Taking risks for the public good

Earlier this summer, Pablo Eisenberg shared his thoughts in his article, “The State of the Nonprofit Sector.” There are many gems to contemplate and wrestle with, but my favorite portion of the article comes toward the end:

The heads of many, if not most, of our nonprofit organizations, large or small, traditional or non-traditional, seem afraid to speak out publicly on important public issues, go on the record with their positions, confront controversial problems or critique their weak or unethical colleagues and failing organizations. Their timidity would be laughable were it not so damaging to a sector that begs for vision, introspection, intellectual rigor and integrity. We appear to have socialized a large group of nonprofit executives more interested in promoting their own careers and turf, in being collegial to a fault and in avoiding all risks than in pursuing what is best for the field and the public.

I love this paragraph. As I’ve tried it on for size, I’ve thought about how I might reframe this sentiment. Not that Pablo Eisenberg’s work needs a reframe, but as an exercise: if I’m talking to someone like me who aims to be a visionary but harbors fears of being complacent, how might I approach this? I understand how nonprofit leaders can get distracted by the many onerous tasks of keeping an organization alive and kicking. In addition to managing relationships with a Board, staff, and the community, the pressures of constant fundraising, strategic alignment, and fiscal management can be overwhelming. When a nonprofit leader has managed to successfully balance all those demands, it is a huge accomplishment and should be celebrated. But sometimes nonprofit organizations can achieve all those things without giving enough consideration to one thing missing from the list: is the organization pursuing what is best for the public good?

It’s difficult to pull away and look critically at the organizations we lead. We sink so much of ourselves into building and growing a cause-based business. I don’t think most of the nonprofit executives Eisenberg refers to are being selfish or self-aggrandizing, but I do think there is a temptation to feel a sense of achievement by landing a powerful position at a reputable nonprofit. Not only are people in these positions sometimes afforded the opportunity to enjoy some well-deserved perks, but they can do so feeling that they are still making a difference in the world. The sector can be alluring that way. And we can become confused about the difference between working for a nonprofit and doing what is best for the field and the public. They are not the same thing, although the trappings of the sector sometimes lead us to believe they are.

Becoming the Executive Director of a nonprofit is not the goal. Working at a foundation is not the goal. Effecting the kind of change we want to see in the world is the goal, and that doesn’t happen without conflict, tension and risk.

We know nonprofit engagement in advocacy is dismally low: Eisenberg states only about 1% are involved in legislative advocacy. The top reasons nonprofits don’t engage include a misunderstanding of the rules around 501c3 lobbying, and the definitions of advocacy and constituent education can be complicated and intimidating.

But another big reason nonprofits are hesitant to be advocates is a fear of upsetting the people who help them on all those onerous tasks: Board members, volunteers, foundation funders, individual donors and other kinds of resources. Fundraising is a competitive, demanding, never-ending marathon, and once you’ve figured out how to make it work, you don’t want to risk anything that would harm that success. But declining to speak up out of fear for your organization’s bottom line or your career security or a reprimand from a powerful person is harmful. It’s undercutting the very reason we set out to do this work. Nonprofits represent the needs and interests of some of the most vulnerable populations in our community. These are the populations that often get attention on the campaign stump, only to be forgotten after the ballots are cast. They are sometimes misunderstood and marginalized and have accepted that their positions in our society are viewed as less important than the interests represented by so many lobbyists on Capitol Hill. We are hurting our cause if we don’t speak up for them, not only to policy makers, but to the people in our own sector. We have to speak up about what is working and what isn’t working and not wait until we have the opportunity to fill out an anonymous survey. If we put the needs of our organization above the needs of the public we claim to serve, we are hurting our cause.

In this economic climate, most nonprofits are dealing with too few resources to meet an increased demand. It’s understandable that nonprofit leaders may feel risk-averse in order to seek stability for their organization. But as Joseph Campbell suggests, “Opportunities to find deeper powers within ourselves come when life seems most challenging.” Now, not despite these challenges but because of them, it is important to speak up for the needs of our sector and our communities.

See also:

The One-Hour Activist

Charity Case

Image credit: seiu500.org, internet2.edu


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