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We are taught to be prepared for disaster. As Alaskans we might understand that notion a little bit better today than we did in November after the earthquake, or again after the government shutdown in December, which was a different kind of disaster. We think we understand what it means to be prepared – that we know the consequences of a disaster. But, in fact, we understand them much differently when they happen to us and around us. There is rarely anything good to say about the disaster itself, but as we explored together in December, how we respond as Alaskans when disaster strikes, and specifically how we respond as nonprofits, is remarkable.
After the earthquake I marveled at our sector’s response. And now again, I do the same. The recent federal shutdown strained our communities. When asked if we would do a survey to understand how Alaska was impacted, I respectfully declined. With 15,000 federal employees and their families directly affected, and whole communities feeling the impact, I knew that a meaningful survey would require asking almost every Alaskan for their story. In communities big and small, rural and urban, we are interconnected with government. There was real suffering going on for people across our state and our nonprofits were doing their best to respond.
You have likely heard us say it before, every day, nonprofit organizations work hand-in-hand with government to deliver essential services. It is how Alaska works. We have documented it. We have celebrated it. And yet, in the act of doing it, we don’t seek recognition for it, nor even say much about our tax status. And really why would we. More important is that when there are needs in our community, we respond.
News outlets across the state and around the country were noticing Alaska nonprofits in action during this shutdown. They captured stories of Bethel Search and Rescue that saves countless lives and lost its partner in the Fish and Wildlife Service and still had to find a way to keep doing its work. And the foodbanks in Juneau and Anchorage and Fairbanks that were feeding federal workers. And a local Anchorage church that reached out directly to TSA staff while credit unions and other banks tried to ease the pain of no income. The New York Times even focused on Kodiak, one of the many communities heavily impacted by the shutdown. While these groups were being noticed for their extra efforts, we also heard about the loss of funding to Alaska nonprofits, specifically domestic violence shelters. The media didn’t pick up these Alaska stories, but we did see them note that layoffs were occurring in shelters in New York, North Carolina, and Ohio, to name a few. The impact on nonprofits responding and paying the price of the shutdown goes on and on.
Of course, media outlets weren’t only ones to notice. Strong voices came together – including the National Governors Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the National Council of Nonprofits – to speak to congressional leaders in an effort to find a resolution to this unnatural disaster. They all issued strong letters demanding an end to the shutdown and noting the impact on individuals, organizations, and communities across the country.
And yet, we know there are limits to what the nonprofit community can continue doing in the face of unexpected demands that come at the same time funding suddenly drops or stops. Add to this looming state cuts, and the safety net is stretched thin.
So now what? As Alaskans we know how to just keep at it – to do what needs to be done and to be prepared. We also know that we could find ourselves in another natural or unnatural disaster again at any moment.
On the practical side, I encourage you all to do your math and know your story. At every turn, know the story of your essential services and be able to back it up with the math. Take the time to show how your partnership with federal, state, and local government is financially responsible – not in the way that lets them stop, but in a way that explains the investment in positive terms. Don’t do it in the way that says you can do more for less, but instead in the way that offers what you can do better together. The temptation for “scarcity thinking” is high, which shows up like protecting our turf or playing the martyr. It also looks like accepting the premise that government doesn’t have a role in how Alaska can thrive. This isn’t an all-or-nothing moment. We need every sector to do its part. As Alaskans we simply work better when we work together. So, know your math. Do it for your organization. Do it with your peer organizations. Do it around causes, not just missions. Let’s show up with an abundance model that says we can do a lot when we all do our part. Let’s show up and say yes, we deliver essential services, and yes, we are the safety net, AND yes, there is an essential role for government and private industry to make that work. Indeed, this is the time to infuse government resources into nonprofit organizations as the way to leverage and maximize every investment we secure – it’s not the time to do more with less. If you need help with the math, ask. If you need help with the story, ask. It is going to take both to weather this time in our history.
While the practical approach is critical to moving forward, there is something more to consider. As we think about the stories of our disasters and the response, an odd combination of grief and joy is woven into the experience. Remarkably, while planning for our upcoming Leadership Summit, I spoke with Akaya Windwood. She reminded me that every day as nonprofit leaders we experience grief and joy in our work—even when no disaster is present. Honestly, I had not fully considered how these two strong emotions are interwoven into the fabric of our sector. But Akaya’s insight, in light of all the uncertainty in our economy, environment, and politics, feels like the gift we can give ourselves right now – not just to be prepared for the next big thing, but to stay grounded for the long haul.
If you haven’t considered this gift before, take a moment to think about what brought you to this work. Was it the joy of helping someone, or some place, or some thing? Was it the ability to create lasting change? Was it the deep desire to give back to a community? Was it bearing witness to injustice and taking a stand? There are so many reasons, but I imagine many of them were and are deeply rooted in that strong combination of joy and grief. After more than 18 years in this work, I can still find my joy and my grief and both remain deeply motivating. Looking for our grief is a practice in and of itself and one certainly to explore in all of its complexity. Looking for joy, on the other hand, has become popular thanks to Marie Kondo. Ms. Kondo’s understanding of joy is rooted in a deeply spiritual practice that she has translated for mainstream audiences. This translation asks us to understand that everything has energy and that energy can either bring us joy or not. This is true about our work as well. How you “pick up” your work and touch it and truly feel the grief and the joy is unique to each of us. But maybe, if we each take a moment or two to connect deeply to the original reason we came to this work, then we might refuel for the next disaster. Maybe then we can deliver the essentials more easily. Maybe to be prepared right now in this uncertain world is to know our own grief and to seek more joy. Maybe this is the gift to give to ourselves.