Authenticity and the Sustainable Nonprofit

Authenticity and the Sustainable Nonprofit

Before Dan Rather stepped down as anchor of the CBS Evening News, capping an impressive though at times controversial career, he told Ken Auletta of the New Yorker how he wanted to be remembered. "The one thing I hope and I believe," said Rather, "is that even my enemies think I'm authentic."

But what does it mean to be authentic? After all, the word is invoked so often these days one can't help but wonder what constitutes authenticity, especially in a society that works so hard to manufacture it.

This is the final article in a series of three by Richard C. Harwood that explores the 3 A's of Public Life:

  • Accountability — Setting realistic expectations for change and pursing actions that have meaning for people.
  • Authority — Possessing knowledge rooted in the community and infusing that knowledge throughout your work.
  • Authenticity — Reflecting the reality of people's lives in your words and actions.

Together, they form a set of touchstones for the practices necessary to create greater sustainability in nonprofit organizations and their work.

The issue that dogged Rather in his final months as anchor of the Evening News was the inauthentic documents he used for a 60 Minutes report on President Bush's National Guard service — this despite the fact that Rather had labored mightily throughout his long career to be authentic, generating in the process a whole collection of "Ratherisms," homespun sayings such as the one about the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan's opponent for the U.S. Senate, who, said Rather, had "about as much business in this race as a moose in a phone booth."

Although the veteran newsman's quaint phrases struck a chord with some viewers, former CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite recently commented that his successor in the anchor's chair "gave the impression of playing a role." Authenticity often is confused with a kind of posturing designed to foster goodwill and trust. Yet, as Rather's case teaches us, such efforts ultimately ring hollow and produce little more than cynicism in people.

...authenticity emerged as a key factor in determining whether leaders were able to muster credibility and trust....

That's a shame, because the importance of authenticity in our society cannot be overestimated. In practically every effort the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation has undertaken during the past seventeen years — whether our focus was the improvement of journalism and politics, working with foundations and community-based organizations to improve their effectiveness, or attempts to address specific public challenges such as education or the environment — authenticity, or lack thereof, emerged as a key factor in determining whether leaders and organizations were able to muster the credibility and trust necessary to bring about sustainable change.

The Need for Authenticity
There is, I believe, a crisis of authenticity in society today. It stems in large part from the belief among citizens that the reality of their lives is not reflected in the stories covered by the news media, in the rhetoric and action of their leaders, or in the initiatives undertaken by the nonprofit sector.

Over a decade ago, my organization released Meaningful Chaos, a report that examined how people form relationships with public concerns. One of the report's most significant findings was that people formed attachments to such concerns when they felt that three standards of authenticity were being met. The standards went far beyond people merely insisting that their own personal prejudices be reaffirmed by what they saw, read, or heard:

  • People want discussions of public concerns to reflect a base sense of reality — the context of their lives, what is at issue for them and society, their daily language — something that current news coverage and public discourse often fail to do;
  • People want information sources to reflect an understanding of their experiences and values — and yet such experiences and values are often dismissed as "soft," "irrelevant," or "unreliable" in today's strategic and highly competitive world;
  • People want to be given the story straight — they want to be squared with — but such candor is increasingly rare in public life.

In the years since we published the study, I have experienced time and again just how frustrated people are because their sense of reality is not accurately reflected in so much of what passes for public life; more to the point, too often their sense of reality is distorted by leaders and organizations primarily interested in advancing their own agendas.

I am now in the process of finishing a book, Hope Unraveled, that traces the changing relationship of citizens to politics and public life over the past fifteen years. The book reveals, in essence, the story of people's retreat from the public realm. There's an old country song whose refrain goes, "I can't see me in your eyes anymore." That's how people feel when then look at public life — they cannot see or hear themselves. The fact that people are turning away from politics should not come as a surprise; that people are also retreating from their own communities and, in some cases, even from their own neighbors should. And the consequences of that are real and sobering.

