One of the things I’ve been working on lately in my coaching practice with nonprofit leaders is finding the balance between truth and hope. This is because I think it’s much easier to create momentum for change if truth is laced with hope. And also because I believe we need a lot more of both truth and hope in the world today.
I will freely admit it — I am a diehard optimist. I firmly believe that you can overcome anything as long as you 1) think that you can and 2) put dedicated action behind that belief.
Not surprisingly, The Little Engine That Could was my favorite book as a kid. And if you are familiar with the gripping story, the takeaway is that with unflinching belief in your abilities and determination in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, you can do anything. Seems like some pretty good metaphoric imagery for the nonprofit sector right now.
Scoff if you must (as did a reader of my blog last week who accused me of pushing “think lemonade instead of lemons”), but optimism is part of my DNA.
So much so that I get into trouble when I lose that north star. The reason I took my social media break in the Fall of 2017 was fundamentally because I had lost hope — my optimism was all dried up, and I could not function. I knew I needed to pull back and replant my own garden so that I could eventually emerge hopeful again — which I did!
But I’ve also come to realize that hope is not enough, we need to face the unflinching truth as well. So often in the nonprofit sector we are so concerned with building consensus, protecting feelings, building egos that it is difficult to have truly honest conversations. And because the sector is so resource-constrained it is often very tempting as a nonprofit leader to refuse to recognize harsh realities and instead stick your head in the sand.
But those who ignore the truth are just as lost as those who have no hope.
So we need both in equal measure — truth and hope. And it looks like this:
Honestly and Hopefully Face Your Challenges
I have seen nonprofit leaders wear themselves out by creating a laundry list of all of the hurdles standing in their way (dwindling memberships, increasing competition, regulatory hurdles) and stopping there. Hope means believing that there is always another way. So, honestly face the hurdles, but don’t forget to brainstorm the ways around them, too. Have open, honest — and hopeful! — conversations as a board and staff about the challenges your organization faces. As my mother, a talented staff manager, always used to say: “Bring me your solutions, not your problems.”
Optimistically Ask Your Board For Help
Be brutally honest with your board about the budget deficit that is keeping you up in the middle of the night. That burden is not yours alone, but one that the whole group must fully embrace. But don’t stop there. Enlist their optimism-driven help to take an abundance approach to growing your financial model. And, most importantly, when you ask, truly believe that most of them, if not all, will heed your call and step up to help.
Recognize and Address Your Needs
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve encountered a worn out nonprofit leader who staunchly believes it is all up to her. Instead, honestly recognize what you are good at and what you are not; what you can delegate and what you cannot; where you need skill-building and counsel and where you can seek answers internally. And then believe that the help, support, counsel, training you need is out there for you — because it is.
Create a Culture of Transparent Optimism
Often when I conduct one-on-one interviews for a Financial Model Assessment board and staff will, in talking with me, lay bear all of their concerns about the organization. But they will refuse to voice those same concerns in a full board meeting. Instead, you must as a group, refuse to skirt around issues that continue to trouble board and staff. But do so with optimism that in doing so you can, as a board and staff, find a better way forward. Create a culture where there are no longer side-bar conversations, but rather frank, hopeful full board and staff discussions.
Truth laced with hope is a powerful combination. A combination which can propel nonprofit leaders and their critical social change work well beyond those steep mountains of fear.
If you need some help figuring out how to balance truth and hope in your organization, let me know.
Photo Credit: Pxhere