Martial arts lessons for nonprofit managers

In 2012, nonprofits face another year of budget battles and political skirmishes, and the fight continues to intensify with the coming national election. Make no mistake. Nonprofits are in a full-fledged combat situation. Social, political, and economic forces have created a hostile terrain for nonprofits, described by David La Piana as “The New Abnormal:”

“Nonprofits are caught in this downward spiral of ideological extremism and cynical self-interest. The people they serve need more help than ever, but society provides less and less support to meet those needs. For every nonprofit cutting its services, there are a few dozen, a few hundred, or a few thousand people who are at risk.”

This goes far beyond the accustomed reality of nonprofits, which have long been challenged to do more with less. It is in fact “an all-out assault on the social contract.”

So what are already war weary nonprofits to do? Is it time for new battle strategies? Special training?

Well, before we go reaching for our flak jackets, let’s turn for a moment to the wisdom born of a couple thousand years of experience with conflict: the Chinese martial arts.

Since being introduced to kung fu some ten years ago, I’ve seen time and again how its lessons could be applied within the organizations with which I have worked in the philanthropic sector. Here are just a few examples of concepts and skills that I think nonprofit leaders could use to continue to fight the good fight – and prevail.

Assume a posture of relaxed readiness

We’ve all heard how important it is for organizations in the 21st Century to be more nimble – and it’s true, but we’re not just talking about a dance here, people. Nonprofit-unfriendly policy, practices, and pundits are ready to hit us where we live, and we need to not only be ready to defend ourselves, but to shut down those attacks before they become a problem. This requires that we resist the reactive urge to “tense up” or withdraw, but instead find a position of relaxed readiness in which we stay keenly alert to potential threats but remain calm and flexible enough to creatively and proactively deal with them.

As organizations, we can achieve this state of heightened awareness and self-possession by:

Assessing and owning up to our strengths and weaknesses

Knowing the full array of resources within reach (not only financial resources, but the vast store of skills and talents our staffs, board members, and allies bring to the table)

Scanning the environment for short- and long-term developments that may negatively impact or open up new opportunities for our work

Mobilizing a mix of resources quickly and effectively to achieve our mission objectives

Do what you need to do

Wu wei is one of many Taoist concepts that is wonderfully difficult to define, but was once described by my own Sifu (teacher) as “no inappropriate action” – the point being that you do what is necessary to accomplish your purpose without excessive effort, force, or power-over. Martial arts icon Bruce Lee put it this way: “Take things as they are. Punch when you have to punch. Kick when you have to kick.” This no-nonsense approach means wielding the power of discretion and having the courage to pare away the non-essential.

Think about where your organization is expending the most effort. Where do you feel like you are often running up against the proverbial wall? Have you been spending a disproportionate amount of time and energy trying to resuscitate a flagging program, connecting with a nonresponsive donor base, or simply taking on too much? Why? How much more effective could you be if you spent more time looking for open doors and less time pounding on the ones whose hinges may never yield?

We are defined in relationship with others

Martial artists train under the obvious premise that there is an “opponent,” but the fortunate reality is that we aren’t all running around fighting one another, and instead do much of our work with sparring “partners.” Although a student may spend hours on conditioning exercises or practicing forms or katas by herself, it is not until she is squared off with an opponent/partner that her techniques are tested, brought to life, and made complete. Nonprofits, too, are most vital and alive in relation to a broad range of other players, but do not always tap the power of these potential partnerships – or recognize the potential dangers of going it alone.

With the sector under fire, the time is ripe for nonprofits to rally against common threats and draw upon the skills they have developed over years of competing with one another to work better together. Although collaborative capacity is increasingly regarded as an element of organizational effectiveness, many nonprofits still struggle to form meaningful partnerships. If there is one positive outcome of “The New Abnormal,” it could just be a more cohesive, politically savvy nonprofit sector that advocates for itself and the public good that it has committed to serve.

To change with change is the changeless state

Again I’m borrowing a Bruce Lee quote with the above line, not because I believe him to be the paragon of Chinese martial arts, but because the guy could sure turn a phrase! The point is: innovation is nothing new. Despite the cult of innovation that has recently taken the philanthropic sector by storm, it is not only a tenet in Eastern beliefs, but recognized by everyone from Heraclitus to Isaac Asimov that change is, in fact, a constant.

All beings must adapt to their environment, to the situations they find themselves in, to the barriers they encounter, and to the new paths that open up. This is the task of the martial artist. It does not mean being reactive or passive. You must always know your purpose, your mission. But changing and responding flexibly to how you achieve it is the “art” at work.

All nonprofit leaders already practice kung fu, whether they know it or not. Though most commonly understood as a name for Chinese martial arts, kung fu is more accurately (and broadly) defined as “skill achieved through hard work” – a fitting description of nonprofit leadership, right? So why not put some of that martial philosophy to work as we face these challenges ahead?

See also:

The Nonprofit Business Plan

Repeatability: Build Enduring Businesses for a World of Constant Change

Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge…

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