Your small nonprofit has a crucial role to play in the chaos and conflict of American politics.
I recently wrote about how nonprofits bridge the divisions in our country. I believe our traditional "public square"--civic organizations, houses of worship, and public schools--are increasingly homogenous and protective of their homogeneity.
Homogeneity, however, is deadly to small nonprofits. It takes people of surplus means and privileges to source the mission of a nonprofit that serves people with few means and privileges. In small nonprofits, it is inevitable that these groups will interact with each other. They will have to cooperate in a way that simply does not happen in other contexts.
This puts you, the small nonprofit leader, in the vanguard of American citizens who can lead the way toward a more civil society. Your small nonprofit is the actual place in our society where political opposites are most likely to meet and work together toward common ends.
What could be more crucial than that?
So, as a small nonprofit leader, what do you do now?
Here are three suggestions: Educate yourself, educate others, and enable engagement.
1. Educate yourself. Your community and your country need you to be a "subject expert." Bureaucrats, business leaders, clergy, educators, elected officials, and reporters can't know everything. When it comes to certain subjects, they look for subject experts to inform them.
For example, if your nonprofit mission is to reduce childhood hunger, you should know more about childhood hunger than anyone else in your community.
Why? Two obvious reasons: 1) You can't really solve childhood hunger if you don't understand it in all its complexity, and 2) Your influence over how others respond to childhood hunger will be greater or smaller depending on how much they believe you know about the problem.
This means you need to become a detective, a reporter, and a scholar when it comes to childhood hunger. You need to know it backward and forward, inside and out. You need to be able to have a debate with yourself and effectively argue both sides in your own head. That's when you know you understand your issue in all its complexity.
The better you understand your issue, the more credible and influential you will become. Not only will leaders call you when they need a subject matter expert on childhood hunger, but they will take your call when you need them to do something about childhood hunger.
SUGGESTION: Set aside an hour or two each week to further your own education and understanding of the social issue your small nonprofit exists to address.
2. Educate others. Think about all of the interactions your nonprofit has with stakeholders: Annual reports, email newsletters, fundraising appeals, social media, special events, and volunteer projects are a few examples. Nonprofits are getting better at sharing things like impact metrics and success stories in their communications. These largely serve to prove that their methods are working to solve social problems (and therefore attract and retain funders). I worked with a nonprofit that made it policy to share an impact number or story in every communication that went out.
What if your nonprofit makes it a priority to share something educational as often as it shares impact metrics or success stories? Let's go back to childhood hunger. You know your stakeholders already care about this, so why not give them the option to explore the issue further? This helps your nonprofit because your stakeholders will likely increase their support as they understand the import and urgency in greater detail.
Educated and informed stakeholders are also excellent sources of new ideas. Your educated stakeholders are good for society because they carry that knowledge with them into other areas of their lives. For example, the more your donors and volunteers know about childhood hunger, they more they can influence their elected officials to support policies that address the issue.
SUGGESTION: Build in "latest news/research/trends" reports into communications and meetings. Perhaps you could even host two or three educational events each year and open it up to the community and your stakeholders.
3. Enable engagement. I've learned from personal experience how easy it is to make assumptions and prejudgments about people I've never even met. Your small nonprofit is a rare and special gathering place for people from many backgrounds and walks of life. You not only have an opportunity, but an obligation to society to use your unique situation to mend our social fabric. The more you can create opportunities for people from different backgrounds and points of view to celebrate together, learn together, and work together, the more you will contribute to mending the social fabric in your community and country. Ask your board and your staff this question: How can we make bridge-building an intentional element of everything we do?
SUGGESTION: Design your events to encourage interaction among your diverse stakeholders. For example, if you're organizing a large volunteer project, make sure volunteer teams comprise a mix of clients, donors, neighbors, and public officials working side-by-side.
Our country is literally crying out for unifying leadership. You may not be able to do anything about what happens in Washington, but you fill a rule of enormous influence right in your own community. As a small nonprofit leader, you are in a position to build bridges and mend the social fabric as you bring diverse people together for a common mission they all value.
Accept the challenge. Take up the mantle of leadership. Start today by planning to educate yourself, educate others, and enable engagement.
Onward and upward!