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Nonprofit Leaders Have More Power Than They Think

A few weeks ago I wrote a post on a controversial topic, “How to Remove a Troublesome Board Member.” As I wrote in the post,

Of the many taboos in the nonprofit sector, the taboo against asking bad board members to resign is one of the most destructive. Instead of encouraging ineffective or meddling board members to move on, nonprofit leaders often show misplaced gratitude for those errant board members continuing to take up space.

Because it is such a taboo idea, I predictably received several emails, Tweets and comments in response to the post. The most thoughtful of which was from Tom Klaus, who wrote:

Like anyone who has ever led a nonprofit, I’ve wanted to make changes to my board to make everything run a lot better, and I can sympathize with the folks for whom your blog is intended. What I’d like to hear, though, are your thoughts on the legal and ethical aspects of a nonprofit leader making such changes to board.

In most states, the by-laws of a nonprofit organization establish the board of directors as the legal entity upon which the organization is established. The ED or CEO is typically not also a member of the board of directors, in my experience. Hence, there is a legal conundrum facing the leader. He or she may not have legal standing to make the changes to the board you are suggesting in your blog. Now, this is not to say, of course, that nonprofit leaders don’t try to do it anyway; only that doing so might provide the grounds for board members to significantly challenge and even release the nonprofit leader.

The ethical challenge this presents, I believe, is this: Is it ethical for a nonprofit leader to try to change the makeup of the group that hired her or him?

I think the most difficult governance challenge in a nonprofit organization is achieving the delicate balance between the power of the ED/CEO and the power of the Board of Directors. I’m sure we’ve both known organizations that have done this remarkably well, and they become high performing, heartily sustainable, and wildly successful in their work. I’m sure we’ve also both known organizations that just can’t seem to get the balance right.

One of my clients is like this latter. Over the years they have continued to fluctuate between too much power in the hands of the board and too much power in the hands of the ED/CEO. These are among the most unproductive times for them, of course. Just curious about your thinking on this.

Tom raises an excellent point. The nonprofit board of directors are and should be charged with the legal authority to hire and manage the nonprofit executive director. However, that does not mean that they are the only ones to possess the power to make changes in the leadership of the organization. It is important to understand that both board members and executive directors possess power but very different types of power.

In the 1950s two social psychologists, John French and Bertram Raven, defined a new way to think about the kinds of power people possess. They classified six bases of an individual’s social power:

  1. Reward Power is based on a person’s ability to give rewards
  2. Coercive Power is based on a person’s ability to give punishments
  3. Referent Power is based on a person’s ability to make others want to model his/her behavior
  4. Legitimate Power is based on a person’s official title or role
  5. Expert Power is based on a person’s expertise
  6. Informational Power is based on a person’s possession of specific content

Instead of the Legitimate Power that board members enjoy because of their legal title of “board member,” I was referring in my previous blog post to the Expert Power a nonprofit executive director can employ.

A nonprofit’s executive director possesses tremendous expertise in (to name a few):

  • The mission, program delivery and results
  • The organization’s strategy and goals
  • The organization’s day-to-day work
  • The skills, experience, networks needed on the board
  • The resources (potential funding, strategic alliances) available to the organization

The most effective boards are those which are led by the Legitimate Power of the board chair and her committee chairs, paired with the Expert Power of the executive director. Because the reality is that as a group of volunteers who have many more pressing items on their to do list, a board of directors rarely functions at their best when left to their own devices.

Therefore the executive director can and should play a critical role in helping the board leadership to assemble the type of board that will help move the mission forward. This includes:

While the nonprofit executive director does not have Legitimate Power because, as Tom rightly points out, she serves at the behest of the board of directors, she can and should wield Expert Power to help assemble and manage a board that can be instrumental in the nonprofit achieving it’s mission and being sustainable.

To learn more about how to do that, download the 10 Traits of a Groundbreaking Board book.

