a harder time fundraising than similar organizations with white leaders, only a third of white leaders indicated that they were aware of this phenomenon. Separate but equal is not equal.

Photo Credit: Building Movement Project

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GEO Guest Post: A Bold Vision for Philanthropy in 2038

Note: As I mentioned last week, I am at the Grantmakers for Effective Organization’s (GEO) conference this week curating a group of fantastic bloggers. First up is Kathy Reich. Kathy directs the BUILD initiative at the Ford Foundation and is vice-chair of the GEO board of directors. Below is her post. And you can follow the conference via Twitter #2018GEO.

GEO turns 20 this year, and it’s come a long way since 12 people decided they needed a space for grantmakers who geek out on the art and science of their trade.

Today more than 600 foundations belong to GEO, and 950 people have gathered this week in San Francisco for the group’s biannual conference. Thanks in part to GEO’s tireless efforts, practices that once were outside the mainstream of organized philanthropy — general operating support, evaluation for improvement, funder collaboration, use of grantee feedback, and investments in nonprofit capacity building — are now widely recognized as essential in our field.

And yet, the mood doesn’t exactly feel celebratory. GEO isn’t commemorating its birthday by kicking off its shoes and dancing on the tables. (Or at least, not yet—I’m writing this before the opening reception).

Instead, the organization and its members are having one of those reflective birthdays. You know, the kind where you assess whether you’re living up to your values and maximizing your potential. GEO started off the conference by challenging all of us to craft our own visions for the philanthropy field in 2038. (Of course, since we’re in 2018, we’re supposed to tweet them #GEOMagic.)

For GEO, that means adding a commitment to racial equity to their short list of practices that are essential to grantmaker effectiveness. In other words, GEO has come to believe that racial equity is not just something that is nice for foundations to embrace, but something that they must embrace to be truly effective in their work. GEO envisions a sector where foundations lead the way in fostering racial equity in their workplaces, as well as in their funding strategies.

That’s a big step for GEO, and it’s not without controversy. But as GEO’s longtime CEO Kathleen Enright explained in the opening plenary:

“Our sector is dedicated to work that improves lives and strengthens communities. We try to do this based on evidence, data, and facts. And on one point, the data is crystal clear: in just about any community in the United States, and across nearly every issue—from economic opportunity, to education, to health—the most durable predictor of outcomes is race. We cannot expect to see the results we want to see on social challenges without taking into account the profound and pervasive influence of racial inequality in our nation.”

Enright pointed out that nearly two thirds of GEO members already consider racial equity either essential or central to their missions. And she offered powerful examples of how foundations like the Missouri Health Foundation have committed to racial equity in their work.

A commitment to racial equity is now at the center of GEO’s 2038 vision. That vision includes other transformative practices as well. Pia Infante of the Whitman Institute, Brian Barnes of Tandem ED, and I fleshed out a vision for a philanthropic sector that has transformed its approach to social and environmental challenges. In our 2038 vision, philanthropy has embraced:

Courage, by supporting new, non-traditional, and bold leaders, organizations, networks and ideas.

Inclusion, by actively engaging people of color, low-income people, and others least heard in our society as we develop grantmaking strategies and make our funding decisions.

Complexity, by investing in multiple players for the long-term rather than focusing on short-term, linear outcomes.

Learning, by using data to assess progress, challenge our own assumptions, and improve our work as well as the work of our partners.

Collaboration, by working in partnership, and on an equal playing field, with other funders as well as with communities, rather than insisting that “if you’ve seen one foundation, you’ve seen one foundation.”

Flexibility, by making multi-year, general operating support and nonprofit capacity building the norm rather than the exception.

Ambition, by focusing on systems change at the community, regional, national or global level.

“Progress in the field begins with change inside foundations,” Enright said today. “And every single improvement starts with an act of individual courage and leadership.” Over the next three days, 950 people at the GEO conference will listen, learn, and hopefully commit to individual acts of courage that together will advance a bolder vision of philanthropy.

It’ll be hard work. But I anticipate a little celebration will creep in as well. And hopefully, a slice of birthday cake.

Photo Credit: Ford Foundation 

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Philanthropy in Troubled Times: Blogging the 2018 GEO Conference

Next week, as part of the 2018 Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) Conference, I’m excited to host some exceptional guest bloggers here on the blog. GEO’s biennial conference is where the most engaged philanthropists gather to talk about how they can more effectively support nonprofit leaders. GEO has asked me to host a blog series about the conference this year (as I did at the 2016 GEO Conference), and I was more than happy to oblige.

