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Inspiration

How Open to Change Is Your Nonprofit, Really?

nonprofit changeBecause I talk about change in the nonprofit sector a lot, I sometimes get inquiries from nonprofit leaders who think they want change at their organization, but actually don’t.

A nonprofit leader might be excited by the idea of dramatically improved fundraising results, or a board who is engaged and invested in the work, or funders who want to step up, but she isn’t willing to do the hard work to realize that change.

I recently talked with a nonprofit leader who was interested in a Financial Model Assessment because he was intrigued by the idea of potential revenue increases. But when I explained that realizing those changes might necessitate other changes — like how he structures his staff, how involved in decision-making he allows the board to be, even how he crafted their long-term strategy — he began to balk.

But the fact is that you simply cannot expect a different result if you continue to operate in the exact same ways.

When I work with a nonprofit organization, my role is to lead a change process so that when I leave, the organization is more sustainable, more engaged and engaging, more strategic and integrated, and ultimately more effective at creating social change.

But significant change is not easy. And for it to truly come to fruition it requires that the nonprofit leader must fully commit — and get her board and staff to fully commit — to creating real, lasting change.

The nonprofit sector is sometimes criticized for being too stuck in its ways. And indeed it can be hard to create change amid a sector that is so consensus-based. Sometimes even the smallest decisions must involve discussion among staff, the board, even funders and other stakeholders.

So if you really want the reality that your nonprofit faces to be different, if you want to find greater financial sustainability, if you want to achieve more program results, if you want to attract more and bigger funders, if you want a stronger, more effective board, you have to commit to real change. And then you have to get others at your organization to commit to real change as well.

I can often tell the difference between a nonprofit leader who is just playing at change, and one who is actually committed to doing the hard work. Ask these questions to determine if your nonprofit is truly ready for meaningful change:

  • Are we willing (at every level of the organization) to take a hard look at how we operate and make changes where behaviors or systems no longer make sense?
  • Are we willing to have difficult conversations, perhaps on formerly taboo topics, in order to find a better way forward?
  • Are we excited enough by the potential rewards of change to work hard to convince skeptics (on the board and/or staff) to come along?
  • Are we as an organization willing to invest the time (and patience) in a change process that could take months or years to fully realize?
  • Are we willing to open everything we do as an organization to discussion and analysis?

If you can find a critical mass of board and staff members who can answer yes to these questions, then your nonprofit is a candidate for true change and a more effective and sustainable path forward.

Because change is really hard. But with effective, meaningful change can come great reward.

To learn more about the Financial Model Assessment I use with clients, download the Financial Model Assessment benefit sheet.

Photo Credit: Pat Ronan

 

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Nonprofit Leaders, You Are Not Alone

nonprofit leaderOne of my favorite parts of my job is the time I spend working one-on-one to coach nonprofit leaders. One of my clients jokingly refers to our coaching sessions as “nonprofit therapy.”

While we certainly don’t delve into psychology when we meet, it is, I think often cathartic for nonprofit leaders to have an impartial third party who can listen to their frustrations with a disengaged board, understand the loneliness of leadership, appreciate their dismay with funders who are pulling them in too many directions, empathize with their fear that fundraising goals won’t be met.

We all — every single one of us — need someone in our lives who understands the challenges we are facing and can offer some guidance, new ideas, insights that can move us from a rut to a more productive path.

When I start a coaching session with a nonprofit leader, I often ask some key questions to get us moving forward:

What is the biggest thing bothering you right now?
Sometimes nonprofit leaders are so stuck in the weeds, so overwhelmed, so exhausted, or so alone that they cannot pinpoint one issue, let alone figure out a way forward. So I start by encouraging them to just unpack everything. This will often result in a venting session, and that’s completely fine. Letting off steam is absolutely crucial. And nonprofit leaders have very few confidants with whom they can share those struggles. Since a nonprofit leader always needs to put on a brave face to her staff, her board and her funders, she has very few people she can tell the bitter truth, so that’s a big part of my role.