If people once gave leaders the benefit of the doubt on public matters, now they want those leaders to prove the worthiness of their causes and actions before they will believe them. That kind of show-me attitude can have a corrosive effect on society, leading people to question at every turn the veracity of public statements and endeavors, and to personally waver in their own commitment to the public good.

...If people once gave leaders the benefit of the doubt, now they want those leaders to prove the worthiness of their causes and actions....

When one purchases a collectable or antique, it is often accompanied by a certificate of authenticity. These flimsy sheets of paper, and our faith in the person who provides them, give us some comfort that we are acquiring something that is authentic. But there are no such certificates for public-sector organizations or leaders. Instead, it is up to each of us to earn such authenticity in the eyes of those with whom we work and serve.

More Than Words
One oft-used technique in the pursuit of authenticity is to manipulate words to create a simulated connection with people or to conjure up an appearance that hides or disguises reality.

Take local news organizations, which routinely try to establish a connection with viewers by adopting taglines such as "On Your Side!" or "We're Connected to You!" These approaches inevitably ring hollow, as people come to realize that the final product fails to deliver on the slogan's promise. I have been in scores of newsrooms where the marketing department has created a new tagline only to have the news-gathering operation maintain the status quo - a status quo rooted in a presentation that rarely reflects the real issues with which people must grapple.

Similarly, how many times have you visited a community in which banners adorning streetlights proclaim, "We're Back!" And yet, if you were to walk down Main Street and interview people, how many people would tell you a different truth? This kind of manufactured authenticity not only makes people wary of communications efforts in general, it also reinforces people's ingrained reflex to discount the host of messages they hear and see in the public realm. Messages become interpreted as efforts to manipulate, with honest, forthright communication the ultimate victim.

Here's another example. Short funding cycles, not to mention the shrinking pool of available funding, often produce the temptation within nonprofit organizations to overstate success. Each of us has probably found ourselves in a situation where we stretch the facts, embellish results, and toot our own horns, all in the hopes of securing the next dollar or a funder's approval. Deep in our hearts, we know that such an approach is antithetical to true authenticity. But because we've been conditioned to believe that short-term results can be produced by pursuing such a path, we do it anyway.

Falling Back on Expertise
Another tactic used to increase authenticity is to appropriate expert opinion and jargon as a way to convince others that we understand an issue and have a solution. But this can backfire, too.

In the Harwood Institute's on-the-ground projects and research on public school reform, we've often had people tell us that they don't understand the public school debate, let alone engage in it. Why? Because leaders engaged in the debate — whether researchers, professional educators, or politicians — tend to resort to professionalized language that leaves people feeling cold and excluded, as if public discussions about schools were wholly unrelated to the education of children. The same scenario plays out on a multitude of issues every single day.

The response of a woman in Indianapolis whom we interviewed for a nationwide study is quite revealing. When asked about the use of professional language in public life, she said, "I think first, you shoot all the experts." When asked to elaborate, she explained, "They have a whole language, and it has a lot of letters in it, and I don't know what those letters are, and they have a lot of these things they talk about, and normal people don't understand that."

In an effort to stem the use of expert language, some initiatives now appropriate what I would call "public language." One familiar example is the reliance on the phrase "town hall meeting." All sorts of organizations now sponsor town halls as a way to signal to people that their voices will be heard and that the sponsoring organization cares — a code word signifying authenticity — about them.

But how many town halls have you seen or attended that amount to nothing more than "tell and sell" sessions in which a panel of so-called experts on stage speaks at people? Or where people line up behind a microphone for their one minute of discourse? Or where people actually do talk to each other, but where their opinions and insights are not substantively integrated into a program's design and implementation? To care about something means to give it your serious attention. But if we do not give serious attention to the voices and perspectives that people bring to a town hall meeting, we surely will deepen their cynicism about public life, causing them to retreat further from any effort that tries to engage them. Ultimately, our actions speak much louder than our words.

