Authority and the Sustainable Nonprofit

Authority and the Sustainable Nonprofit

Over the past fifteen years, I have repeatedly engaged groups of citizens around the country about their concerns and aspirations. These discussions usually focus on such topics as jobs and the economy, public schools and family life, the news media and politics. In almost every one of them, I ask people to name leaders they would trust to stand up and give them an honest assessment of an important issue. More often than not, the silence I hear in response is deafening. Only a handful of people are able or willing to name leaders, on any level of society, that they trust. Indeed, in a fit of desperation, one person in a recent conversation said that actor Keanu Reeves was as good a name as any.

This is the second in a series of three articles 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.

With so much work to do in our communities and the nation as a whole, the problem, as many people see it, is that our leaders too often are focused on maintaining their own power, pursuing a narrow agenda, or relying on a superficial understanding of people and their concerns. In fact, I find that people increasingly believe the same thing to be true of business leaders, religious leaders, and, importantly, nonprofit leaders.

At a time when one can no longer simply claim authority but must earn it, how can we as individuals and leaders of organizations speak, act, and ultimately lead with authority?

Speaking with Authority
For many people, speaking with authority means citing various "experts" or making data-driven decisions. I remember being told in class in graduate school that the best way to solve a public problem or create change was simply to get people with the right pedigree around a table. The idea, apparently, was that the "best and the brightest" automatically hold authority. For others, it involves raising the volume of a discussion — demanding change or yelling at people to secure adherence to a particular plan.

...In order to possess real authority, you must first possess a deep understanding of the community you hope to serve....

Of course, neither of these approaches is a guarantee of the authority necessary to work in real communities — or to ignite people's imaginations in a meaningful way. In order to possess that kind of authority, you must first possess a deep understanding of the community you hope to serve.

Whenever I address the issue of authority, I always find myself posing the same test: If you were dropped into a room full of people from a community, could you talk to them about their concerns, about their aspirations and the obstacles they face in achieving them, about what they value? More importantly, would they believe you? Would they hear their concerns and voices echoed in your words and sentiments?

There is, of course, the temptation to skip, sidestep, or at the very least minimize any effort to gain a deeper understanding of the communities we serve. We make excuses, saying it will take too much time or too many resources. Or, we assuage our guilt for not making the effort by conducting quickie surveys, indulging in short-hand assumptions, or focusing on hot-button issues, before setting off to devise our own solutions to the problems we have identified through such means.

Yet another temptation is to believe you can gain a deep understanding of a community as a passive observer. A few years ago, when I had a job teaching reporters how to connect with the communities they were covering, the managing editor of one of the nation's largest newspapers told me he would never just drop one of his reporters into an unfamiliar neighborhood because, as he put it, "They wouldn't know what to do!" Consider for a moment a reporter who is assigned to cover the impact of a homeless shelter on a neighborhood. That reporter might talk to the director of the shelter, interview a few people in the area for the "man on the street" perspective, make a few calls to public officials, and then write his story. Indeed, it's quite possible he might not even visit the shelter. A story written in that fashion would get some of the facts right, but it wouldn't get all the right facts, and it almost certainly would miss the larger context — the history of the shelter in the community, the perspectives of neighborhood leaders, the attitudes of local residents toward the shelter, or of the people who will use the shelter.

If we in the nonprofit sector hope to create sustained change, we cannot fall into such traps. Instead, we must make an effort to understand how people talk about, and seek to make sense of, the dilemmas in their lives. And in doing so, we must heed their personal stories, experiences, and even their use of language to gain context, meaning, and perspective. In short: we must view ourselves as operating as part of the community, rather than apart from it.

Undertaking this vital work is necessary not simply because we want to produce a compelling report, have a grant renewed, or even to say that we "listened." It's necessary because a deep understanding of the communities in which we work helps to ensure that our work reflects the reality of those communities and that our responses to that reality are potent and meaningful.

Consider another example. During the recent presidential contest, the Democratic nominee, John Kerry, made headlines during an all-important campaign stop in Wisconsin by calling the home of the Green Bay Packers "Lambert," instead of Lambeau, Field. On one level, this verbal miscue may seem too insignificant to raise here, perhaps even silly; but anyone who knows Wisconsin knows that Lambeau Field is one of the most revered places in the state. If Senator Kerry could not properly pronounce its name, how, the people of Wisconsin must have wondered, can we expect him to understand our concerns about health care or education? In that moment, Senator Kerry's authority was greatly diminished.

When people in a community seek out leaders with genuine authority, they look for individuals who have a deep understanding of their concerns, a sense of their values, and are crystal clear about the tradeoffs they are willing to make to bring about change. On the flip side, those who seek to claim authority in that community must be absolutely familiar with its sense of itself. They must be familiar with the type of civic places that exist in the community, the people who use those spaces, the conversations that take place in them — and the stories and insights that emerge there. Those who seek authority must also be attentive to the kinds of language people use and how people describe their concerns as well as their aspirations. And one more thing: they must be aware of their own biases and preconceived notions with respect to that community.