How can we prioritize these challenges?
While it might be tempting, we cannot stop with venting. Once we’ve made a list of the challenges, frustrations and concerns a nonprofit leader is facing, I help her to prioritize those challenges in terms of the biggest threats and their dependence on other things to be resolved. So for example, a nonprofit leader who is struggling to meet her fundraising goals, is frustrated by an ineffective board, and lacks enough staff must analyze how large a threat each of those issues is related to the others, and which are dependent on the others to solve. It may be that kicking the board into gear might help alleviate the other two problems because if the board can start helping bring money in the door, she can better address her fundraising goals which leads to her ability to add additional staff.

Where can we tap into your existing assets?
But how do you do that? As I’ve said, nonprofit leaders are often very isolated and think it is all up to them. But if a nonprofit leader can think strategically about who might be able to help, he can move forward more effectively. A nonprofit leader who is struggling without enough staff and is challenged by his ineffective board could potentially find an ally or two among his board and/or funders. I help a nonprofit leader to think through potential allies who can help overcome a hurdle. A one-on-one conversation with a quiet, but well-respected board member about the specific challenge a nonprofit leader faces may yield that board member’s support and voice toward bringing the rest of the board around. Similarly, identifying one or two funders who could be convinced of the need to invest in capacity-building could yield additional staff and infrastructure to overcome those challenges.

I firmly believe that there is a solution to every challenge a nonprofit leader faces. But in order to get to that solution, a nonprofit leader must be willing to analyze the problem and think strategically and creatively about how she can solve it.

If you want to learn more about the nonprofit leader coaching I provide, download my Coaching benefit sheet. And if you want to learn more about being a strong nonprofit leader, download the Reinventing the Nonprofit Leader book.

Photo Credit: Vinoth Chandar

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The Importance of Taking Time Off

hammockThere was a very disturbing report last week. An NPR poll found that half of Americans who work 50-plus hours a week don’t take all or most of the vacation they’ve earned. And among those who do take vacations, 30% say they do “a significant amount” of work while on vacation.

Ugh!

I cannot stress enough how important it is to the critical social change work we are all doing to take a break every once in awhile. And I mean really take a break and reconnect with those things that make us human, not machine. I don’t care what your job is and how critically important the work you do is, you will do it more effectively if you are a whole person. And you become and stay a whole person when you take time away from that job.

And because I believe in practicing what I preach, I’m about to take my own advice and disconnect from the world of social change (and social media) for the next few weeks. Instead I will be relaxing, playing with my kids, reading, hiking, and just being.

But in case you’ve already taken your time off (good for you!) and you want some things to read while I’m out, here are a few things to explore:

I’ll be back to writing the blog in mid-August. In the meantime, I hope you all find some space to breathe, to think, and to reconnect with what you are meant to do. Because believe me, we need you back in the Fall inspired and ready for the hard work ahead.

Photo Credit: Five Furlongs

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Nonprofit Financial Health and Sustainability: Pillar 4

FLYToday I am continuing my on-going blog series on the 7 Pillars of the Performance Imperative. The Performance Imperative was released last year as a north star for the nonprofit sector by the Leap Ambassadors, of which I am a member. Pillar 4, about sustainable financing, is obviously my favorite since I am arguably obsessed with nonprofit financial sustainability.

You can also read about Pillar 1: Courageous, Adaptive Leadership, and Pillar 2: Disciplined, People-Focused Nonprofit Management, and Pillar 3: Well-Designed and Implemented Programs.

I believe it is absolutely critical that a high-performing nonprofit organization have a smart strategy for attracting and employing money effectively. Because without a sustainable financial model there is nothing else — no mission, no performance, no social change.

