Now is The Time for Bold Nonprofit Leaders
Nell Edgington

February, 2017

Nonprofit leaders tend to err on the side of caution. But these times call for something quite different. These times demand that you overcome the fear and risk-aversion that sometimes cripple your work.

You no longer have the luxury of sitting by and waiting for “permission” to do what you have to do. This is the time to be bold.

As Greg Oliphant, President of The Heinz Endowments, wrote recently:

“Why speak? Especially when to speak is potentially to be seen as partisan, as taking sides, which is anathema in a field proscribed from politics and deeply fearful of controversy…There are truths that need to be spoken now, spoken out loud and unapologetically by people who know them to be true. Spoken with love, yes, but also fierce conviction—truths about the validity of science, the perils of climate change, the nature and price of injustice, the insanity of racism and all the other isms creeping out from beneath their ill-concealed rocks, the importance of civil and human rights and why they matter for all of us, how worsening poverty hurts everyone, the opportunities before us to create and innovate our way to a better future. These are not partisan truths but rather human truths…They are where we as a sector…must find our voice, in holding them out not as criticism but as the True North we still must point towards, the star we still see and hold steady in our gaze despite attempts to obscure it.”

Yes, that is the role you play, nonprofit leaders, to speak up and be bold about the change you seek. And it may go against what is comfortable, what you are used to, what you think you are “allowed” to do as nonprofit leaders, but you must stop waiting for permission. You must start pushing yourself, your staff, your board to be less fearful and more bold.

What does that look like?

Think Bigger, Much Bigger
The time for incremental is over. These times call for big, bold, game-changing solutions to the problems we face. You must ask yourselves and your board and staff, “Are we doing enough? Are we really creating change, or are we just perpetuating the status quo?” If the answer is the latter, take a big step back and figure out what you can do bigger to create change.

Embrace Advocacy
And in answering those questions you may find that the methods you are using are too timid. I cannot say this enough, but nonprofit leaders have got to stop being afraid to connect their social change work to the policy arena. While there are some restrictions on what 501(c)3 organizations can do, I assure you they are far less than you or your board may think. If you truly want to see change in the world, it may not be enough to just address the symptoms of the problem. You may need to address the systems that perpetuate those problems, and advocacy might be just the tool to use.

Find New Paths to Social Change
But it may also be that at the federal level there is not much support for your social change agenda right now, so look for other paths. Much social change is happening at the state and local levels (from climate change, to civil rights, to political reform). Instead of continuing to beat your head against an immovable wall, think about other ways forward. Get outside your comfort zone of always approaching your mission in a single way and think bigger and bolder.

Make Your Board Meetings Real
But in order to move forward in bigger, bolder ways you need to bring your board along. So stop having friendly, meaningless, information-dumping board meetings and instead engage your board in real conversations. Start by asking “What do these times demand of us and our work? What are we afraid of, and how do we overcome it? How can be be more bold?” And when you come up against board fear (of doing more, moving into advocacy, building bigger networks), be very clear that it is a brave new world and you simply cannot put your heads in the sand.

Get Tough With Your Funders
But it doesn’t end with your board. You can no longer have tepid conversations with your funders or bow to their whims. You know what you need and what it takes to accomplish your big goals (or if you don’t, you better figure it out). So be open and real with your funders. Tell them what’s holding you back from accomplishing real change and ask for the amount and type of money you really need to get there.

As President Franklin Roosevelt argued in his first inaugural address, lack of action is a far greater risk than anything we might face:

This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

We must fight the urge to retreat. As social change leaders you cannot allow your fear to paralyze you. These times call for bold advance.