Vu Le, author of the wildly popular (at least with my nonprofit compadres) blog called Nonprofit with Balls, is known for pushing buttons.
He doesn't tiptoe around controversial issues. He runs straight into raging battles, shooting his arrows of truth. And because of both his style and his substance, he has ended up serving as a primary voice of emerging leadership within the nonprofit sector.
Here's what he had to say recently about nonprofits and fear:
"The nonprofit sector is full of brilliant people paralyzed by fear. Boards fear liabilities and getting sued. Executive Directors fear not having sufficient cashflow for the next payroll; we fear firing staff who are clearly not a good fit for our organizations; we fear the perceptions from the community with every decision we make; we fear giving funders and donors feedback. Development Directors fear losing individual donors; we fear that our org’s brand is weak, or that we are not up to date on the latest fundraising techniques. Program Directors fear our outcomes and metrics are not strong enough; we fear we are not doing enough for our community members; we fear that our programs will shut down and harm the people we serve."
– Waiting for the dough: How fear and other existential forces affect the nonprofit sector, published October 19th, 2015
Are you still with me?
If you're reading this, you're likely working in the nonprofit sector, too. Well? Do you agree with him? Have you seen these things happening?
I certainly have. And I think others have, too.
Yesterday, I participated off-and-on in a daylong Twitter Chat sponsored by the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network of the Twin Cities. One of our local civic and nonprofit leaders, Lars Leafblad, hosted the chat over the lunch hour.
See one of our exchanges here:
Those are some powerful words, in Leafblad's less-than-140-character response.
Risk. Growth. Scarcity.
In many ways, these words speak to the same "fear" that Le references.
We have to take a real moment of truth with ourselves, now. Are we willing to take risks, because we know that we (and our staffs...and our clients...and all our stakeholders) will all be okay, no matter what happens? Are we willing to pursue growth, even when it's risky? Are we willing to experiment with innovation — even when we don't know where we'll end up? Or will we let fear constrict our options and rule the day?
Perhaps the most important question of all is this one: are we willing to leave behind this pervasive mindset that the nonprofit sector is a zero-sum game? We really do seem to believe that "scarcity" is a thing, in the nonprofit sector. We really do buy into that fear.
Why are we letting fear run the show?
Of course, this can be a hard thing to measure. How do you even know if (and when) you're letting fear win?
I have a suggestion.
For some of you, this may seem a little "woo-woo" or new-agey, from here on out. But I really do think what follows could be key to solving our "fear problem" in the nonprofit sector.
Watch your heart. Watch how your heart is doing — how it's expanding or contracting — as you move throughout your day. Is it clenching with that familiar cinch of fear? Or do you feel relaxed, open, calm, generous?
The latter, of course, is the opposite end of the spectrum from fear — a state that would be possible to reach with an abundance worldview.
1. an extremely plentiful or over-sufficient quantity or supply (i.e. an abundance of grain) 2. overflowing fullness (i.e. abundance of the heart) 3. affluence; wealth (i.e. the enjoyment of abundance)
Now, abundance is an interesting concept. More than just a concept, it is also a feeling, a lived experience with the world. You are living in abundance when you approach other people and your environment with the expectation that good things will come to you; when you fully expect that you will find whatever you need; when, rather than always taking the cynical tack, you choose to take the optimistic one (perhaps about the outcome of a certain project or event on which you're working, or perhaps in relation to one of your colleague's motives).
Abundance is open-hearted.
Yes, I know. I know how hard it is to live the way I've described. I know it's hard to be open-hearted, when so many bad things happen all the time.
So I want to point you in the direction that I think might get you there, via what I think is the key to living with abundance: gratitude.
November is the month of Thanksgiving — the month that you hear the word "gratitude" bandied about everywhere you go. Lots of people talk about "living with gratitude." Pop culture has deemed that mindset as essential to happiness, so many people have accepted that truth in their personal lives.
Yes, many have tried to incorporate gratitude into their personal lives.
But I'm wondering: do you bring gratitude to work?
I have found gratitude to be a magical thing — especially in my work in fundraising. Because of our human nature, gratitude can come so easily. When we really — really — think about the fact that an individual decided to gift his or her hard-earned money, just to help another person...or that a corporation mobilized its staffers for a day, paying them to come and help people in need (rather than working on making a profit)...or that a foundation cared enough about your cause to carefully review your proposal and choose to give you thousands (thousands!) of dollars to expand an important program your clients really need....WOW! Just wow. Your heart expands. And it fills with gratitude. Like magic. You almost can't avoid it.
I have joked before that my job as a Development Director is also to be the "Chief Gratitude Officer." I feel like it is super-important for me, in my role, to help the staff, Board, and other stakeholders really get in touch with that gratitude for all that our donors and volunteers give us.
You know why else gratitude is magic?
Because gratitude creates a self-propelling circle. Gratitude begets more generosity (because when you give of yourself, you realize that it feels so good to receive gratitude and know how much you're making a positive impact in the world [right?!], so you want to keep doing it), which begets more gratitude, which begets more generosity, and on and on.
Do you see how this magic circle is not only self-propelling — but it is also self-fueling? The circle can grow and grow and grow. There is no zero-sum game. There is so much that we all have to give. The well is bottomless.
Now I'm going to go out on a limb, here.
I think we're talking about love.
noun (pl: -pies)
1. the practice of performing charitable or benevolent actions 2. love of mankind
You probably know that "philanthropy" has Greek origins.
According to Wikipedia:
"The word was first coined as an adjective by the playwright Aeschylus in Prometheus Bound (5th century BC), to describe Prometheus' character as 'humanity-loving' (philanthropos tropos), for having given to the earliest proto-humans who had no culture, fire (symbolizing technological civilization), or 'blind hope' (optimism). Together, they would be used to improve the human condition, to save mankind from destruction....
The new word, φιλάνθρωπος philanthropos, combined two words: φίλος philos, 'loving' in the sense of benefitting, caring for, nourishing; and ἄνθρωπος anthropos, 'human being' in the sense of 'humanity,' or 'human-ness.'"
Basically, that thing that we in the nonprofit sector have been benefitting from all along — philanthropy — is actually all about love.
Love is a pretty powerful force.
Abundance is a form of love.
Gratitude is a form of love.
And here's the kicker: love is an antidote to fear. Even if you haven't heard that taught in a temple, synagogue, mosque, or church, you've surely experienced it for yourself throughout your life.
Imagine that. We've had the magic wand needed to defeat fear in our toolkit all along. Now the trick is to actually use it — and use it well.
What are your thoughts on all of this? Experiences? Insights? I really would love to hear from you and start a dialogue on the topic — because it's so important to our sector and its future!