December is a strange mix in Alaska of extreme dark and the promise of new light on the Solstice. It is a time of reflection in a cozy curling-up space along with frenetic efforts to wrap up projects, connect with donors, and find time for joyful celebrations. It is a time of deep gratitude and wonderful surprises. I take all of this in and reflect on the fullness of the year with equal amounts of wondering “How did we get here so fast?” and “What’s next?”
So as December engulfs us, I am thinking about how we take the lessons from our year and bring them forward to light our way into 2018. At Foraker, 2017 has been a year of change. We have said hello and good-bye to wonderful staff. We have celebrated graceful transitions on our boards. We have created some new programs to engage nonprofit board, staff, and volunteers across the state, and we have willingly and strategically jumped into a public policy agenda. 2018 will be an equally focused year in public policy and we hope you are finding your voice as we stand for the nonprofit sector and its vital role in our democracy and in our economy.
It is an unprecedented time in our country where often the definition of “winning” is about keeping the structures of civil society in place. This is true with our efforts to leave the Johnson Amendment intact and preserve a 100-year tradition of tax incentives for charitable giving. The list is long on issues and processes that are not broken, but may need refining. There is also an equally long list of very broken systems that enable division, inequity, and fear – that make our work more critical and the path longer toward anything that looks like progress.
In 2018, we join you in knowing that there is so much at stake for our sector and the work that impacts life every day in America. We know you are working on the ground to meet your missions. At Foraker, we are working on the issues that connect us all like ensuring an accurate count in the 2020 census, strengthening our partnership as an economic driver in our communities, and building our ability to engage charitable donors in a meaningful way. We will also continue to focus on the rules that govern our work. Collectively and individually, we are going to need lots of energy in 2018.
So what brings you energy? We teach in our Certificate for Nonprofit Management program the concept of the VUCA world. VUCA, a term developed by the US War College, stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. This is not a new concept, but an apt way to describe our current reality. I don’t know about you, but this concept, while incredibly helpful in putting words to what is occurring, does not bring me energy. Instead, I am buoyed by the reframe of Bob Johansen who reminds us that to live in a VUCA world we need to adapt. His words instead are: vision, understanding, clarity, and agility. I encourage you to get connected to both of these concepts. In the meantime, I offer these four techniques as a way to find our footing as we gather the energy to lead into 2018 together.
- Hold a clear vision. Stay focused. There is a lot of noise in the world around us. There is much we can worry about. And some days, I think the system we operate in is set to keep us distracted so we can’t make progress. At our worst, we are so distracted from what matters most that we work against each other, and we dilute our collective powerful message. Find your energy in your vision. Get clear with yourself and with your team. Grow the team and engage others in that vision. Know what success looks like without getting lost in how you get there. Trust me – the way you think you will get there will change. Agree as a team to pick two goals, not ten. Write one plan, not five. Pick one word as your guide to act as your beacon in the storm. Distraction will keep you busy, but busy doesn’t solve the challenges we face. Let 2018 be the year of clarity.
- Focus on understanding. Listen to learn and then listen again. Understanding requires context and context means we have to know ourselves and know our ecosystem. We have our organizational missions and we the greater causes where our missions connect. What is the context for both of these? Use your eyes, use your emotional intelligence, use more than your ears and listen for the data that informs our cause and our mission. Most of us are lost in a blizzard of data with very little information. We need to “confront the brutal facts” as Jim Collins reminds us in Good to Great so that we can understand what truly matters most. We need to understand and discern the difference between data and opinion to know where our Mission fits in a larger world – to know what we should do more of, and what we should stop doing. Let 2018 be the year of facts.
- Seek clarity. The daily list of to-dos, the packed calendars, the meetings, the phone calls, the EMAIL! It is a wonder we save people’s lives, protect our planet, create economic opportunity, provide healthcare, keep the lights and the heat going for thousands of Alaskans, not to mention put out fires, respond to children, and produce incredible art. Nonprofit leaders – you do it all. But I know, every day the ability to find clarity of purpose in the midst of minutia is a challenge. Some days we each do it better than the day before or the day to come. Clarity is just as much about rising from the minutia to know our “why” as it is about plowing into the minutia with clear intent to learn something on the other end. The minutia of life can be savored when it means the clarity of a small child’s face or the vividness of color in the sky, but in the workplace it can steal our joy and rob our energy. Let’s commit to one another that we will boldly state our “why” with clarity and bring each other up for air. Let 2018 be the year of intent and purpose.
- Build your agility muscle. It’s almost the New Year, let’s build our energy and our strength to respond and approach challenges in a new way. Like any effort to build something new, we need to take it slow and have support. Building your ability to be agile means moving in a way that lets go of old notions of “we always did it that way,” and sets us up to approach different challenges in different – and more productive – ways. The challenges on your path are not created equal. What is effective in solving one challenge using a best practice or an expert will not work on our most complex issues. Your agility training needs to ensure we are ready to ask better questions, engage more and different people at our tables and take small, calculated risks that allow us to learn new things in this new world. No workout is ever easy, but this new muscle will bring us the energy most of us need to hold on to our vision, provide new understanding and give us clarity of purpose. Let 2018 be the year of renewed strength.
As we come into the new light of the year, I invite you to pick up your VUCA tools and lead into 2018 with peace in yourself, peace in your work, and peace with each other. We are gratefully in this work together.