Photo Credit: 24×7 Photo

 

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How Funders Can Help Overcome the Overhead Myth

Note: In April I will be moderating a panel at the Center for Effective Philanthropy Conference about what funders can do to support nonprofit sustainability. To promote that panel and the conference, the Center for Effective Philanthropy asked me to write a post for their blog, which is reprinted below. You can see the original post at the CEP blog here.

 

Among the many myths that pervade the nonprofit sector, the Overhead Myth is perhaps the most destructive. It is the erroneous idea that nonprofits must keep their fundraising and administrative costs cripplingly low, which leads to anemic organizations that are not as effective as they could be.

In fact, the disparity between the nonprofit and for-profit sector in investment in strong organizations is striking. As just one example, research from the Foundation Center found that in 2011, the business sector spent $12 billion on leadership development, whereas the nonprofit sector spent $400 million. Or, viewed another way, businesses spent $120 per employee on leadership development, whereas the nonprofit sector spent $29 per employee.

But the reality is that nonprofit organizations are no different than for-profit organizations in terms of overhead. Last summer a 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).

Some nonprofit, philanthropic, and government leaders are recognizing that we must move beyond the Overhead Myth and start building stronger nonprofit organizations. This is partly due to the Overhead Myth campaign, launched in 2014 by GuideStar, CharityNavigator, and BBB Wise Giving Alliance with their famous “Letter to the Donors of America” and follow up “Letter to the Nonprofits of America,” which argue that nonprofit leaders and funders must stop judging nonprofits by their overhead rate — and instead focus on a nonprofit’s results. So the idea is that instead of evaluating the effectiveness of a nonprofit organization based on how it spends money, funders would move to evaluate the effectiveness of a nonprofit based on the results it achieves.

This campaign has gained some traction. The federal government and some local governments have moved to increase the indirect costs paid to nonprofits, which means more money for things beyond direct program costs.

But unfortunately, we are far from overcoming the Overhead Myth. An article just this month in Philanthropy Daily extoled the virtues of the Salvation Army because “the most effective nonprofits are those with lean management. The Salvation Army is a constructive example of an effective charity with very low overhead.” And a recent article in Forbes profiled five nonprofit leaders advising other nonprofit leaders about how to keep overhead costs low.

There is still much work to be done in recognizing the need for and investing in strong, effective nonprofit organizations.

Which is where progressive funders, like those who will be attending the 2017 CEP Conference in Boston in April, come in. If a critical mass of funders could start supporting nonprofits to create strong and effective organizations, we could perhaps overcome the Overhead Myth once and for all.

But what does that look like? In my mind, funders can lead the effort to eradicate the Overhead Myth by:

  • Working with their nonprofit grantees to uncover the full costs of their work. Instead of hiding or severely limiting non-program costs, nonprofit leaders must fully analyze, report on, and fund ALL of the expenses necessary to achieve results.
  • Uncovering the capacity constraints that impact their grantees. Funders must actively work with their grantees to determine what is standing in the way of building stronger, more effective organizations — and then fund the solutions to those hurdles.
  • Moving from program-specific funding to unrestricted, general operating support of the organization.
  • Investing in the revenue-generating functions of their grantees. It takes money to create mission, so we need more investments in sustainable financial models, which includes (among other things) smart plan development, recruitment of effective revenue-generating staff, and training of board members on their role in the financial model.

The good news is that there are already funders who are doing these things. For example, there is the collaboration of California grantmakers who lead the Real Cost Project aimed at helping grantmakers understand “what it would take to fund the real costs of the organizations they support — that is all of the necessary investments for a nonprofit organization to deliver on mission and to be sustainable over the long term.”

So to help move this conversation and work further, I will be moderating a breakout session at the 2017 CEP Conference titled “Supporting Nonprofit Sustainability,” where Jacob Harold, president and CEO of GuideStar, Vu Le, nonprofit blogger and executive director of Rainier Valley Corps, and Pia Infante, co-executive director of The Whitman Institute, will be discussing how foundations can start advocating for and investing in stronger, more effective nonprofit organizations.