I’m particularly interested this year to see how the GEO Conference plays out amid these troubling times. Certainly the world is a very different place than it was at GEO’s last conference, and this gathering of the most engaged and thoughtful philanthropists could be, I hope, an opportunity for philanthropy to find a way to lead in a time that is arguably dismantling the progressive causes many of these philanthropists have been championing for decades. Indeed, leading philanthropic leaders like Grant Oliphant of the Heinz Endowments has argued that philanthropy “can’t win the battle of ideas by hiding,” and Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation has described his hope that philanthropy will “realize the urgency of now.”

The GEO Conference, held this year from Monday, April 30  to Wednesday, May 2 in San Francisco, is a first-in-class display of philanthropists thinking long and hard about their role in social change. Particularly now, when there is a real opportunity for philanthropy to stand up and have a stronger voice about where our country is headed, this conference provides a real opportunity. I’m looking forward to some open, honest and challenging conversations about how philanthropy can and should do more to lead in these challenging times.

I am particularly excited about several of the planned sessions, including “Supporting Advocacy during Turbulent Times,” “Strengthening Nonprofits as a Social Justice Strategy,” “Philanthropy’s Role in Closing the Nonprofit Racial Leadership Gap,” and “Power and the Future of Philanthropy.”

And starting next Tuesday, May 1st you’ll be hearing from this great group of guest bloggers:

Kathy Reich, Director of BUILD at the Ford Foundation  
Kathy guides Ford’’s efforts to implement sector-leading approaches to support the vitality and effectiveness of institutions and networks that serve as pillars of broader social movements. Before joining Ford, Kathy worked for 15 years at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, most recently as organizational effectiveness and philanthropy director. Prior to that, she was policy director at the Social Policy Action Network, served as a legislative assistant on Capitol Hill, and worked for state and local elected officials in California. Kathy currently serves on the boards of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations and the Peninsula Jewish Community Center, and co-chairs the Fund for Shared Insight. She was named a Schusterman Fellow in 2016. She has also been featured on the Social Velocity blog several times in the past, as an interviewee twice (here and here) and a guest blogger.

 

Sean Thomas-Breitfeld, Co-Director of the Building Movement Project
Prior to joining BMP, Sean spent a decade working in various roles at the Center for Community Change, developing training programs for grassroots leaders, coordinating online and grassroots advocacy efforts, and lobbying on a range of issues, including immigration reform, transportation equity and anti-poverty programs. Before joining the Center, Sean worked as a Policy Analyst at UnidosUS (formerly the National Council of La Raza), where he focused on employment and income security issues. Sean received a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from NYU’s Wagner School, where he now serves as an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Public Service. You can read my past interview with Sean here.

 

Pia Infante, Trustee and Co-Executive Director of The Whitman Institute
Pia speaks and teaches on radically embodied leadership and trust based practice in many settings including Harvard Kennedy School: Center for Public Leadership, Ashoka Future Forum, Opportunity Collaboration, Net Impact, Council on Foundations, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, International Human Rights Funders Group, and the Skoll World Forum. She also proudly serves as the Board Chair for the Center for Media Justice and is on faculty for the M.A. in Leadership Sustainability at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources as well as Thousand Currents Academy. She is an I.C.F. certified executive leadership coach and holds an M.A. in Education from the New School for Social Research.

 

After the conference is over I’ll do a wrap-up post that will bring the blog series to a close.  If you plan to be at the GEO Conference, please let me know, I’d love to see you there!

Photo Credits: GEO, Ford Foundation, Building Movement Project, The Whitman Institute

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Will There Be a #MeToo Moment for the Nonprofit Sector?

In light of the recent #MeToo movement raising awareness about sexual harassment and gender disparity in Hollywood and other industries, the Chronicle of Philanthropy/AFP study released earlier this month showed that 25% of nonprofit fundraisers have experienced sexual harassment in their job, most often from donors.

Perhaps this will be the impetus for the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors to uncover and reckon with gender disparity.

And I wonder if this reckoning will also include a recognition that the nonprofit sector itself suffers from a larger gender-based disparity between those who have money and those who seek that money for their cause.

