What Nonprofits Can (Still) Learn from the NFL
While recently reviewing the blogs we’ve written we came across a piece, “What Nonprofits Can Learn from the NFL,” originally published in 2017. We wrote it back then because some of our different thinking (from us) relatives kept asking us, “What about that Colin Kaepernick guy?” We’d avoid the conversation, usually with them finishing with something like, “He should just be grateful for what he’s got instead of disrespecting the American flag.”
More than 70 years ago, the great social psychologist Kurt Lewin described social norms as being in a state of tension. Powerful forces are sometimes in place to maintain the status quo against equally powerful forces that would change it. Tension builds, and then — sometimes suddenly — change sweeps in. The Berlin Wall comes down. Same-sex marriage is ratified throughout the country.
In 2017, we were watching water seeping through the dam that would burst in 2020 and usher in the second great civil rights movement in American history: Black Lives Matter.
Sometimes the actions of one person can tip the scales. Sometimes the behavior of a single lone nut, in this case Colin Kaepernick, can spark unimaginable change.
What Nonprofits Can Learn from the NFL
September 27, 2017
If your job is in peer-to-peer fundraising, you are in the movement business. Although no two movements are exactly the same, they all have some commonalities. The TED Talk by Derek Sivers, “How to Start a Movement,” captures the features of movements beautifully in just three minutes. (Go watch it and come back. This will make so much more sense if you do.)
Paraphrasing Sivers, here are the steps involved in starting a movement:
- First you need a leader, someone who is not afraid to stand out and be ridiculed.
- Then you get your first follower. The first follower “transforms a lone nut into a leader.” The leader must embrace the follower as an equal, so now it’s about the two of them — plural.
- A movement must be public. Others will join. They emulate the followers, not the leader.
- As the movement gathers momentum, there is a tipping point where it becomes less risky to join the movement than to be left out of the movement and face ridicule.
Former NFL Super Bowl quarterback Colin Kaepernick was a lone nut. He was the guy who famously took a knee during the playing of the National Anthem before games to protest discrimination and brutality against minorities by police. The events of the past week transformed him from a lone nut into the leader of a movement.
Because of President Trump’s comments, a tipping point (see No. 4 above) was reached, where it became less risky to join in than to be left out.
At NFL games around the country last weekend, there were many more knees taken during the playing of the National Anthem. Some white players took a knee or stood next to teammates with a hand on their shoulders in support. Some teams locked arms. At games in Detroit and Nashville, the people who sang in the National Anthem themselves took a knee when they came to “Home of the Brave.” Owners — including the Dallas Cowboy’s Jerry Jones — joined in with their players as they knelt.
Oh yeah, the tipping point was most definitely reached.
What can nonprofit leaders take away from this in the increasingly politicized — and polarized — environment that many of their organizations find themselves operating in? Some nonprofits have been in the political fray for a long time and carefully walk 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) lines. But it appears all are being dragged in, sometimes unwillingly. The tipping point for nonprofits is approaching.
There is a good argument that the missions of the vast majority of nonprofits are by definition nonpartisan, transcending political considerations. Cystic fibrosis, cancer, autism are all equal opportunity afflictions. Organizations’ missions that involve curing these diseases try to stay out of politics, afraid (with good reason) that they might offend some of their constituents.
Most nonprofit boards are resigned to helping their organizations just do their best in whatever climate they operate in. They don’t shape the landscape; they respond to it, but there may come a time when it isn’t possible — or responsible — to remain on the sidelines.
The recent Graham-Cassidy Obamacare repeal bill is a good example. How would it impact the treatment of people who are affected by conditions many health-care nonprofits serve? Should a nonprofit that funds medical research speak out publicly for or against legislation, or should they leave it to the 501(c)(4) organizations to manage? Our world at Turnkey is peer-to-peer fundraising. Should that massive movement machine of peer-to-peer be pointed at policy? Can we do that and maintain legal status? Can we stop that machine if it goes off without the nonprofit’s blessing? Should we try?
These are difficult decisions, involving complicated issues. And the situation for every organization is unique. But perhaps it is time for more nonprofit leaders to consider having a greater voice in calling the game.
It’s hard to be a lone nut, but if you’re passionate — and right — you won’t be lonely for long.
Just ask Colin Kaepernick.
Otis Fulton, Ph.D., spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising,” and the 2023 book, "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape," and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” She and Otis are also co-authors of the books, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising" and "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape." When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.