If nonprofits and those who fund them could overcome the Overhead Myth once and for all, it could be a watershed moment for social change.  It would be the point at which we move from a nonprofit sector that is just trying to get by to a nonprofit sector that is armed with the people, infrastructure, and systems necessary to deliver on lasting social change.

I hope you’ll join us for what promises to be an exciting conversation.

Photo Credit: Mike Baird

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Is Your Nonprofit Stuck In A Rut?

The other day I was talking with a nonprofit leader and was suddenly struck by how much his story echoed so many of the stories I hear from nonprofit leaders.

See if your nonprofit fits some or all aspects of the scenario he faces:

  • His board is passionate about the mission and wants to be helpful, but they don’t really contribute much to the financial model.
  • His staff and board want to expand services, but they can’t grow their budget past where it has been for years.
  • Their funding is fairly dependent on just a couple of sources.
  • Their funders support specific projects, rather than the organization or mission as a whole.
  • Their strategic plan hasn’t been updated in 5 years.
  • The board worries whether some of what the nonprofit does duplicates other efforts out there.
  • Board and staff don’t have a common way to articulate what the nonprofit is and does.
  • Their nonprofit is just barely getting by and has no cash reserves.

They, like so many nonprofits, are stuck in a rut.

They want to accomplish something much bigger and better but continue to spin their wheels against what they have always done. It’s really a chicken or the egg scenario. A nonprofit is unable to grow their services, their board, and their supporters because the organization has limited resources. And so they keep soldiering on, same as it ever was.

But let’s face it folks, in times like these, the status quo just isn’t going to work anymore.

Luckily, there is a way out.

When I encounter a nonprofit leader like the one above who has a real desire to break out of this pattern, I suggest a Financial Model Assessment. A Financial Model Assessment analyzes every aspect of the organization (Mission, Vision, Strategy, Program Delivery and Impact, Staffing, Board, Marketing, External Partnerships) in order to understand how each element helps or hurts their financial sustainability and their ability to achieve results. It then analyzes all current and potential revenue streams to find opportunities for sustainable growth. Finally, the Assessment gives very detailed recommendations for creating a more effective and sustainable organization.

I am a firm believer in a holistic approach. You simply cannot bemoan a lack of financial resources and call it a day. You must dig deep and figure out how everything you do contributes to or detracts from your current reality.

But because nonprofit leaders are usually consumed by putting out fires and worrying when the next check will come, they don’t have the ability to take a big step back and figure out how all of the pieces can and should fit together. So a Financial Model Assessment allows a nonprofit board and staff to understand what is holding their organization back from becoming financially sustainable AND achieving more mission-related results.

Once I’ve written my final Assessment, I lead a change discussion among board and staff. We delve into the Assessment and discuss how and why I came to the conclusions I did. This is often a galvanizing moment for the nonprofit — a moment when board and staff finally understand together a way forward that can allow them to be smarter, more strategic, more sustainable and ultimately achieve more results.

If you are interested in big change and need help navigating how to get there, download the Financial Model Assessment Benefit Sheet that describes the process in more detail. And if you’d like to read about other nonprofits who undertook a change process, check out these case studies.

Photo Credit: Public domain via Wikimedia

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: January 2017

In January it seemed as though we moved into social change hyper drive.

With the inauguration of a new president, a litany of controversial executive orders, numerous efforts to block or minimize them, and advice for or frustration with the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors’ responses, the world of social change moved at warp speed.

Add to that lots of predictions and advice for the nonprofit sector, and some small, but inspiring efforts to feed and comfort those in need and January was a very busy month.

Below are my picks of the 10 best reads in January, but feel free to add to the list in the comments. If you want a longer list, follow me on Twitter @nedgington, and if you want to see past months’ lists go here.

  1. Some still struggled to understand the 2016 election. Continuing his 4-year series on the smaller cities of America for The Atlantic, James Fallows argued that while Americans distrust national policy and institutions they still have faith in local government: “City by city, and at the level of politics where people’s judgments are based on direct observation rather than media-fueled fear, Americans still trust democratic processes and observe long-respected norms.”  And Eytan Oren offered some insight into how social media and major technology companies took civic engagement to a new level in the 2016 election.

