I have been having a lot of conversation with my masters students about the role nonprofits might play in the fight for social justice. Obviously, there are nonprofits whose explicit mission is all about social justice, working on behalf of a group being denied that essential American promise of the ability to pursue life, liberty and happiness, and all that entails. For those nonprofits, there is no question, but only up to a point: the point at which the current fight doesn’t fit within the parameters of their mission. Then they are in the same boat as the vast majority of nonprofits who do not classify or see themselves as a social justice organization
When I ask students about the social justice responsibilities of those nonprofits—those very organizations that must, in exchange for their cherished tax-exempt status—answers are all over the map. Yes, we all have a responsibility to work on behalf of social justice for all, regardless of the particulars of our mission to no, our obligation is only to the content of our mission and those who benefit from the mission to everything in between. People have felt very strongly about the answers on the end of the continuum and, obviously, less so about the answers in between.
This is not a political comment, but without doubt a question that is ever more important given our political times. It is a question that every leader in the nonprofit sector—be s/he a paid or volunteer leader—must answer and move forward accordingly. The question: does a nonprofit, regardless of its stated mission, have an obligation to be an advocate for social justice?
As I have listened to executive directors and board members worry whether to sign on to this petition or that, whether to be part of this demonstration or that, whether to engage in advocacy for this or that, I have heard people offer up advice that supports all sides: yes, you should, it fits within your mission; no, you shouldn’t, it is outside of your mission; no, you shouldn’t, it will jeopardize your tax-exempt status. These answers, however, belong to the wrong question.
Today, the right question is easy to frame: did Stephanie Wilkinson (and, if you have to ask who is Stephanie Wilkinson, then you aren’t a good leader because you aren’t paying attention to the world around you) demonstrate good leadership? Again, remember, this isn’t political commentary, so the question isn’t whether you agree with the particulars of what she did, but whether in standing up for her employees, in making sure her employee were comfortable in their work environment, did Stephanie Wilkinson act as a good leader? In taking what she called “uncomfortable actions and decisions to uphold [her] morals,” did Wilkinson act as a good leader?
What has been going on in our country has stirred up a conversation about CEO activism, noted as a new trend in the for-profit industry. We can look around and see various examples of CEO’s making sure that their corporate core values and, therefore, the core values of them and their employees are their guides in doing business. When Amazon went looking for bids for its second headquarters, it only looked in communities that shared what people would call its liberal and progressive core values.
In response to the policy of separating immigrants as they crossed the Mexican-US border, a number of airlines announced that they will not fly separated family members to detention sites. And the examples go on. These are CEOs who are acting on their values, and those of their companies, to take uncomfortable actions and decisions based upon their morals. And, they were willing to do so at risk to their holy grail—their bottom line.
For-profit leaders being activists, taking stands is worthy of talk and commentary; so why doesn’t anyone comment on nonprofit leaders being activists? Perhaps it is because people assume that everyone who works for a nonprofit, by virtue of working for a nonprofit, is an activist. Yet, the expectation that every nonprofit leader is an activist simply could not be further from the truth. And we are back to the question of is this wrong or right?
The problem is that too few nonprofit leaders have bothered to ask this question of themselves, and they must. What is our obligation as nonprofit leaders—again, both the paid and volunteer leaders–to make our communities, our country, our world, a better place? Does that obligation go beyond the work of our organization? I’ve read very few mission statements that don’t have a stated or implied end goal of improving the quality of people’s lives, of making the communities (and world) in which their clients and donors live and work “better.” Isn’t the success of those contributions limited when our activism is constrained by the explicit parameters of our missions?
There is no dearth of implorations available to all of us to do as Wilkinson did and draw a line in the sand. A Carolyn Heilbrun quote has traveled with me through many decades of moves. (Heilbrun, in case you don’t know her, was the first women to get tenure in Columbia University’s English Department, an extremely well-regarded and prolific academic scholar and the author of an acclaimed mystery series published under the name Amanda Cross.) “We should make use of our security, our seniority, to take risks, to make noise, to be courageous, to become unpopular.” Martin Luther King, Jr.’s voice also weighed in here: “A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true.”
Certainly leaders in the nonprofit sector have as big a responsibility to be leader activists as leaders in the corporate sector. Do we have a larger one?