You can download the detailed Performance Imperative here, but here are the highlights of Pillar 4: Financial Health and Sustainability. In a nonprofit that exhibits financial health and sustainability, the board and staff:

  • Take charge of their organization’s financial destiny. They articulate the value they deliver and develop overall financing strategies, tightly aligned with their mission, to support and sustain it.
  • Establish strong systems for financial stewardship and accountability throughout their organization.
  • Build and participate in budget processes that are oriented toward achieving results.
  • Share their financial results transparently with key stakeholders regularly.
  • Treat fund development as a strategic function that requires focus, management, capital, and specialized skill sets.
  • Operate with margins that allow them to build their balance sheet.
  • Understand their organization’s cost structure.
  • Use financial models to make clear and transparent the organization’s financial condition and predict how it will end the year.

In other words, high performing nonprofit leaders understand, embrace and use money as a tool to achieve social change. They create a robust financial model that articulates true costs and creates a strategy to attract enough and the right kinds of money, engage board and staff in making that model a reality, is transparent with outsiders about the model, and above all uses money strategically. In short, a high-performing nonprofit finances, instead of fundraises for, the social change they want to create.

I want to be very clear, however, that financial sustainability does not mean, as some people sometimes confuse it, that a nonprofit moves away from philanthropy and toward earned income, which is somehow more sustainable. This is a fallacy in thinking that nonprofits can somehow be market-driven. Because nonprofits exist to remedy a disequilibrium in the market economy they will always have to be at least somewhat subsidized, by government, philanthropy, or both. Therefore, financial sustainability in the nonprofit world means creating and executing on an overall financial strategy that allows a nonprofit to effectively deliver on outcomes.

FLY (Fresh Lifelines for Youth), a nonprofit that works with teens in the juvenile justice system to break the cycle of violence, crime, and incarceration, is an example of Pillar 4.

Here is their story, as Christa Gannon, FLY’s Chief Executive Officer & Founder explained it to me:

 

Three years ago we were extremely fortunate to be a grantee of Edna McConnell Clark Foundation’s PropelNext initiative to help organizations prepare for growth and scale. At the same time as a grantee of our local and sophisticated foundation funder Tipping Point we participated in a comprehensive training on ensuring that our financial and development practices were aligned and consistent with best practices.

Through these two initiatives we had the privilege of learning a great deal and working with outstanding consultants who created the space for us to step back and productively ask ourselves what was working and what could work better for us as we grew. We brought these findings to our board, worked with the consultants to update and refine our practices, created new dashboards, and brought consultants to board meetings and committee meetings to help us elevate our line of sight and institute new ways of being.

We began these efforts with the help of a long-time employee who helped lead our financial efforts for over 7 years (now going on 10 years!). We elevated his role (creating a position for a Director of Finance and Operations), had our consultants provide some coaching and guidance and invested in his capacity to learn, grow, and lead. Additionally, during this time we brought on a new COO with a great deal of financial acumen who helped this process a great deal. It allowed me to take a critical step back from finance to allow new approaches to take hold and grow.

We revamped our monthly financials, our CEO dashboard, and our dashboard for the board. Additionally we created a new budget-building process which includes a multi-year budget (expense and revenue) forecast and straw budgets. We also changed our internal practices for how we managed temporarily restricted net assets. In previous years when we received grants/gifts off fiscal year cycle (and many are) we would hold those funds and spend them down in the latter half of their cycle, which often meant the grants spanned two fiscal years. This created a great deal of extra work and challenges for our team. We modified this process, which has resulted in an increase in net unrestricted assets available to us as we grow and scale.

One challenge we’ve realized in this process is that we have been so extremely cost conscious and frugal that we have unintentionally built a financial model that relies on staffing structures that cannot be maintained as we grow and scale while ensuring the highest quality services that our clients and community deserve.

As these challenges became apparent to us, we have taken critical steps such as reducing case-load ratios for line staff, adding critical positions to support talent recruitment and development, finance, fundraising, evaluation and learning, etc.. To support this capacity building we are investing in our fundraising ability, engaging our board even more in their role to help garner financial resources, and allocating more of my time to strategy, fundraising, and board development.

We have always felt incredibly grateful for the opportunity to help steward the generosity and strategic thinking of our investors, foundation and corporate supporters, and government partners into the world. As our systems for how we tackle financial management have changed and improved that attitude of gratitude has remained.