  2. A few days before Trump was inaugurated, President Obama gave a farewell speech that focused on the need for greater civic engagement, and he and Michelle Obama launched a new foundation to help deliver on those ideas. And Pew Research crunched the numbers on how America changed over his 8-year term.

  3. Quite quickly after his inauguration, President Trump signed several executive orders, and a “resistance” movement that is rather unprecedented in U.S. history mobilized in response.   thing the resistance movement has going for it is their savvy use of social networks.

  4. In particular, Trump’s executive order banning immigration from 7 Muslim-majority countries created some soul-searching in the philanthropic sector. Inside Philanthropy‘s David Callahan expressed frustration about a seeming silence among philanthropic leaders on Trump’s immigration ban, asking “What’s the point of being in charge of society’s risk capital if you don’t take risks at a moment like this?” But 50 philanthropic leaders signed a strong statement against the ban.

  5. Amid all of the uproar surrounding the immigration ban, there was light in small places. A group of people from New Jersey launched a supper club that creates community among and raises money for Syrian refugees.

  6. Because January started a new year, there were the usual posts predicting what the new year will bring for philanthropy and nonprofits.

  7. But this year was different because several writers argued that the nonprofit sector needs to move more strongly into advocacy. And there was lots of other advice about how nonprofits should approach the Trump era, from building resilience, to messaging more effectively in a “post-truth” world, to making America “good” again, to answering 12 “Ifs”.

  8. A rather more sweeping bit of advice for the social change sector came from Pablo Eisenberg who argued that the organization Independent Sector should no longer be an association of both nonprofits and foundations, but just nonprofits. The HistPhil blog asked him to elaborate on the history of that important institution.  

  9. BoardSource, GuideStar, BBB Wise Giving Alliance, and the Association of Fundraising Professionals partnered to release a new method for evaluating a nonprofit’s fundraising effectiveness. The method looks at three metrics in a nonprofit organization: the fundraising net revenue, the cost of fundraising, and the dependency quotient (the percent of the budget funded by the nonprofit’s top 5 donors). Because let’s remember, as Rick Moyers pointed out, Development Directors Are Not Miracle Workers.

  10. Finally, a tangent into something small and really cool. The idea of little free libraries that have been cropping up on people’s front lawns has gone in a new direction. Mini food pantries have started helping neighbors in need.

Photo Credit: Jens Schott Knudsen

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How to Remove a Troublesome Nonprofit Board Member

One thing that most nonprofit leaders have in common is that they often have at least one (or more than one) challenging board member. You know — the one who doesn’t show up for board meetings, or doesn’t do what she says she’ll do, or never makes a contribution, or derails meetings with his own agenda.

But do you ever kick them off? I doubt it.

Of the many taboos in the nonprofit sector, the taboo against asking bad board members to resign is one of the most destructive. Instead of encouraging ineffective or meddling board members to move on, nonprofit leaders often show misplaced gratitude for those errant board members continuing to take up space.

But the real risk in keeping a troublesome board member is that his presence will put a cloud over the rest of the board, hampering your higher performing members.

So instead of letting the sickness spread, you must address it. And here’s how:

Be Clear on Your Expectations
You can’t ask someone to resign if you’ve never explicitly told them what you expect of them, so make sure that you have each board member sign a roles and responsibilities document at the beginning of each fiscal year. This spells out exactly what you are expecting from them (in terms of meeting attendance, committee service, fundraising, etc.). The act of having each board member (even those returning from the previous year) sign this annually cements in everyone’s mind exactly what is expected. Better yet, have them sign it as part of your annual one-on-one meetings with each board member.

