It was Peter Drucker who applied the Greek aphorism of “know thyself” to leaders. Great leaders seem to have taken that message to heart and freely admit to their weaknesses. As such, it is not uncommon to hear them say that the shrewdest thing they do is to surround themselves with people smarter than they—and then get out of their way. While I am certainly not proclaiming myself a great leader, I have eagerly sought to surround myself with smart people.
While I hope I’m not the only one to have the experience of hearing or reading something and thinking, “Why didn’t I come up with that?”, this happens to me more often than I like to admit. Often times, that wistfulness isn’t the result of being given some brilliant gem, but simply a matter of pulling words together that explain that “Duh!” that has been lurking just below the surface of consciousness. That happened recently when a colleague said in this time of isolation, donating to a nonprofit provides people with a sense of belonging, a sense of community.
Ding, ding, ding! Why couldn’t I formulate that back early in the pandemic, when everyone first asked, “What do we do about our donors?” followed quickly by “We can’t possibly ask them for money.” The answer we gave then wasn’t wrong—reach out to them to see how they are doing, check in on them, let them know you care. But I wish I had arrived at, or someone had led me to that “duh” sooner.
Had I, I wouldn’t have allowed those who reached out to me to fall, once again, into that proverbial nonprofit trap of undervaluing themselves. In good times and bad, nonprofits play such an essential role in our communities and our society at large, whether it be by educating folks or offering food, shelter and other essential needs, or by preserving our open spaces and providing access to the beauty of arts and culture that lift our spirits and soothe our souls. These things are needed, whether we are in boon or bust times, healthy or dealing with a pandemic, in times of unrest and unhappiness or peace. Nonprofits are essential.
Society, whether it knows this or not, depends on us, and it is time that we recognize this and take our rightful place. For that to happen, though, we must first admit our value, our importance. In language that the majority of our country seems to understand and value, we add to the economic engine of our society. According to the “2020 Nonprofit Employment Report” from the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies, the nonprofit sector remains the third largest employer in our country, employing just under 12.5 million people. We follow “retail trade” with just under 15.8 million employees and “accommodation & food services” with just under 13.6 million.
Our sector puts over $670 billion dollars into the economy through the wages it pays its employees. And while it is admittedly less than the retail and hospitality industries, it is still the third largest contributor to the economy, as measured in employee wages.
But we are, and this cuts to the heart of our essentialness, far more important for what we do for society than the economic engine we are for society. Because of what we do, we must not question whether, but acknowledge the necessity of, asking people to support us as we continue to do our work. We must not question whether now is a good time to ask people for money, but rather recognize the opportunity we are giving them—regardless of the times to be part of something bigger than they are, with more impact than any one person can provide. We must believe in ourselves and ask them to join our community.
For most people, there is a strong need to be part of a group. This need that has been heightened by mandatory social isolation which has barred us from getting that connection through the usual paths. In this time of isolation, community is just one more service that nonprofits provide, and yet we don’t talk about it nearly enough. Now would be the ideal time to change that. And in the future, we would be wise not forget it.