Nonprofit Leadership Best Practices: Advocating for Equity in Troubled Times
Given the current unrest and uncertainty of the moment, you may wonder which nonprofit leadership best practices make the most sense in the current context.
How should you show up as a nonprofit leader and professional right here and right now?
Should you sit back and wait to see what happens, or what others decide for you? Or, should you step forward to lead from a foundation of personal values and beliefs?
And, what happens if they conflict with those of your organization?
These are tough choices, particularly when there’s a possibility your actions may impact your economic circumstances. They are equally challenging when you risk rejection from those you care for.
But your decision will be made, nonetheless.
Once you recognize a leadership dilemma, you can’t hide from it.
Even if you’ve chosen not to make a decision, you’ve made one.
So, why not have the courage of your convictions?
If you’ve been struck dumb by recent events, or felt the crushing sadness of senselessness violence, you’re not alone.
Many have wept quietly, with deep grief for humanity and empathy for those unknown. Many, too, have been filled with rage over the whims of intolerance.
In the end, it wounds us all.
So, what can we do?
You may feel uncertain about your urge to speak out and whether you have the right to have a say. You may wonder whether the privileges you have been afforded by upbringing or circumstance of birth should determine your course of action.
Regardless of the situation, the current moment calls upon all of us to be bold allies for one another.
In his Letter from the Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. eloquently addressed critics of his “unwise and untimely” actions and of “outsiders coming in” as he took the battle against racial segregation to the streets of Birmingham, far from his Atlanta home.
Arguing for the interconnectedness of all people, he wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Indeed. The fate of humanity is tethered together, now more than ever.
Advocating for Equity From Your Place as a Nonprofit Leader
Calling out injustice and advocating for equity are not easy tasks in today’s intensely polarized world.
But they are necessary and essential if you are to lead others with any integrity.
As leaders in the social sector — a worldwide community focused on creating a better world — it’s incumbent upon us to lead by example, however difficult it may be.
As Mahatma Gandhi argued, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man (sic) changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.”
In order to challenge the status quo, it often requires something deeper than a social media post sent into the void.
It often requires us to develop and change our own impulses and reactions.
Self-reflection around our own inherent privilege is a good start. But, in order to advocate effectively, we also may need to change how we listen and engage.
When an imbalance of power exists, resistance to change is a given. After all, why would those who benefit (even unknowingly) wish to give their advantage away?
But, for true equity to be realized, the imbalance of power must be addressed head on, but with a strategy that works.
If you find yourself ready to step up and to advocate for greater equity, perhaps at your nonprofit or further afield, expect pushback and be prepared.
But also have the courage to speak truth to power. You never know what might happen.
Below are some tips on how to navigate the discussion with grace.
Dealing with Resistance in Eight Steps
It may seem that no matter how logical our argument or how much we demand, people will not budge from their position, however untenable it is.
We think we know what’s right, but they refuse to see it our way. In the end, the real issue may not be that they completely disagree. It may be that they want their point of view to be heard and acknowledged.
The more we push, the more they will respond with force in kind.
They simply want to tell their side of story. And, the more they feel truly understood by you, the more likely they are to consider your position and support real change.
And, the more you listen, the more you’ll learn what drives the other person’s perspective in ways you had not considered before.
Next time you expect to meet resistance to your advocacy efforts, or just want to understand the other side a little better, try the following:
STEP ONE: Be Mindful
Consciously acknowledge you are meeting with resistance. Remind yourself this is a normal part of the change process.
STEP TWO: Center Yourself
Take a deep breath. Prepare yourself for calm, active listening.
STEP THREE: Adopt a Beginner’s Mind
Probe for more information from the resister. Ask, “What’s worrying you about my recommended course of action?”
STEP FOUR: Actively and Thoroughly Listen
Listen carefully and ask for clarification. Do this until you think you understand their point of view completely.
STEP FIVE: Keep Your Objectivity
Resist judging their point of view at this point. It’s not wrong or right, it’s just another perspective.
STEP SIX: Confirm Your Understanding
Repeat back to them what you think you heard. Use neutral, nonjudgmental language. Check for clarity until you both agree you’re on the same page.
STEP SEVEN: Share Your Point of View
Only after you have absolute clarity on their point of view, can you move on to what you need. State your own perceptions, expectations, needs, and rationale. Be sure you don’t neglect explaining the reason behind your recommendation. People need to know why it is important they do what you are asking them to do and that your intention comes from a good place.
STEP EIGHT: Decide What You Will Do
In the end, you’ll need to make a final decision as you see fit. This may mean that you take small steps with the promise of greater future progress. Or, you may decide that a stronger approach is warranted. Or, you may decide that your values no longer match the environment and it’s time for a change. Regardless of your next steps, thank the other person for helping you understand their point of view. Then, move on.
In the end, it takes discipline, combined with passion, to change the world.
And, each person must find their own path, but also work in community with others.
Nonprofit Leadership Best Practices to Promote Change from Within
Several years ago, I read Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip & Dan Heath. The book was full of stories about how people used simple, and sometimes unexpected, tactics to bring about change.
The Heath brothers also offered a step-by-step process to cultivate transformation, whether it be at the individual or group level. The book challenges several commonly held assumptions about change and offers simple guidelines, based on a mountain of research.
If you are struggling to bring about a shift in the approach to equity at your organization — or simply want to change your own habits — this book may give you ideas to fuel your efforts.
Here are a few helpful tips:
Don’t focus on what’s broken, do more of what’s already working:
We focus a lot of our energy on problems. Instead, identify the bright spots, understand why they are working, and reproduce them. And, when change starts to happen, recognize those who are taking steps, no matter how small, early and often.
Don’t ask people to solve the world’s problems. Ask them to take a few simple, but critical steps:
When faced with overwhelming change (think: eliminating racial inequities) people often suffer from decision paralysis. Script do-able moves you’d like them to take, versus asking them to choose from a wide menu of choices or formulating an action plan on their own.
Don’t try to convince people with facts and information. Compel them with stories that appeal to emotions:
Data, no matter how accurate or dramatic, is not enough. Emotional connections awaken the subconscious to action, which is needed to move people from one way of being and doing, to another. Negative emotions motivate people short-term, positive emotions motivate people to be creative and flexible.
Don’t assume people are jerks for not changing. Tweak their environment, so that change is easier to accomplish:
People will act radically different in different environments. It has nothing to do with their personal character. Study what’s getting in their way and remove it if you can. Think about how the environment, and those in it, can reinforce doing the right thing.
Don’t get discouraged. Remember that big change starts small:
Focus on what you can control. As you gain ground, you’ll your support will snowball. People like to follow people who are winning, no matter how small.
If you’re curious or want to read more about the Health Brothers’ thought leadership, you can sign up to download free resources on their website. You can get an overview of the The Switch Framework. They also have a fantastic podcast called Switch for the Social Sector and a workbook called Switch for Organizations that can get you started.
More and more, people are called together to make change for the common good. This is happening around the world, even in the face of extreme intolerance.
It is the power of the human spirit.
So, don’t be discouraged.
Find your people. Even if they don’t look like you, you will have something in common the binds you together for the work ahead.