Tell Them They Aren’t Performing
Managing a board is very similar to managing a staff (or managing your children, let’s be honest). Once you set very clear expectations, then update them along the way about whether or not they are performing effectively. When a board member isn’t showing up for meetings, or is meddling where they shouldn’t, or isn’t meeting their give/get requirement, or is taking committee discussions in unhelpful directions, sit down with that board member (and your board chair and/or your board governance chair) to explain the situation from your perspective and ask them to explain their side.

Give Them One Last Chance
Once you’ve told them they aren’t performing the way you would like, agree on a path to improvement. Decide together what an improved performance looks like (attend all upcoming board meetings, meet the give/get requirement) and the deadline (3 months from now) to get there. It is your job to hold them accountable, so as that deadline approaches, analyze their performance to see if they did what they said they would.

Ask Them to Go
If the deadline comes and they still haven’t performed adequately, sit down with the errant board member and your board chair and explain that while you would love for them to stay on as an informal advisor and supporter, you are asking them to resign to make room for a board member who can fulfill their commitment to the organization. Explain the importance of the work your organization does and how critical it is that you have fully committed and contributing board members. Describe how this is probably best for them as well because it frees them up to focus more energy on the things that are taking them away. If you are truly allergic to confrontation, and this still seems too hard, read Crucial Conversations.

Contain Any Fallout
When asked to resign, not all board members will go quietly into the night. As soon as you’ve asked your troublesome board member to leave, tell the rest of the board what you all have done and why. Help them to understand how this is a positive step for the organization and how it will help further your larger mission. Ask for their support in seeing this decision through, and most importantly, tell them what the next step is.

Find a Replacement
And that next step is to find that board member’s replacement. Beyond the fear of confrontation, many nonprofit leaders are hesitant to ask a board member to resign because they fear they won’t find another warm body to replace that member. But board recruitment should be an ongoing and strategic exercise. Your board governance committee should be constantly analyzing the board matrix of skills, experience, and networks in order to see where holes lie and identifying and vetting new potential candidates. Then when a board member leaves (or is asked to leave) you have several great new candidates in mind.

Stop selling your nonprofit short by letting disengaged, uncommitted, or meddlesome board members get in your way. By setting clear expectations, measuring performance, being honest, and constantly identifying new candidates, you can build a much stronger, more effective and engaged board of directors.

If you want to learn more about building a great board, download the 10 Traits of a Groundbreaking Board book.

Photo Credit: Jane Davees 

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Will the Women’s March Usher In a New Era of Civic Engagement?

Perhaps like many of you, I participated in the Women’s March on Saturday. In my hometown of Austin, Texas I stood with my husband and two teenage sons amid a sea of 50,000 other people, and I suddenly wondered whether we are witnessing the birth of a new era of civic engagement.

Saturday was to me an amazing and previously unseen (in my lifetime) display of citizen participation. Whatever your political views, when 2 million+ people take to the streets in a single day, you have to admit that something is going on.

As one of my East-coast based colleagues said in an email on Saturday morning:

“I’m on a bus to DC this morning with my wife and daughter.  The excitement is palpable  on the I-95 corridor as thousands of buses are lined up to enter the Capital. The buses are filled with patriots, patriots with a lovers quarrel with their country.  It should be an exhilarating day for the promise of America.”

And as I looked around at the thousands and thousands of smiling faces around me on Saturday, I too felt my patriotism swell. It was perhaps the beginning of a more inclusive and engaging democracy — Americans re-entering the public sphere. (Although some argue that if this movement doesn’t connect to larger institutions — like the political parties — it won’t actually result in social change).

It is too soon to tell where this will take us. It could be that the nonprofit sector will be called to lead this movement. Indeed, many of the speakers across the country on Saturday urged people to join and support nonprofit organizations. And many new organizations are cropping up amid this new energy, while, as I’ve mentioned before, many nonprofit organizations have seen donations soar since the election.