Without this knowledge — without knowing the communities in which we work as well as we know the back of our own hands — we cannot expect to claim authority in our work. And yet gaining the knowledge to speak with authority is only the first step. We must also summon the discipline to actively use that knowledge to make our efforts more effective and sustainable.

Acting with Authority
The essence of acting with authority is acquiring knowledge and then putting it to work. We must infuse everything we do with such knowledge. That infusion must take place on an organizational level, so that we can leverage the mission and resources of our organization for change; and at the personal level, as a way of holding us accountable for our own words and deeds.

...The essence of acting with authority is acquiring knowledge and then putting it to work....

Granted, many programs fall short of their goals and objectives because they fail to achieve this lofty ideal. At times our efforts may be based on superficial, incomplete, or downright erroneous knowledge of a community. This can occur because we fool ourselves into believing that our efforts to gain knowledge have been meaningful and/or pursued in good faith. I once was involved with a project in a major metropolitan area. The group sponsoring the project was told by its funders that they needed to get more "input" from the public in order to have more credibility — more authority — in the eyes of the community. During a conference call one day, the project managers ran down the options under consideration. The first involved putting a three-question survey online that would allow anyone who visited the project's Web site to "participate" in the project. The second involved setting up a "talk box" downtown through which passersby could offer their own thirty-second opinion about the project. But my favorite was option number three: a reality-show-type contest in which residents would compete for a spot on the project's advisory board. Now there's an idea!

Unfortunately, as ridiculous as Survivor: Philanthropy may sound, I encounter such ideas every day. And they all have one thing in common: They're informed by misguided notions of what constitutes, and what it means to exercise, authority.

Such stories remind us that the activities we pursue within our organizations and through our individual leadership — in meetings and conference calls, conversations and decisions, planning sessions and program design — shape the very essence of our work and reflect the sense of purpose with which we conduct that work. Recently at the Harwood Institute we have been involved in developing a tool for public agencies that benchmarks their external efforts with respect to acquiring public knowledge and then helps them evaluate their internal efforts to apply that knowledge.

Taking this step toward true authority is not easy, and organizations of all kinds struggle with it. But as you work to gain a deeper understanding of the communities in which you work, there are questions you can ask to ensure that your organization is acting with authority rooted in that knowledge:

  • Are we absolutely clear about the hopes, aspirations, concerns, and values that prevail in the community we hope to serve?
  • Do we have the capacities — time, skills, internal mechanisms — to stay the course?
  • Do we consistently use the knowledge we gain from the community to inform our best judgments?
  • Do I have the personal fortitude to follow through on applying the knowledge we've gained — especially as people within the organization resist such a path, complain that it is unimportant, or simply do not see its relevance?

In my first article in this series, I wrote about the importance of being accountable to the rhythms of community life. Knowledge of a community can help you identify those rhythms. And if you understand those rhythms — if you're interested in working with them — you will be able to better determine the kinds of strategic interventions and changes that are possible in the near term, as well as those that may take longer to evolve. Such an understanding is a key step toward acting with authority. But even that is not enough.

Leading with Authority
The kind of authority I am proposing requires that each of us approach the community in which we work from the inside out, rather than from the outside in. We must view ourselves as part of the community, and ask ourselves what that means for our relationship to the community. In part, it means that we must see ourselves as being interdependent with the community. That in order to figure out our appropriate role in society and make informed judgments about our actions, we must develop a deep understanding of the communities in which we work. Otherwise, we may find ourselves operating in a dangerous vacuum.

...The kind of authority I am proposing requires that each of us approach the community in which we work from the inside out....

I'm not suggesting that expert knowledge is unimportant or not to be tapped. Just the opposite. In all of my research and experience with on-the-ground projects, I have found that ordinary people believe deeply in the professional roles of school teachers, journalists, health care professionals, nonprofit leaders, and other experts. They do not wish to usurp the place of professionals, even though it sometimes appears that way. What people want is to be more than just spectators in a community that has become a playing field for professionals; they seek instead an ongoing relationship with those professionals. True authority derives from this sort of give-and-take between a deep understanding of the community and one's own professional expertise and judgment.

As with accountability, I return again to courage and humility — virtues far too rare in public life today. To operate with true authority, nonprofits must have the courage to change their relationship to the communities in which they work and to apply that approach to everything they do. Taking into account a deeper understanding of a community — and possibly changing your own way of thinking — also requires courage, as does putting your stake in the ground and saying, "This is where we are, and this is what we need to do to move forward."

Along with courage we must find humility, for I have yet to see real courage exercised without it. Humility — the humility to say we do not have all the answers — is essential if we are to open ourselves up to listen, learn, and share space with others. And, if we are truly humble, there will even be times when we realize that we have put our stake in the wrong place.

It is my hope that sometime in that not-too-distant future, I will ask a group of people to give me the names of leaders they trust and instead of silence I'll be greeted by a flurry of names of worthy individuals, all of whom wield true authority. For this to happen, however, all of us need to reexamine the work we do and how we exercise our own power and leadership. Only through such renewed leadership can we hope to imbue our work and organizations with lasting sustainability. And only then can we make haste with the unfinished work that remains to be done.