What has changed for us, however, is a desire and intention to simplify how we think about and manage our funds such that our processes are clear, straight forward, and understandable by all involved without undue explanation or re-education in meeting after meeting (both board and staff). Our efforts to be cost-conscious, thoughtful, and prudent inadvertently led to systems and processes that made our work more complicated and time consuming than it needed to be. In part this reflected my mindset and efforts as founder. It required me to let go and not white-knuckle our financial approach; trust the team, systems, and consultants; and realize that the approach that got us to this point in the organization’s history would not be the best approach to get us to the next milestone.

We are very mindful that the work we do and the population of young people we serve is not a top priority for many philanthropists. As a result, we take every investment very seriously and are very clear that it means a kid gets a chance to become so much more than their past mistakes.

For us, financial investments are life changing for our clients. We may be the only chance they get, so we want to ensure we deploy each resource to its highest and best use.

Photo Credit: FLY

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Why Nonprofit Boards and Fundraising Must Mix

mixing board and fundraisingI recently received a note from a blog reader who disagreed with my argument that a nonprofit’s board of directors should be charged with raising 10% of their nonprofit’s budget. Not only did this reader disagree with the idea of setting a 10% board fundraising goal, but he disagreed with linking board governance and fundraising at all.

As he wrote:

“I recently resigned from a board of a nonprofit, after a 5-year stint. I was honored to be asked to join the board, until at my first meeting pledge cards were passed around, and I realized it was my money, not my leadership skills, that qualified me for board membership. I have given on numerous occasions, but I refused to pay a “bill” I received for my share of employee Christmas bonuses last year. There have been many instances where the board was expected to give money. Only a tiny fraction of the budget would be raised through these measures, so it seemed like it was a membership test. Governance should be totally separate from fundraising.”

While I appreciate this reader’s frustration as a board member, I would argue that his unfortunate experience had more to do with poor management of a board, and less to do with fundraising being part of a board member’s charge.

I don’t believe board members should ever be “billed” for a contribution. Rather, the board chair and the executive director should sit down with each board member individually on an annual basis and have an open conversation about that board member’s role on the board. This should be a much larger conversation than just what she wants her annual financial commitment to be, but that still must be part of the conversation. So while you absolutely should discuss why the board member has chosen to serve on your board and what she would like her role to be, you also can (and should) discuss how she wants to contribute to the financial model of the organization.

And if you define a board member’s “contribution” much more broadly than just a check she writes, the sum total of all of the contributions each board member makes can be much more significant than “a tiny fraction of the budget.” Every single board member, if truly right for the post, has many ways to contribute to the financial model of a nonprofit (here is just a beginning list of ways). If you ask board members to think strategically about how they can contribute, and if they are well versed in the financial model of the organization they serve, it should be fairly easy to get them involved in a significant way.

And getting each board member engaged and involved in the organization should be the aim. While I agree that the idea of a “membership test” is certainly unappealing, there should be a bar to being a member of the board of a nonprofit organization. If some members are allowed to be members in name only, but not required to have any skin in the game, then what compels any member to invest their time and resources in a significant way? If there is no bar that a board member must clear to be a board member, then what separates a board member from just an interested member of the public?

A board of directors must be a nonprofit’s staunchest supporters, most vocal advocates, and most committed allies. If a nonprofit cannot depend on its board to work tirelessly, not only to ensure achievement of the mission, but also to ensure financial sustainability, how can a nonprofit possibly expect those outside the organization to care? So, yes, being a member of a board must come with some level of commitment, both of time and of resources.

Because at the end of the day, there is no mission without money. By allowing any individual board member, let alone your entire board, to make programmatic and organizational decisions without fully understanding and contributing to the financial model of the organization you are creating an enormous disconnect between mission and money. A person cannot hope to understand something unless they have actually worked within it. So each board member must somehow contribute to the financial model of the nonprofit on which they serve.

Just because nonprofit leaders sometimes do a poor job of engaging their board in the financial model does not mean that we should separate the governance of a nonprofit from its financial model. All board members must understand, embrace, and actively work toward the financial sustainability of the nonprofit they govern.