As Josh Marshall wrote last week, these times demand something much more from us — something more than any of us have ever been asked to give. And we must rise to the challenge:

“We know the curse: may you live in interesting times. We are living in interesting times. Most of us would not have chosen it. But we have it. I think many of us look back at critical momentous moments in our history, the Civil War, World War II, the Civil Rights Movement and other comparable passages in the country’s history and think, what would I have done? Where would I have been? Well, now’s your moment to find out. We are living in interesting times. We should embrace it rather than feel afraid or powerless. We have a fabric of 240 years of republican government behind us. We have the tools we need. This isn’t naiveté. It’s not any willful looking away from anything that is before us. It’s being ready. It is embracing the challenge of the moment rather than cowering. It’s having some excitement and gratitude for living in a moment when a new and potent challenge to preserving who we are has fallen to us.”

So while I spent much of November and December full of dread about what the future may bring, I now have a burgeoning sense of hope. Perhaps our democracy isn’t crumbling. Maybe instead we are being asked, each one of us, to remake it stronger, more inclusive and more energetic than ever before.

These are certainly interesting times.

Photo Credit: National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Daniel Gagnon

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5 Questions Nonprofit Leaders Should Ask About Money

One of my predicted “5 Nonprofit Trends to Watch in 2017” is that we will see “More Analysis of What Nonprofit Financial Sustainability Requires.” In other words, I think (hope) in this new year that nonprofit leaders and their funders will work to figure out how to make nonprofits more financial sustainable.

Financial sustainability means that both the way money comes in the door (revenue) and the way money goes out the door (expenses) happen in a smart, strategic way. When they do, you have a robust financial model.

In my mind, one of the first steps toward that sustainability is for nonprofit leaders to look inward. While there are many reasons for the financial instability that plagues the nonprofit sector — from the Overhead Myth, to restricted funding, to lack of financial training —  nonprofit leaders sometimes perpetuate the dysfunction themselves with an unhealthy attitude toward money.

Nonprofit leaders must embrace money as a tool — rather than a scourge — that can help them better achieve their mission.

So in this new year, in order to get closer to financial sustainability in your own nonprofit, I challenge you to ask yourself these questions about  money:

  1. Do I embrace money as a tool to achieve our mission?
    As the ultimate cheerleader of your nonprofit’s board and staff, you must ask whether you yourself fully embrace money. Money has long been viewed as a necessary evil in the nonprofit sector. We don’t want too much of it (for fear of scaring off donors); we don’t want to ask people for it (for fear of rejection); we don’t want to make our board go out and get it (for fear they will bolt). But it is your role as leader of your nonprofit to eschew those outdated notions and instead recognize that a smart, well-executed money strategy can be instrumental to achieving your mission.

  2. Do we know our actual costs?
    Not just the full costs to run each of your programs (which is important), but the overall costs of executing on your strategic plan. I can’t tell you how many nonprofit leaders I meet who a) don’t have a strategic plan in place or b) if they do, they haven’t tied it to money. You simply will not accomplish anything if you don’t analyze and plan for what it will truly cost to accomplish your goals as an organization. So start by using this Bridgespan tool to figure out the full costs of your programs and then add to that the other organizational and infrastructure costs necessary to achieve your overall strategic goals.

  3. Do we have a financial model?
    So that’s how money flows out of the organization, but to fully flesh out your financial model you need to plan for how money will flow into the organization. The funny thing about money is that if you are smarter and more strategic about it, you will attract more of it. So instead of hoping and praying that enough money will show up at your doorstep, create an overall financial strategy that includes your tactics for how you will attract each applicable revenue line (individuals, foundations, corporations, government, and/or earned income) that flows into your financial model.

  4. Does our board understand and contribute to our financial model?
    Once you’ve figured out your financial model, you must get your board fully involved in it. A nonprofit will never be financially sustainable if money is left solely to the staff to figure out.  That means the board needs to understand revenue and expenses, over the long-term, and how they apply to the overall strategy of the organization. And it is not enough for them just to understand it, they must contribute (in many and various ways) to the successful implementation of that financial model.