The Whole Story
From my earliest discussions with people about authenticity in public life, the theme that has surfaced most consistently is the sense people have that they are not being squared with and are receiving only part of the story. Certainly this theme comes through loud and clear when people are referring to political leaders and news media coverage of politics; but it is present, too, when people talk about nonprofits and nonprofit leaders.

...the theme that surfaces most consistently is the sense people have that they are not being squared with....

"Spinning" public events has become commonplace in our society, to the point where a new definition of the word has entered our vocabulary. In the Harwood Public Leadership School, participants read a case study on how a nonprofit leader should respond to a public event that has the potential to adversely affect the organization. Time and again, session participants' reflex is to "spin" a response to the news reporter who calls asking for a comment. And yet, upon further reflection, most participants say that their initial response would compromise their authenticity in the eyes of their constituents and community.

One well-known cable news anchor calls his program the "no-spin zone," even though his program is largely about spin. He's not alone, of course. I remember reading a news article in the Washington Post during the 2004 presidential campaign that showed how the two major candidates had taken different facts about the economy and twisted them to present different meanings, even though both sets of facts (as the article pointed out) were true. But the candidates were not interested in the "truth" — only in using parts of it to pursue their own political agendas. By now, we have all become familiar with the damaging effect such inauthentic efforts have on people's trust and confidence in political leaders, politics, and public life.

Closer to home, a similar effect can be seen in the way our municipal officials, education professionals, and business leaders talk about the revitalization of our communities, the state of our public education system, or the health of the environment. For most people, authenticity only enters the equation when they are treated to the "whole story" — when, for example, a politician or public official says, "This is the deal, and this is what I believe we should do." Then, and only then, are people able to understand the context of the discussion and the reasons being offered for moving in a certain direction. Then, and only then, can people judge for themselves what needs to be done. Then, and only then, will people trust their leaders, even when they disagree with them.

In one of our studies, a woman from Little Rock described what she needed to hear from a leader in order to credit that person with greater authenticity:

"If [a leader] would admit that the country was in bad shape....And if he got the facts from people, rather than from his advisors...and if he came out here and said, 'Ok, we've all discussed it, I have listened, and this is what I think we should do. And we're going to do it' — then I would pay attention. Otherwise, I'm out of here."

"Out of here" — that is what so many people have said, through words and actions, about their relationship to public life and politics. The sense of authenticity is simply missing. To be authentic means to care; to care suggests one holds a kind of affection for something or someone. If we could re-develop our affection for public life, we would make sure our actions were truly authentic. We would hold ourselves to a higher standard. And we would walk away from certain activities that might look good on paper but which we know fail any reasonable test of authenticity.

The Path to Authenticity
Dan Rather's authenticity can and will be debated for some time. But in the meantime, I am reminded of his most famous signoff. For many years during his career, and at the close of his final broadcast, Rather concluded with the simple declaration, "Courage."

...To be authentic means to care; to care suggests one holds a kind of affection for something or someone....

Courage, as I have noted in previous articles in this series, is an essential part of the kind of public leadership I am proposing. In these articles I have focused on what I call the 3A's — authority, accountability, and authenticity — all of which require public leaders to summon the courage to stand up and declare their intentions to build a stronger, more vibrant, more sustainable public sphere. Such declarations will no doubt be met with resistance from those who want quick solutions and easy answers. No matter; the people doing the building must persevere.

Along with courage, leaders must approach the public with a good deal of humility. Humility teaches us that we do not have all the answers, that we must actively engage others and learn to listen, and that the solutions to problems we propose may need to change as we learn more over time. It is nearly impossible to exercise courage without humility, for how else would we know what to do and say?

Over the last generation or so, too many people's hopes with regard to public life and politics have come unraveled. If we are to re-engage people in public life, ensure that our own efforts are effective and sustainable, and restore hope in our politics and public life, it is essential that we make authenticity a touchstone in all our efforts. At the end of the day, words and deeds count more than we know.

The sustainable nonprofit

June 12, 2019