Photo Credit: Susana Fernandez

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: June 2016

social changeWhat is it about June and social change? Last June was the landmark ruling by the Supreme Court legalizing gay marriage, a huge victory after decades of social change work. This June, while perhaps not as pivotal, offered some clear glimpses of impending social change.

The horrible tragedy in Orlando stirred Democrats in the U.S. House and Senate to stage protests calling for votes on gun legislation. And the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union sent shockwaves around the world. Add to that some fascinating data (about civil rights and education, charitable giving, and the refugee crisis), some strong words about tech philanthropists, and a distaste for the term “nonprofit,” and it made for an interesting month in the world of social change.

Below are my picks of the 10 best reads, but if you want a longer list, follow me on Twitter @nedgington.

And if you want to see past months’ great reads lists go here.

  1. In the wake of the brutal killing of 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, the U.S. Congress temporarily ground to a halt with a Democratic filibuster in the Senate and then a Democratic sit-in in the House, all in the name of forcing Republicans to take a vote on gun control legislation. While neither effort was successful in passing gun legislation, change may be coming, due in part to a new and growing gun control group.

  2. June also saw the shocking vote by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union (“Brexit”), a move that many argue will have a huge impact on the global economy. Much was written about the implications of the vote, but most interesting (and most related to social change) were Spencer Wells’ fascinating look at the fundamental economic, demographic and political shifts behind the vote, and Jake Hayman’s view on what philanthropy can learn from it. As he put it: “The future of philanthropy and the future of politics have to lie in something beyond the economic. Indeed it will be the ones that invite those they wish to serve into the heart of decision-making and dedicate themselves to reforming systems – rather than propping them up – that will come to thrive.”

  3. One of the reasons some in the United Kingdom voted for Brexit may be fear about the refugee crisis. Ever relevant to the issues of the day, Pew Research offers some key facts about the world’s refugees.

  4. And speaking of votes, in the November U.S. presidential election Millennials (because of their sheer numbers) stand to have a real impact. Derrick Feldmann from Achieve discusses some new research about Millennials’ particular approaches to civic engagement and how they might play out in the presidential election.

  5. Writing in The New York Review of Books, Lewis B. Cullman and Ray Madoff express “grave concern” about a fundamental shift they see in the funding of the nonprofit sector due to the increasing popularity of donor advised funds (DAFs). Donors receive an immediate tax benefit when setting up a DAF, but the donation may not find its way to the nonprofit sector for years to come. As they put it, “Donor-advised funds have been a bad deal for American society. They have produced too many private benefits for the financial services industry, at too great a cost to the taxpaying public, and they have provided too few benefits for society at large. When we consider their overall effect, we see that rather than supporting working charities and the beneficiaries they serve, they have undermined them.”

  6. One of the smartest philanthropic thinkers, by far, is Clara Miller president of the F.B. Heron Foundation. She offers a two part treatise (part 1 and part 2) on what the foundation of the 21st century should look like. She writes that foundations must learn to adapt their approach and business model: “While permanence may be a key mission requirement for some…fossilized thinking cannot be. We simply can’t succeed in a vacuum, especially when the pace and nature of the gaps we are called upon to fill have become larger and more frequent, the problems more intertwined and the needs more urgent.” Amen!

  7. Never one to pull punches, blogger Vu Le has some strong words for a particular type of philanthropist, those coming from tech companies thinking they know how to fix nonprofits. As he tells them, “Don’t think for a moment that just because you’re great at one thing, it means you have the legitimacy to give advice in an area that you have little experience and training in. I don’t go around telling you how to design apps or wifi-enabled smart light switches. If you want to truly partner to solve entrenched issues our community members are facing, then great. But first, get rid of your assumptions and ego. Otherwise, let’s agree to swipe left.”

  8. Another favorite truth teller, Phil Buchanan from the Center for Effective Philanthropy clearly articulates why the term “nonprofit” is critical and necessary: “Sometimes, nonprofits need to be the voice of opposition to those whose motivation is profit.” Yep.

