Nonprofit leaders often joke, in that not funny way, that the work nonprofits do is the best kept of secrets. We tell each other this as if saying it makes it better. It doesn’t.
This is not a new revelation, of course. Over the many years, we at Foraker along with you have tried in many ways to rise from obscurity and tell our collective and individual stories. Collectively we have walked the line of making the story just enough about us to be noticed while keeping the emphasis on the work that happens in our communities because we exist. To that end, there have been human interest stories rather than headlines about how we mitigate and sometimes even end human suffering, how we propel the arts into the public eye, how we protect our environment for generations of people and animals we will never know, or how we are an essential part of a healthy democracy. I imagine you are as thankful as I am when these stories are in the media, and you breathe a small sigh of relief that someone noticed. So, don’t misunderstand me when I say, it isn’t enough.
It isn’t enough because until about a month ago, the only way our sector has made it into the headlines is through misdeeds and bad actors. It isn’t enough because mostly these stories have spoken to the proverbial choir. If this time in our history has taught us a lesson already it is that we have to make it a priority to tell our story every day – and now more than ever. From this point forward, however, we must shift to sharing our story and the stories the media tells about us to both policymakers and the moveable middle among us. Who is the moveable middle? They are likely all around you both in people who hold positions of power and everyday folks. They are the ones who are interested and engaged just enough to listen, to learn, to change their minds. In the political world, we think of them as the “undecided voter” or the “uncommitted politician.” In donor development, we might think of them as part of our prospecting outreach. In communications, we might consider them as persuadable. Where ever you lead from in this work, these last few weeks have made it clear that we have much work ahead to both identify those in the middle and tell them our story.
I know you can do it because in the last few weeks many of you have been leading the way. Yes, I know it is for the worst of reasons, but WOW! These stories are on the nightly news, above the fold in the daily paper, in the radio leads, again and again. These stories about the work of the nonprofit sector – your work – have been “hard news,” not just stories pushed to the human-interest section. Best yet, each story has been compelling in pointing out the role nonprofits play in Alaska while showing, not just telling, the impact we have on the everyday lives of Alaskans. In case you missed it, here is just a small sample of stories that highlight the diversity of our work:
There is a “rest of the story” to each of these media pieces, of course, that is not about the crisis. That story is about the powerful, uplifting moments of collaborations among nonprofits, how we effectively work with government at every level every day, how we partner with business and industry for maximum returns, and on and on. These stories, however, are not laden with drama or crisis so they are not “news.” This is the shift we have to make – to bring these undercurrents in each story to the surface. If we don’t, at best we risk perpetuating the myth that we are not effective or efficient. At worst, if the movable middle can’t hear our positive messages of social return on their investment, then they are less likely to be inspired to join us in strengthening our communities.
So here we are – waiting to hear the final verdict on the state budget – facing the unimaginable process of ripping apart the safety net for our seniors, our children, and our most vulnerable – unknitting the arts and culture fabric that nurtures us – damaging an economy and our environment that sustains us. We don’t know how this story ends because we can barely imagine its beginning.
Perhaps further disheartening is that even if the legislature’s compromise budget holds, we are left as providers knowing that a life of greater good is not a vision we commonly share with all Alaskans, and we could be back in this position again in the future.
A common saying goes something like this: “If you are not mad, worried, or concerned you are not paying attention.” I know you are paying attention. I know for the first time perhaps, you are stepping in and stepping up in ways you never thought you or your board would do. And here is the thing: We have to keep doing it, but even more. We can’t just react and respond. We have to gear up to tell “the rest of the story” together. I know the temptation is to look for division. Now more than ever we must stand together and find the moveable middle in our work.
To do this, we must find more messengers. We must engage more board members. And we simply must do everything in our power as individuals, as organizations, and as participants in civil society to maintain focus on the Alaska that works for all Alaskans. Whatever the verdict for Alaska, we must keep moving forward together.
Your next step might not be grand or even noticed by others (but it can be that, too). Maybe you are ready to make a phone call, or write a letter, or send an email. Maybe you are ready to make some art or be part of an honest conversation, or to testify (again), and to vote.
As organizations, maybe you are ready to write a financial scenario plan, or engage the board in a “one voice conversation” so you can take the next media call or instigate the call yourself. Or maybe you are ready to update your plans or to consider new or renewed options for delivering services, or maybe it is time to prepare for layoffs and closure in the most compassionate way.
Any of these steps – the very big and the small – take energy, focus, and time that you likely have little of right now. But together we have to find it. Nothing less is at stake than our state and the people who live here.
For our part, we will keep lifting up the sector as a home for civic engagement, a home for taking care of others, a home of economic impact, a home of strategic collaborations, a home of accountability and responsibility for our neighbors and strangers alike. We will consider new ways to tell the Alaska nonprofit story like our colleagues in Nebraska have done and add it to our economic impact tools. We promise to keep using our voice to find common ground, to confront the facts, to highlight your incredible work, and to keep telling the rest of the story.