Are Nonprofits Still Effective?
I like the focus on racism vs. DEI. I've always felt the DEI approach was too squishy and had way too many off-ramps to be effective. That said, the mission of a nonprofit typically isn't to dismantle institutional racism. It's to feed the hungry, house the homeless, educat[e] the children, bring art and culture into our lives, etc. Its effectiveness is measured in how well it executes on its mission. If a food bank with a ‘white’ management structure feeds twice as many people than one with an ‘anti-racism’ management structure, which is the more effective nonprofit? How important is it to the people being served how the nonprofit management is structured? Don't get me wrong I don't have any patience or apologies for nonprofits that operate in a way that excludes anyone, and yes, the vestiges of racism go deeper than whether white employees use the n-word or overtly marginalize their co-workers of color. I just feel that leaving the purpose and mission of the nonprofit out of the conversation is an oversight and relegates this work to an ancillary position instead of mission critical.”
One of the authors of the article, our own Dave Lenox, addressed that feedback in saying:
We hear you! We are hearing these exact sentiments from clients across sectors. What we do NOT want is for DEI efforts to be seen as a reason to stop serving the people (or environment, or animals, for that matter) that we were formed to serve. It will take all of us working together to address systemic and unconscious bias. But we can't stop the important work of helping in other ways while we do that!
That comment and the response broach a really critical topic: have today’s hot button topics like anti-racism, diversity, equity, and politics gone too far? Or, more specifically, have the focus on these topics sidetracked well-intentioned nonprofits from their primary missions, thereby reducing their effectiveness?
Ryan Grim wrote an incredibly extensive piece for The Intercept on this topic earlier this year titled Elephant in The Zoom: Meltdowns Have Brought Progressive Advocacy Groups to a Standstill at a Critical Moment in World History. If you have the time, we definitely recommend reading that article in full! However, with a read time of approximately 58 minutes, we also know that is not necessarily going to be possible for everyone. So, we’re summarizing the key takeaways and offering our own insights along the way to help you out. Find out what you need know from this powerful article coupled with what we are hearing from our clients and partners in the nonprofit space:
The Loudest Voices
Article Takeaways: Often times the most zealous anti-racism advocates at organizations are white employees campaigning for the rights of their BIPOC colleagues without a true understanding of their colleagues’ lived experiences or the outcomes they are hoping to achieve. These kinds of efforts are well meaning, but often misplaced or unproductive. However, in other instances, these efforts are far more nefarious, like in a circumstance where group leaders reported feeling like “Staff were ignoring the mission and focusing only on themselves, using a moment of public awakening to smuggle through standard grievances cloaked in the language of social justice.” Typically, these divisions are drawn along management-staff lines, creating a deep schism in the organization.
Insights: While it is great when all employees want to support each other’s rights for equal treatment, listening to the loudest voices instead of the most relevant voices can be dangerous. Do not let a vociferous faction upstage the voices you are trying to protect, or you will play into the marginalization you are seeking to overcome.
Motives and Hidden Motivations
Article Takeaways: Sometimes complaints of “racism” at an organization are actually complaints about a specific leader, leadership style, or strategic direction masquerading as a social issue. Management must be willing to investigate accusations and complaints on their merits without a bias or emotional stake to discern whether there is actually evidence of bias, prejudice, or discrimination.
Insights: In-fighting, nepotism, and office politics can be found at all types of organizations. That is just the nature of bringing imperfect people together to work towards a common goal. However, the best organizations will discourage those kinds of toxic attitudes and behaviors before they become a problem (and respond appropriately as soon as they start to cause issues).
Article Takeaways: A former nonprofit Executive Director was quoted as saying, “My last nine months, I was spending 90 to 95 percent of my time on internal strife. Whereas [before] that would have been 25-30 percent tops.” The article’s author echoed this in summarizing, “It’s hard to find a Washington-based progressive organization that hasn’t been in tumult, or isn’t currently in tumult.”