  9. Giving USA released their annual data on giving in the nonprofit sector. And if you are hungry for even more data about the nonprofit sector, thanks to a a federal court order the IRS is now providing machine-readable nonprofit Form 990s from 2011 to the present.

  10. And speaking of fascinating data, the Department of Education released their annual civil rights data, which has been gathered every year since 1968 in order to assess enforcement of civil rights laws. NPR highlights some jaw-dropping findings.

Photo Credit: Kyle Pearce

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How Is Nonprofit Overhead Still a Thing?

nonprofit overheadLest you think we’ve made headway on overcoming the Overhead Myth (the false notion that nonprofits must keep their fundraising and administrative costs cripplingly low) you need only look as far as a recent Forbes article, “5 Nonprofit Leaders Share How to Keep Overhead Costs to a Minimum.” And this is perhaps even worse because it is nonprofit leaders themselves, not philanthropists or business leaders, telling nonprofit leaders that overhead is bad.

The Forbes Nonprofit Council made up of “top nonprofit execs [who] offer insights on nonprofit leadership & trends” compiled these 5 “tips” for keeping nonprofit overhead low. And the tips are as insidious as you might think. I know I should take the high road and just ignore this ridiculous article, but I simply can’t. In fact, it boggles my mind that overhead (to borrow a phrase from the brilliant John Oliver) is still a thing.

The Forbes article neglects to point out that the concept of “nonprofit overhead” has undergone a real transformation in the past few years. It assumes that “overhead” is still a dirty word, but anyone who has been paying attention knows that that is no longer a given.

There has been a movement among nonprofits and their philanthropic and government funders to evaluate nonprofits based on their results, rather than just their overhead rate. The federal government and some local governments have moved to increase the indirect costs paid to nonprofits. And just last month a new Bridgespan study analyzed the indirect costs of 20 different nonprofit organizations and found, not surprisingly, that overhead rates vary greatly depending on the business model and industry of a given organization (just as it does in the for-profit sector).

So for the Forbes article to simply encourage nonprofits to keep their overhead as low as possible ignores the changes that have occurred in the sector and the very real fact that different organizations, business models and issue areas might require very different administrative and fundraising costs.

But beyond those huge oversights, the Forbes article does a further disservice to the nonprofit sector by providing 5 ridiculous and crippling “tips” for keeping overhead low. Here’s why each one is so wrong:

  1. “Look for Low-Cost IT Options”
    To the contrary, I would say that many nonprofits don’t spend enough on IT. So often nonprofit leaders are using outdated technology and systems, or worse, not gathering data at all because they simply don’t have the funds. Nonprofits need to spend more, not less, on IT.

  2. “Don’t Overwork Your Team”
    Seriously? Isn’t overwork simply a given in the nonprofit sector? Because nonprofit leaders often don’t have the funds to hire enough staff, they ask the staff they do have to wear too many hats. The solution is not to tell nonprofit leaders to stop overworking their team. Rather nonprofit leaders must raise the funds necessary to fully staff the work. And that means we need more money in the sector for capacity building.

  3. “Reward Innovation”
    The Forbes article advises nonprofit leaders to “create a culture that rewards innovation and encourages employees to be scrappy.” Certainly on this point nonprofits already win in spades — nonprofits are nothing if not scrappy. But I’m not sure scrappiness and innovation go hand in hand. It’s hard to be innovative when you are worried the doors may close tomorrow. Innovation comes with more capacity capital — once nonprofits have the tools, systems and people they need, innovation can follow.

  4. “Maintain a Clear Business Methodology”
    And here’s where Forbes falls back on the old stand by — nonprofits need to act more like businesses. But what clear business methodology advises undercutting the sales function (fundraising in the nonprofit sector), systems, and staffing? Why do we choose only some of the ways we want nonprofits to “be like businesses,” but ignore others? No successful business leader will tell you that is a smart strategy.

