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The Healing Potential of the Nonprofit Sector

Posted by Anne Wallestad, President & CEO, BoardSource on Jan 19, 2021 9:43:42 AM

Photograph of a green leaf in a blue pond with raindrops, by Artem Sapegin

Today is the National Day of Racial Healing, which takes place each year the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. This year, it also happens to fall on the day before we will inaugurate a new president – a momentous occasion in any context, but one that takes on particular significance as it marks the end of the most traumatic and violent transfer of power we have ever seen as a country.

This National Day of Racial Healing and the larger context of this moment presents an opportunity to reflect on where we are as a country and a society – how we got here, what it means, and where we go from here. The way that we move forward in the coming days, weeks, months, and years will have a significant – if not permanent – impact on who we are as a country and what that means for each of us as people within these United States of America.

Over the course of the past year, we have borne witness to too many painful reminders of the profound and damaging impact of systemic racism and its life-and-death stakes. It is no coincidence that the most violent and vehement of the rioters at the Capitol carried flags of the Confederacy and donned well-known symbols of white supremacist organizations and Neo-Nazi groups. Racism – and the fierce belief that this country belongs to some Americans more than others – is at the heart of what we saw unfold so destructively on January 6th.

We have also seen how the desire for power – and the unwillingness to let go of it – puts our country, our democracy, and all of us who live within it at great risk.

We cannot distance ourselves from what we saw laid bare, or dismiss it as aberrant behavior perpetrated by the few. Just as the energy of the mob made possible the actions of the most violent insurrectionists, so did our society make possible the formation of the mob.

This is who we are, but it is not who we must remain. We have the power to change.

If we believe that we must change – and I believe we must – what does that call on us to do as nonprofit leaders and organizations? I cannot claim to have the answers, but here are my thoughts on some places to start:

  1. Do the Work to Understand: Fellow white leaders, this one is for you. If you found yourself confused or even frustrated by those who pointed to the racialized aspects of the coup attempt and the treatment of the mostly white insurrectionists by law enforcement, there is work for you to do to understand. There are many resources that can help in this journey, including these recent blogs by BoardSource’s Jim Taylor. Here are a few other resources that I’ve found helpful:
    1. The Debate Over Systemic Racism: Why it Divides and Why it Provides Hope (article)
    2. Institutional Racism is Our Way of Life (article)
    3. Dr. David Williams: How racism makes us sick (TED talk)
    4. 4 Steps That I and Other White People Can Take to Fight Racism (article)
    5. Dr. Megan Ming Francis: Let’s get to the root of racial injustice (TED talk)
    6. America’s yawning racial wealth gap, explained in 9 charts (article)
    7. Adam Ruins Everything: The Disturbing History of the Suburbs (video)
    8. Peggy McIntosh: White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack (article)
  2.  Start With Your Own Organization: Our country’s problems feel enormous right now – and they are. But as we think about our role in effecting change, we must not forget to make change at home – within our organizations. Not only is that change possible, it is necessary. It is no longer acceptable for us to hope that our good intentions are enough to undo the impact of a profound lack of diversity, awareness, and action within nonprofit leadership. They are not. And without change “at home,” we are crippling our ability to be positive forces for change in our communities. While this is not limited to change to undo the impacts of systemic racism on our organizations and the people and communities we serve, that is undoubtedly a good place to start. If your organization has not started on a journey of undoing the impact of racism within your organization and its work, the time is now.
  3. Focus on Your Organization’s Purpose: This is not an invitation to put your head down and put on blinders to what’s happening in the world. Instead, it is an acknowledgment that nonprofit organizations are uniquely well-positioned to help us rebuild in a way that brings people together around shared purpose and values, which is a powerful strategy for rebuilding community and societal bonds. I don’t mean the oblivious requests for unity that many have made, though I do understand the seductiveness of such calls. Our democracy feels fragile – a recent study found that 4 in 5 Americans say that our country is falling apart – and the idea of coming together in unity provides some comfort. But calls for unity imply compromise, negotiation, or even acceptance – and that is not what this moment requires of us. There is no compromise with insurrectionists. There is no negotiating with white nationalist terrorists. We cannot accept what is unacceptable.

    But we do – as a society – need to find ways to understand and work together that allow us to build new appreciation for our common humanity and respect for each other in our difference. The nonprofit sector is uniquely well suited to help us create those bonds of understanding and common purpose. Our mandate as nonprofit leaders is to put community needs and solutions at the center of our decision-making. To do what’s best for the people and communities we serve. And to work with all those who are willing to engage with us around that shared purpose. As we look out over the horizon and consider what will help us rebuild our democracy and the social bonds that support it, there is no question that the nonprofit sector and each of us as individual players within it can play an important role.
  4. Claim Your Power as a Nonprofit Leader and Organization: BoardSource has long advocated for greater nonprofit engagement in public policy because we see the importance of public policy as a means for positive change for the missions, people, and communities we serve. But we also believe that nonprofit organizations – and the nonpartisan frames within which we operate – positively influence our democracy and policymaking. As nonprofits, we don’t exist in a partisan world of winners and losers, ideological litmus and loyalty tests, or a constant drive to appease or appeal to voters. For nonprofits, policy and politics are a part of how change is made, but they are not the change itself. They are a means to an end. Nonprofits advocate for policy change because there is a larger purpose on which we are focused. Whether that’s feeding the hungry, addressing inequities in education, or helping to build economic security for families and communities – as a nonprofit sector, we are driven by a purpose that is larger than ourselves. It is bigger than any individual or group and is about making our society better – for all of us.

    In a context where too many elected officials have allowed the power of an elected office – and holding onto that power – to become the singular and blinding goal, the nonprofit sector can be a positive and productive force for a functional democracy. Let us not forfeit our power by disengaging or giving up on our government. Now is the time to lean in and commit to using all of the power we have to make our system of government work better for us and the social good purposes we serve.

Nonprofit organizations and our leaders are not the answer to the serious and systemic challenges we face as a society. This problem is bigger than us. But we are a part of the solution—a part of the change. And we must not forfeit the positive potential for change that we represent. Our missions and our democracy are too important for us to give up, give in, or opt-out. We must persist in generating a sense of optimism and opportunity about what could be. We must insist on finding meaningful and productive ways to move forward. We must create opportunities for knowing, understanding, and working together that forge the relational bonds on which we rely as a society. It’s not unity – it’s something more essential. It’s healing.

Topics: Board Diversity & Inclusivity, Advocacy, Current Events, Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity

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