Insights: Conflict is an efficiency-killer, but moreover it is a mission-killer. Nonprofits have a vested interest in easing internal conflicts to allow them to properly focus on their core missions. No matter what the mission is, if leadership is only devoting 5-10% of their time to it, it will certainly fail.
Non-profit and For-Profit Alike
Article Takeaways: The divisions we have seen emerging are not only being borne by nonprofit organizations. These same struggles exist at large for-profit organizations as well.
Insights: While non-profit and for-profit companies are dealing with the same ideological strife, the impact is far more serious in the non-profit world because when a corporate entity cannot do its work, it just simply does not make as much money. However, when a non-profit organization cannot fulfill its mission, the groups they serve miss out on what the organization can provide.
“Be All” Culture
Article Takeaways: Today’s culture has “turned many workplaces into pressure cookers” and created added expectations for employers. Nonprofits that once existed solely to unite people around a shared mission now are being asked to fulfill political, social, and cultural roles in their employees’ lives as well. This added pressure is proving to be too much for many organizations.
Insights: Employees are asking more from their employers than ever before, but should they be? Is that healthy? Is it sustainable? Is it effective? These are the kinds of questions organizations must ask to help identify their role in the broader ecosystem.
Article Takeaways: The article asserts, “A looming sense of powerlessness on the left nudged focus away from structural or wide-reaching change, which felt out of reach, and replaced it with an internal target that was more achievable.” A former Executive Director explained the shifting mindset in this way “Maybe I can’t end racism by myself, but I can get my manager fired, or I can get so and so removed, or I can hold somebody accountable. People found power where they could.”
Insights: Nonprofits should be empowering employees but empowering their employees to make change in a positive way, not a way that causes more division. When we work together to make meaningful change, we can shape the world around us. Martin Luther King, Jr., while paraphrasing of a portion of a sermon delivered in 1853 by the abolitionist minister Theodore Parker, famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Remembering this, we can be sure that the hard work we do today will have an impact on tomorrow without the need to create shock waves with impatient demands for instant gratification.
Turning Down the Intensity
Article Takeaways: Bringing people face-to-face is a key strategy for turning down the intensity of the current culture because it forces them to confront the humanity of the people they are interacting with, instead of encouraging keyboard warrior-type behavior. Jonathan Smucker writes, “COVID has severely limited in-person tactical options, and in-person face-to-face activities are absolutely vital to volunteer-driven efforts. Without these spaces, staff are more likely to become insular… The virtual environment (zoom meetings) may be convenient for all kinds of reasons, but it’s a pretty lousy medium once there’s conflict in an organization. In-person face-to-face time, in my experience, is irreplaceable when it comes to moving constructively through conflict.”
Insights: Every day we work with organizations that are walking the tightrope of allowing employees to work remotely and bringing them into the office. While many employees would prefer to skip the commute and forced conversation in front of the breakroom microwave, seasoned leadership understands how important this kind of face-to-face interaction is to align organizational objectives and build a healthy culture. The best compromise seems to be a hybrid work structure that respects their employees’ need for more personal time while also requiring that they regularly plug into the organization’s day-to-day operations either in the office or out in the field.
Article Takeaways: Ryan Grim reminds us, “Winning power requires working in coalition with people who, by definition, do not agree with you on everything; otherwise they’d be part of your organization and not a separate organization working with you in coalition. Winning power requires unity in the face of a greater opposition, which runs counter to a desire to live a just life in each moment.”
Insights: The biggest mistake we can make is thinking that we need to make everyone think like we do and act like we do to be successful. In fact, that very premise is antithetical to the entire argument for diversity. Effective nonprofit leadership is, in part, about uniting different types of people around a shared goal and different organizations into a coalition that can help one another to achieve more than they ever could alone.