  5. “Invest in Community Leaders”
    The Forbes “experts” encourage nonprofit leaders to hire more volunteers, students and interns in order to save on staff costs. NOOOOOO! If we are truly going to solve the challenges we face, we need more experts, not fewer. While volunteers and students are great for rote tasks, that only gets you so far. Nonprofits need expert fundraisers, brilliant program people, IT geniuses and more. We don’t encourage Silicon Valley to hire more volunteers and interns to create the next tech solution, so why tell nonprofit leaders to hire more volunteers and interns to create the next social solution?

Can we please, please, please move beyond this broken and damaging view of nonprofits? We would never ask the makers of the next shiny widget to cut their sales, staff and systems to the bone. So let’s not demand that of those working to save the world.

Instead, let’s have a smarter conversation about how social change leaders must ask for (and receive!) the tools they really need to make our world a better place.

If you want to learn more about raising capacity capital to strengthen your nonprofit, check out the Launch a Capacity Capital Campaign Guide and the Power of Capacity Capital book.

Photo Credit: Adrian

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We Must Rise

leadersIt has been a rough several weeks. The horrifying brutality in Orlando was just another instance in what seems like an endless stream of gun violence. And that violence is just one of the challenges facing us, from an increasingly hate-filled presidential campaign, to growing wealth inequality, to racial unrest, to political polarization and gridlock. It seems now more than ever we need real leadership to point us toward the light.

But our nation’s leaders themselves are in turmoil. You only need to look at a recent picture of Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan to see how conflicted and immobilized a leader can become.

We are witnessing a time that requires true leadership. This is a time where we need more people to ask themselves, “What is the right thing to do? What is the hard, potentially unpopular, but absolutely necessary thing to do?”

I think we saw a brief moment of leadership last week when Senate Democrats staged a filibuster  to urge lawmakers to entertain a vote on gun regulation. Regardless of your politics, and the fact that the eventual votes on gun regulation were lost, I think we can all agree that it took courage and leadership for Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) to stand up for 14 hours demanding that his fellow senators take action. His point, along with the other Senators who stood with him, was that we are experiencing a time when leadership is needed. We no longer have the luxury of simply standing by while events at odds with what we know to be right unfold.

As Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) put it:

“In this body, we don’t have to be heroes. We just have to not be bystanders. We’ve been bystanders in this body, we’ve been bystanders in this nation, as this carnage of gun violence has gone from one tragedy to the next. To cast a vote, that’s not heroic. To stand up and say we can be safer tomorrow, we can protect people’s lives, that’s not heroic. That’s just saying, ‘I will not be a bystander.’ And that’s all we have to do.”

A true leader does not ignore the fear that it will be hard, or that they don’t have enough resources, or that they aren’t the right person. A true leader recognizes those fears and proceeds anyway. A true leader doesn’t do the easy thing, or the thing that will benefit him individually or that will benefit the group that he represents. A true leader digs deep and honestly asks — what is the right thing to do? And a true leader does that thing.

As Martin Luther King said:

The great question facing us today is whether we will remain awake through this world-shaking revolution, and achieve the new mental attitudes which the situations and conditions demand. There would be nothing more tragic during this period of social change than to allow our mental and moral attitudes to sleep while this tremendous social change takes place…We are challenged to rise above the narrow confines of our individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

This is a time, perhaps more than usual, for social change leaders especially to step up. Because they are in many respects the moral compass of our country, of our world. They are the ones who are constantly thinking about a better path forward — a path that is more inclusive, democratic, fair and equitable, civil, safe and sustainable. Social change leaders are predisposed to rise up and lead us to a better way (and we are already starting to see that with work to address gun violence).

Social change leaders know better than anyone that times of enormous upheaval can also be times of tremendous opportunity. But only if we choose to act. And, more importantly, only if we are led to act.

At this moment we must not shrink from the darkness. We must not cower in the corner, or think that someone else will do the thing that we all know must be done. We must step up, we must speak out. We must dig deep and ask ourselves, “What can I do (however slight) to shift us from the course of darkness?”

And so we must rise.

Photo Credit: pixabay

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