The nonprofit sector is predominantly female — 70% of workers in the nonprofit sector are women. And the leadership of the private sector (from which much of the money to fund nonprofits comes) is predominantly male — 96% of the CEOs in the S&P 500 are male, and 80% of all C-Suite roles belong to men.

Kristen Joiner pointed out this discrepancy a couple of years ago in a Stanford Social Innovation Review article, arguing that the gender power imbalance between those who have money to invest in nonprofit solutions and those running those solutions is based on the larger gender disparity of our society:

Maybe it’s just a coincidence that leaders of startups in the male-dominated sector get financial support for their ability to develop and execute original ideas, while the leaders of start-ups in the female-dominated sector get financial support for their ability to manage someone else’s idea well. Maybe. But I believe it’s likely that the power dynamics at play between the nonprofit and private sectors reflect the gender dynamics of our larger society.

The nonprofit sector is mainly run by women, the private sector is mainly run by men. Is it possible that the power imbalance we talk about between nonprofits and funders has its roots in good old fashioned sexism?  And if we acknowledge and discuss that, could we at long last perhaps find a way through it?

If we were to rectify the gender disparities at play in the nonprofit sector, it might look like this:

More Nonprofit Advocacy
Regulators, board members and funders ask nonprofit leaders to keep their political voices silent, sometimes even on issues that directly impact their ability to achieve their mission. While businesses can spend millions on lobbying and support of political candidates, nonprofit political action is much more restrictive. Nonprofit leaders need to be allowed to raise their voices, whenever and wherever it will help their mission.

More Access to Unrestricted Money
Money given with strings attached is a signal that the funder doesn’t fully trust the skills and abilities of those he is giving the money. More unrestricted dollars means nonprofit leaders are freed up to do whatever they think it takes to achieve their organization’s goals.

More Support of the Fundraising Function
Robust marketing and sales operations are a given in the business world. But “fundraising” (the nonprofit equivalent of “sales”) remains a dirty word. Nonprofit leaders need to be emboldened to build robust, sophisticated fundraising functions, and they need sufficient financial investment to be able to do that.

Rejection of the Overhead Distinction
Nonprofit leaders are often encouraged to spend only a small amount of money on infrastructure, administration and fundraising (overhead expenses). But overhead is a meaningless distinction made in the nonprofit sector, and one that is not made in the for-profit sector. Nonprofit leaders need to remove the overhead shackles so that they can create strong, effective, well-supported organizations.

Development of Strong Leaders
Business leaders often invest in professional development, training, and coaching, but a nonprofit leader must figure it all out on her own. We need to recognize that strong nonprofit leaders are every bit as important and necessary as strong for-profit leaders, and we should invest in nonprofit leadership development accordingly.

I say Time’s Up for the debilitating restrictions placed on nonprofit leaders around securing unrestricted money; investing in organizations, fundraising and leadership; and pursuing political activity. We must recognize and rectify practices born from a history of gender disparity if we want to truly benefit from the solutions nonprofit leaders have to offer.

Photo Credit: numb3r

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The Danger of the Nonprofit Savior Complex

You know the Nonprofit Savior Complex, I know you do. It’s when a nonprofit leader begins to believe that she (and only she) cares enough, knows enough, or is enough to fix the massive problem she cares so deeply about.

The positive side to the Savior Complex is it compels people who see an injustice in the world to stand up and do something about it. It is their very belief that they can make a difference that compels them to act, and often to make positive social change. Indeed, it is this altruistic entrepreneurial spirit that drives the social change sector. And it can be a beautiful thing.

But when it is taken too far, the Savior Complex can become dangerous.

Instead of reaching out to other leaders, building networks, being open and brutally honest with funders, demanding more from their board, the Nonprofit Savior instead chooses to go it alone. I’ve seen it in my clients, and I’ve seen it in myself.

It’s the program director who refuses to take a vacation because she thinks her program will fall apart in her absence. It’s the executive director who rather than demand real engagement from her board, just soldiers on by herself. It’s the activist who marches every weekend — to the detriment of her health, her family, her job — because she thinks no one else will.

The reality is that the complex problems we face cannot be solved by a single savior. Let’s face it, Superman doesn’t exist. So as a true leader you have to create the space — in your own organization, in your own community, in your own social issue area — for others to step up and lead alongside you.

