I was recently asked to give a talk on nonprofit leadership to a group of emerging leaders. I had a good idea of what I wanted to say but not how to start.
I turned to their bios to learn more about who would be gathered for this talk. What would they already know about nonprofits as a starting point? Nonprofit experience, it turned out, was not what they had in common. Their roles spanned from executive leader to casual volunteer; a few had no nonprofit experience at all. What they did have in common, however, was a story of connection to something bigger than themselves. Their bios told stories of childhood trauma, experiences working to improve food systems, commitments to child protection and health, and advocacy for LGBTQ and land rights. What they didn’t share in nonprofit background they made up for in stories of activism, sacrifice, and love.
That activism, sacrifice, and love shapes the start of most nonprofits. Indeed, the story of a nonprofit is a love story. Someone or a group of people decide that they care so much about something that they are willing to spend time, resources, and social connection to move it forward. They love that child lost to a disease so much that they want to make sure no one else experiences their pain. They love their heritage so much that they rally their community to build programs that lift up their language, traditions, and culture. They love their people so much that they are willing to fight for justice and build better systems.
We put a box around that passion to turn their love story into a nonprofit corporation. That heart turns into a mission statement. Those people often turn into the board providing careful governance and support. A whole lot of administration kicks into place as meetings shift from dreamy “what if” conversations to practical “who is going to complete the IRS Form 990?” decisions.
It is easy to get jaded as we talk to emerging leaders eager to start new nonprofits that make a difference in their communities. There are over 1.5 million nonprofits in the United States, all having to maintain boards, raise money, and stay compliant. Isn’t that enough to get the work done? And then you read the bios of emerging leaders from communities on the frontlines of structural racism and realize that the love they exude for their community is exactly what we need.
The National Council of Nonprofits recently wrote about the warning signs of nonprofits in the pandemic era. We have seen these statistics on the evening news: 66 million people filed for unemployment, 54 million people face food insecurity, 40 million people face eviction, and on and on. I think about these numbers through the eyes of nonprofits who serve as our community’s safety net. This season may be all be grateful for what we have and generous to help those with less.