Kinder, Gentler Nonprofits

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on January 30th, 2015 in Thoughts & Commentary

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The snowstorm that wasn’t has me thinking.  In its aftermath, there were a lot of really angry people.  I was not one of them; I, rather, was very, very disappointed, as I love snow and this has not been a satisfying winter, thus far.   I was really looking forward to all of that white stuff.   I’m letting go, but some others don’t seem to be able to.

Meteorologists are apologizing; the media, after hyping it, is now hyping the analysis of how could this have gone so wrong; and economists are calculating how much this storm cost those in the mid-Atlantic and New York who bought into the hype and raided the supplies of shovels, de-icer, toilet paper, and milk.  Really?

I do not believe for one moment that this was a malicious plot by meteorologists to send those in the path of the storm into a panic.  I don’t think that the superintendents of school districts who closed schools before snow had barely begun delight in having egg on their faces, any more than emergency township managers like closing down towns only to have to retract those orders.  People make mistakes—with or without the best of intentions; rather than berate and wring our hands, we need to learn the lesson and move on.

In retired General Stanley McChrystal’s TedTalk, “Listen, Learn, … then Lead,” he makes a wonderful statement that more people need to take to heart:  a person can fail and not be a failure.  (Good leaders understand this.)  I’ve thought about this a lot recently in light of weather.  Two weeks ago, the Philadelphia area experienced an unexpected swath of black ice.  Sadly, some people died as a result.  Also sad is that others got fired for failing to accurately predict the black ice.  Really?  I’ve heard the same call for firings after the hyped storm.

When I talk to nonprofit boards, executive directors and human resource professionals about HR and work cultures in the nonprofit sector, I am always quick to tell them that nonprofits need to be as good and as nice and as supportive of their employees as they are with, and of, their clients.  That is, if they want to be consistent with their missions and core values.  We cannot lean over backwards to make accommodations for clients and donors and not be equally flexible in meeting the needs of our employees, colleagues, collaborators, etc.   I am continually dismayed by the number of people who spend their professional lives in the nonprofit sector working to improve the quality of life for all who so very quickly, when it comes to their own lives, are “all about me.”

The other day, NPR’s Morning Edition did a story about an inspiring man, Tony Simmons, who, formerly homeless and addicted, now spends his time helping others get off the streets and turn their lives around.  And while he started with himself in turning his life around, he is now all about others, even though he says that every time he helps another, he “gets a little part of me back.”  Another homeless man, who watched Simmons for some time and seeks to emulate him, says that Simmons taught him to not just think about himself and to be unselfish.

Which brings me to Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and all the others who brought us social contract theory.   With apologies to philosophers and political scientists everywhere, social contract theory says that we left the state of nature, where everyone was able to do as they pleased but also needed to fend for themselves and watch their own backs, to come together in a social contract in order to protect the greater good.  Instead of each for his (let’s face it, back then it was his and only his) own, we agreed to give up some freedoms in order to work together in a civil society.  This means that sometimes we have to be unselfish and perhaps even disquieted or inconvenienced or—dare I say it—not get what we want when we want it in order for the greater good and order of things.

We in the nonprofit sector should understand this better than everyone else in society because day in and day out, no matter in what part of our marvelous sector we work, we toil for the greater good of our communities and our society.  We embody the social contract.  So it is extremely disturbing when I look and listen to colleagues and find Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts screaming, “Off with their heads!”

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