Let me be clear. I am not arguing that nonprofit leaders should sit back and let nature take its course, particularly when progressive social issues are seemingly under constant attack.

Rather, I am arguing that you must begin seeing yourself and your organization as part of a larger complex of committed, capable, caring, effective people and organizations. You must move from creating individual action that will only get you so far, to creating coordinated network action.

To move away from the Savior Complex you have to reach out to others, to form partnerships, to build networks. So start by recognizing that others beyond you care just as much, are just as capable (maybe in different ways), and are worthy of your time to figure out how you can work together effectively. There is tremendous power in numbers.

So to overcome the Savior Complex, you can:

You might be surprised as the leaders (within your organization, within your issue area, within your community) step up in the space you have finally left open.

The Savior Complex is ultimately about an overactive ego. Someone who suffers from the Savior Complex fundamentally (but perhaps unconsciously) believes that no one can or will do it as well as she does. But the fact is that there are others out there. And to truly accelerate change we need more people working together within and across organizations, rather than working themselves to the bone amid an isolated, competitive, singular view of the world.

Photo Credit: Tom Bullock

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Why Women Will Lead the Social Movement For Gun Control

As a mother and a human being, the Parkland, Florida school shooting on Wednesday cut me to the core. As I know it did so many of you.

And as someone who spends my time writing about and advising social change efforts, I am also curious about how growing momentum to create change to the obviously severe social problem of gun violence in America will evolve. Because it can often seem that gun violence is an impossible problem for America to solve. But as Daniel Kibblesmith put it on Twitter, it is not:

 

True, smoking was once so pervasive in America, and the tobacco lobby so strong that there was little hope that change would happen, but it has. There are now few places where you can smoke inside and smoking rates have dropped dramatically over the last 40 years. In 1965 almost 43% of American adults smoked, in 2014 only 17% did.

History shows that this pattern of social change repeats again and again — from the abolition of slavery, to women’s suffrage, to the legalization of interracial marriage. An issue becomes so egregious that it builds enough critical mass to force change.

Bloomberg did a fascinating graphic of 6 social issues and how quickly they went from a flash point of public interest to a change in federal policy. The issues ranged from prohibition, to women’s suffrage, to abortion. The amount of time that spanned between an issue’s flash point and change to federal law ranged from 2-19 years:

 

The idea is that once an issue becomes so important to the American public it is only a question of time (and relatively short time at that) before the issue moves through the states to eventually become a federal policy change. As Bloomberg writers Alex Tribou and Keith Collins put it:

“Social change in the U.S. appears to follow a pattern: A few pioneer states get out front before the others, and then a key event—often a court decision or a grassroots campaign reaching maturity—triggers a rush of state activity that ultimately leads to a change in federal law.”

The 10+ year social movement to legalize gay marriage is an excellent example of this. Launched in 2004 as a collaboration among many social change organizations, funders, and experts, by June 2015 (11 short years later) gay marriage became legal across the country.

So, what will it take for Americans, who overwhelmingly support common sense gun legislation, to rise up and convince their elected officials to make change? It is already beginning in many states, with hundreds of gun control laws passed at the state level since Sandy Hook. I think we will see a federal-level change to gun control in the next 5-10 years. It is within the realm of possibility to push the federal government to change gun laws.

And I honestly think that that push will come largely from moms. Women like me, who watched in horror as children the exact same age as my youngest son ran, arms locked with classmates, screaming in terror out of Sandy Hook Elementary and then just 5 years later watched again in horror as children the exact same as my oldest son shared video on SnapChat of the bloodshed they witnessed.

Let me tell you, there is hardly a more powerful force in this world than that of a mother wanting to protect her child. 2018 has been called “The Year of Women” because women are stepping up in record numbers to run for office, to advocate, to volunteer, and even take to the streets all in the name of social change. I think gun violence — violence that increasingly threatens to harm our own children — will compel women who are already stepping up to force change.

As a dear friend and fellow mother texted me Wednesday morning:

“Just reading all the politicians offer their bullshit condolences and take money from the NRA makes me sick.”

And as Margaret Mead (also a mother) famously said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Yep. I’m telling you. Our leaders’ willingness to turn a blind eye to the daily carnage around us is wrong on every single level and it will and it must change. I don’t think moms are going to take it much longer. Change is coming. Just you watch.

Photo Credit: Slowking4 

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