Calling Out vs Accountability
Article Takeaways: Loretta Ross, prominent author and reproductive justice activist, decries the practice of trashing, which she describes in this way, “It is not disagreement; it is not conflict; it is not opposition. These are perfectly ordinary phenomena which, when engaged in mutually, honestly, and not excessively, are necessary to keep an organism or organization healthy and active. Trashing is a particularly vicious form of character assassination which amounts to psychological rape. It is manipulative, dishonest, and excessive. It is occasionally disguised by the rhetoric of honest conflict… But it is not done to expose disagreements or resolve differences. It is done to disparage and destroy.” She then goes on to disparage calling out as well in saying, “The No. 1 thing people fear is that I’m giving a pass to white people to continue to be racist. …[But] if someone knows if someone has made a mistake, and they know they’re going to face a firing squad for having made that mistake, they’re not gonna wanna come to you and be accountable to you. It is not gonna happen that way. And so the whole callout culture contradicts itself because it thwarts its own goal.” While trashing has no place in respectful dialogue, calling out gets closer to the end goal of achieving progress towards more inclusive thinking. However, it too fails to achieve real change because it replaces an earnest desire to learn and make wiser choices with fear.
Call out culture also robs people of a basic tenet of humanity: the ability to change. In a famous essay, Adrienne Maree Brown, former Executive Director of The Ruckus Society eloquently said, “knee jerk call outs say: those who cause harm cannot change. they must be eradicated. the bad things in the world cannot change, we must disappear the bad until there is only good left. but one layer under that, what i hear is: we cannot change. we do not believe we can create compelling pathways from being harm doers to being healed, to growing. ...when we engage in knee jerk call outs and instant consequences with no process, we become a cancer unto ourselves, unto movements and communities. we become the toxicity we long to heal.”
Insights: In our anti-racist presentation to the Washington State Nonprofit Conference the overriding advice offered to increase accountability was two-fold:
Article Takeaways: An interesting factor contributing the ineffectiveness of some of today’s nonprofit organizations is how they raise money. The article notes, “The reliance of so many organizations on foundation funding rather than member donations is central to the upheavals the groups have seen in recent years… because the groups aren’t accountable to the public for failing to accomplish anything, as long as the foundation flows continue. …large foundations and grant-funded nonprofits aren’t accountable to the people whose interests they claim to represent and have no concrete incentive to win elections or secure policy gains… The fundamental disconnect of organizations to the communities they purport to serve has led to endless ‘strategic refreshes’ and ‘organizational resets’ that have even further disconnected movements from the actual goals.”
Insights: Grassroots organizations funded primarily by private donations often have the financial freedom and agility to respond quickly to changing sentiment around how they are executing on their mission. As a result, these smaller nonprofit organizations are often better poised to address the issues they are facing and move on instead of letting issues and agendas drag them down.
Opportunities for Greatness
Article Takeaways: The article declares, “For progressive movement organizations 2021 promised to be the year they turned power into policy, with a Democratic trifecta and the Biden administration broadcasting a bold vision of ‘transformational change.’ …And then, sometime in the summer, the forward momentum stalled, and many of the progressive gains lapsed or were reversed. Instead of fueling a groundswell of public support to reinvigorate the party’s ambitious agenda, most of the foundation-backed organizations that make up the backbone of the party’s ideological infrastructure were still spending their time locked in virtual retreats, Slack wars, and healing sessions, grappling with tensions over hierarchy, patriarchy, race, gender, and power.”
Insights: The moment for greatness has not passed. We still have the opportunity to do our best work yet! Armed with a greater social consciousness than ever before and more tools to bring people together, we can still achieve our missions. We can be effective while embodying a greater commitment to giving everyone a seat at the table as long as we keep our priorities in order.
The points we have highlighted here are by no means all of the key takeaways from this incredibly powerful article. For other great insights on risk management, leadership challenges, the dangers of making concessions, and smart hiring practices we recommend you read the article in full here: Meltdowns Have Brought Progressive Advocacy Groups to a Standstill at a Critical Moment in World History
Read additional perspectives on some of today’s most important topics from respected nonprofit leaders on our blog!
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