Standing Beside Alaska's Non-Profits

Celebrating Our Interdependence

As we mark our country’s celebration of independence this week, I am ruminating on the strength of our interdependence. Indeed, we see far too many examples these days of people who speak of independence in a way that is dividing us. Some days those voices come with great power, both real and perceived. Independence – and equally interdependence – doesn’t mean that we are all going to agree all the time. When he visited the United States in the mid-1800s, the French statesman Alexis de Tocqueville keenly observed that the success of American democracy was the result of “associations of a thousand kinds.”

Today our sector is still incredibly diverse and includes all political parties and every religion, all of which, like many of you, are organized under the federal nonprofit code. Often a victory for one group is a loss for another. We saw that clearly last week with several Supreme Court decisions – one striking down the Texas abortion law, another blocking the President’s immigration plan, and still another upholding affirmative action in college admissions – all decisions that will have an impact on our sector. Many nonprofit advocates say they won those decisions, while at the same time others say they lost. Thankfully, in this country our sector’s role encourages us to engage in our work with passion and commitment and celebrate when we win, and regroup to try again when we don’t. Such is the nature of our country. Such is the nature of democracy.

Democracy is based on a system of ideals and as such we must face the reality that the system and many of our institutional structures don’t work for all of us. I am committed to changing both to get us closer to the ideal. We are fortunate that many of our nonprofits work every day to lift up more voices, point out injustices, and work toward new solutions for a better life for us all. They could work alone, and some do, but we have seen time and again that the ones that are the most effective change agents are also the ones that have allied voices in support and solidarity. Our interdependence makes us stronger. We see this in the great social movements of our history and in our present. We need the lead voices, and we need the allies. We also know that the allies need to be careful not to be “the voice,” but to follow and support. And the more allies the better. Our missions, our work, our lives are far too complex to go it alone. It is our interdependence that will solve our greatest challenges. As I consider the last few months of our work at Foraker, some small but concrete examples come to mind about how we are and can be stronger together every day in Alaska.

  1. The organization considering board composition. You have seen it before. The board needs more members. There is no plan for recruitment. There is no strategic questioning. Someone offers the name of a friend to fill a position. And suddenly you have a new board member. Easy, right? Well perhaps it is easy in the moment, but the consequences are less than stellar because what we know about the best of our high performing boards is that they are what Richard Chait refers to as a “constellation” rather than the “super stars.” “Constellations” are purposefully diverse. As we say in our sustainability model, they are a collection of “the right people,” meaning that they have been well cultivated and selected not based on who they know but what they know and what they can bring to furthering the mission. Knowing that we cannot achieve mission alone, our boards have the ability to lead us on a path to interdependence. They do this not by necessarily giving up their independence, although sometimes that is the best choice for mission, but by insisting that we have diverse thoughts flowing within and outside the organization. Picking the right board members sets us up for success, and the responsibility lies with us to ensure we get it right on purpose.
  2. The communities facing new challenges to taxation. Less than a year ago I was on a panel with three other people. Each of us represented a different sector. The topic was the impact the economy would have on our work. One-by-one each person predicted the future. I wanted to be wrong in my prediction, but unfortunately that was not the case. What I said was that the economic strife would come down on the sector like a funnel. First federal funds would shrink and put pressure on the state. State funding, in turn, would shrink and put pressure on regional and local governments, and finally, as they shrink, the pressure would come to our sector. Indeed, this scenario is playing out across the state as local governments do the one thing they can do, which is to figure out how to recoup more money through fees and taxes. In another newsletter article we will talk in depth about this topic, but for now let’s focus on the part of this prediction that I didn’t see coming. That’s the part where we either are asked to stand against the very government we work with so closely to support our communities, or we divide our sector and end up taking stands against one another based on certain funding criteria and the definition of nonprofits that would qualify for those funds. Too many times already, and many more times in the future, we will all likely have a chance to decide whether we are going to stand together as one, or divide and conquer. If we willingly divide ourselves, or if we pit one part of our sector against another, not only will we lose the argument, but our communities – those we were formed to serve – will lose, too. I’m sure it will take some complicated and complex conversations, but I have already seen very diverse nonprofits come together to work through them and find the strength in their diversity. When that happens even more, our common voice along with our increasing ability to connect will help us partner even better with government for the benefit of the communities we serve.
  3. The sector facing a challenging economy. Bad news? Well, yes, there is plenty of that. I have said before that we can focus on the bad news but it likely won’t move us forward. Instead, I am still focused on how our challenges lead to opportunities, and where the bad news promotes new questions and new responses. These past many weeks, I have been meeting with many organizations that are facing remarkably steep financial hurdles. Yet, what strikes me every time is that money is only the last symptom of a larger set of challenges. Having money isn’t magic. It doesn’t just appear and disappear. There are many decisions that we make leading up to having it or not having it. We can circle back to our first example and talk about board composition, or we can talk about staff skills and abilities, or infrastructure choices. Or we can look at our second example and talk about how well we play with others in our sector and within our communities. Each example provides a set of choices. By the time we are asking ourselves about our lack of money we have made thousands of decisions. Our role in these conversations that seemingly is supposed to be about money and survival are, in fact, about community and interdependence. To reposition these conversations we often ask: “Who would notice if you went away?” This is a startling conversation for many. But this level of truth telling brings us back to our role in the community and how our work connects, or doesn’t. The organizations that find their path forward every time are the ones that successfully discover and nurture these connections. That’s how they get results. That’s how we navigate a new economy.

While these examples are diverse, they each point to our interdependence both within organizations and throughout our communities. They each can serve as a small reminder that we need each other – that working alone or working without diverse voices will only lessen our ability to succeed.

As we mark the anniversary of our independence, and in the same week note the passing of Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, author, and Holocaust survivor, I salute our interconnected world and the great responsibility of choice that our democracy demands. I am thankful to the world leaders like Elie Wiesel who teach us to remember our past so we continue to learn from it – to think about systems and structures and how they can be used for kindness and humanity, or how they can be used to justify hate and intolerance – to be reminded of the power of choice. Every day we make choices in how we lead our missions. We can choose to change the systems and structures so that they work for everyone, or we can use them to cause harm. We can lead, or we can be allies, or we can stand in the way. We can choose to remember that our independence is based on our interdependence or we can go it alone. These are the choices of a democracy. What choice will you make next?