  5. Do we ask funders to support the effective execution of our financial model?
    You can’t just have a great financial strategy on paper, you also need to invest in the structure and systems necessary to execute on that strategy. That means you have to hire talented money-raising staff, acquire functional technology, develop capable donor systems, create compelling marketing and communications. Those elements make up your money-raising function, and in order to make it effective you have to invest in those elements. So figure out what that will cost and convince some funders to pay for it.

It’s time to get over your money issues. You will not achieve financial sustainability unless you fully embrace money as a critical conduit to the social change you seek.

Photo Credit: Daniel Borman

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Now is The Time for Bold Nonprofit Leaders

Nonprofit leaders tend to err on the side of caution. But these times call for something quite different. These times demand that you overcome the fear and risk-aversion that sometimes cripple your work.

You no longer have the luxury of sitting by and waiting for “permission” to do what you have to do. This is the time to be bold.

As Greg Oliphant, President of The Heinz Endowments, wrote recently:

“Why speak? Especially when to speak is potentially to be seen as partisan, as taking sides, which is anathema in a field proscribed from politics and deeply fearful of controversy…There are truths that need to be spoken now, spoken out loud and unapologetically by people who know them to be true. Spoken with love, yes, but also fierce conviction—truths about the validity of science, the perils of climate change, the nature and price of injustice, the insanity of racism and all the other isms creeping out from beneath their ill-concealed rocks, the importance of civil and human rights and why they matter for all of us, how worsening poverty hurts everyone, the opportunities before us to create and innovate our way to a better future. These are not partisan truths but rather human truths…They are where we as a sector…must find our voice, in holding them out not as criticism but as the True North we still must point towards, the star we still see and hold steady in our gaze despite attempts to obscure it.”

Yes, that is the role you play, nonprofit leaders, to speak up and be bold about the change you seek. And it may go against what is comfortable, what you are used to, what you think you are “allowed” to do as nonprofit leaders, but you must stop waiting for permission. You must start pushing yourself, your staff, your board to be less fearful and more bold.

What does that look like?

Think Bigger, Much Bigger
The time for incremental is over. These times call for big, bold, game-changing solutions to the problems we face. You must ask yourselves and your board and staff, “Are we doing enough? Are we really creating change, or are we just perpetuating the status quo?” If the answer is the latter, take a big step back and figure out what you can do bigger to create change.

Embrace Advocacy
And in answering those questions you may find that the methods you are using are too timid. I cannot say this enough, but nonprofit leaders have got to stop being afraid to connect their social change work to the policy arena. While there are some restrictions on what 501(c)3 organizations can do, I assure you they are far less than you or your board may think. If you truly want to see change in the world, it may not be enough to just address the symptoms of the problem. You may need to address the systems that perpetuate those problems, and advocacy might be just the tool to use.

Find New Paths to Social Change
But it may also be that at the federal level there is not much support for your social change agenda right now, so look for other paths. Much social change is happening at the state and local levels (from climate change, to civil rights, to political reform). Instead of continuing to beat your head against an immovable wall, think about other ways forward. Get outside your comfort zone of always approaching your mission in a single way and think bigger and bolder.

Make Your Board Meetings Real
But in order to move forward in bigger, bolder ways you need to bring your board along. So stop having friendly, meaningless, information-dumping board meetings and instead engage your board in real conversations. Start by asking “What do these times demand of us and our work? What are we afraid of, and how do we overcome it? How can be be more bold?” And when you come up against board fear (of doing more, moving into advocacy, building bigger networks), be very clear that it is a brave new world and you simply cannot put your heads in the sand.

Get Tough With Your Funders
But it doesn’t end with your board. You can no longer have tepid conversations with your funders or bow to their whims. You know what you need and what it takes to accomplish your big goals (or if you don’t, you better figure it out). So be open and real with your funders. Tell them what’s holding you back from accomplishing real change and ask for the amount and type of money you really need to get there.

As President Franklin Roosevelt argued in his first inaugural address, lack of action is a far greater risk than anything we might face:

This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

We must fight the urge to retreat. As social change leaders you cannot allow your fear to paralyze you. These times call for bold advance.

Photo Credit: Andy Spearing

 

 

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