Better Nonprofit Leadership: Balance Compassion and Inclusive Action
At one of the most challenging moments in our lifetimes, what do we need to keep in mind to lead our organizations and teams toward a healthy and prosperous future?
Based on conversations with nonprofit leaders over the past few weeks and my experience working with teams to embrace change, this post shares steps to maintain effective leadership during uncertain times. In order to build awareness of what’s happening on the ground, we have included examples of how our clients and colleagues are implementing each of these steps.
1. Tune Into Your People
We are in a moment of incredible suffering, stemming from health concerns and economic challenges. Given the magnitude of the economic and health challenges, anxiety and grief are appropriate reactions.
This suffering demands compassion. We each need to lead first with compassion and heart.
Specifically, this means providing more space for feelings in meetings and conversations, and slowing down. We should not force people to stuff their feelings and rush to technical solutions too quickly. Solutions that emerge when we are in this frame of mind will not be good ones.
The challenges that people are encountering are different in scale. Some people are figuring out how to work from home; others are wondering if they will still have a home or food to eat.
Our work at this time is about listening to understand: How can we help? What are the needs?
For the Agricultural Institute of Marin (AIM), an organization that runs eight farmer’s markets in the San Francisco Bay Area, the statewide shelter-in-place order has focused its work on supporting food systems while meeting new health department requirements for safety and social distancing. Food from small farmers represents these farmers’ livelihoods as well as the consumers’ essential needs, so AIM has been working to keep its markets open and safe.
For Young Audiences of Northern California, listening to its people clarified that school closures would decrease the incomes of performing and visual artists affiliated with the organization by thousands of dollars over the next few weeks. In addition to committing to paying all work contracted through the end of March and devising new programs to provide some income for teaching artists, the organization created an emergency fund to directly support teaching artists.
2. Help Your People Find Meaning
This moment is volatile and uncertain. Leadership involves honestly acknowledging the uncertainty. Statements like “We’ve got it under control” or “Everything is going to work out” come off as insensitive.
Meaning gives people the energy to push through the most challenging times. Leaders can infuse deeper meaning in the culture of their organizations by asking questions such as “Why is this work important to you? What gives you strength at this moment? What are you learning and noticing?”
Moments of crisis push us to think deeply about our purpose. Given the challenges of the moment, most organizations are experiencing an intensification of needs, and the importance of the work may feel greater than ever.
Recent layoffs in the community have meant that Puente, an organization that works to build economic empowerment among diverse populations in San Mateo County’s South Coast, has been inundated with requests for financial assistance. Puente has created a response fund to help clients with their financial, health and food needs. The needs are particularly critical since many of their clients may not be eligible for emergency assistance from the federal government.
I’ve written before about how the “What’s my why?” exercise focuses individuals and teams on their purpose and mission. As your team processes and adapts to a changed situation, it could be a valuable time to have a conversation about the core of your work and how the board and staff connect to that work.
3. Collaboratively and Inclusively Discover a Way Forward Together
In a quickly changing situation, the need to listen to and honor diverse perspectives is intensified. Now more than ever, leaders need to think about who should be included in conversations and ensure that diverse perspectives are considered in making financial and programmatic decisions that will impact the organization’s work going forward.
Inclusive conversations clarify needs and directions for work. For example, the Women’s Cancer Resource Center has found that the pandemic has highlighted the complexities of accessing cancer care and support for low-income individuals. Their low-income clients do not have computers or access to high-speed internet, which is essential to access online behavioral health support programs.
Our recent work as a firm has included deepening our knowledge and practice with tools for virtual facilitation. As this post illustrates, organizations are already making decisions of how to dig in to their work or pivot to support their communities; these decisions and actions won’t wait for people to be able to gather in person.
Leadership needs to start with each of us. In these trying times, we have to pause and reflect, even when the opportunity does not present itself. Making the time to then listen to staff and clients will inform our next steps. Even socially distanced, we can further generate a sense of community, bringing our circles closer so that we can discover the path forward together.
Dr. Renee Rubin Ross, founder of The Ross Collective, is a nationally recognized leader on board and organizational development and strategy. Committed to racial equity in the nonprofit sector, Dr. Ross supports organizations and individuals in practices that celebrate and amplify diverse voices and perspectives.