Not too long ago, I met with the leadership staff of a nonprofit that strives for excellence in providing disadvantaged community members with the knowledge and skills to provide for themselves by offering “a hand up rather than a hand out.” At the end of the meeting, a staff member asked me what the organization needed to do to reach their ambitious funding goals. Rather than giving a pep talk or fundraising advice, I chose to say what was at the heart of their resource mobilization challenge. The essence of my message was that although it was commendable that the organization was committed to improving the quality of their services and obtaining the resources to do so, strategic planning efforts would only get them so far as long as they continued to operate within a mindset similar to the people they served, which is being satisfied with whatever support they could get. It was difficult for the group to be confronted with a significantly different perception of their identity than the image they intended to project. However, from the initial response of everyone in the room this comment appeared to be valid and was worth considering despite, in the words of one staff member, “giving them a good shake.” 

During our next meeting about a month later, the Executive Director mentioned that she shared this feedback with all of the nonprofit staff and officers of the board of directors, but was not met with a response. She also added a comment about how their parent organization had a history of under-valuing the social service mission of the nonprofit. This helped her colleagues in the room better understand the organization’s culture (values, beliefs, and expectations that are shared, but tend to be taken-for-granted) and provided an opportunity for additional reflection. As the staff continue to consider this disconnect between the internal (values and behaviors) and external (image, brand, and reputation) facets of their collective identity, it is unclear where this process will lead them. However, there is interest in taking a closer look at their culture to determine how it can be modified to better support the nonprofit in achieving its goals.

The point of this story is that being a change agent doesn’t have to mean being a social entrepreneur or working for a social enterprise. In fact, we all have the capacity to be changemakers, particularly when we have the courage to speak our minds about what truly matters and are empowered to do so within an environment of mutual trust, respect, and honesty. Organizations, particularly those seeking lasting transformational betterment for marginalized groups, can benefit from developing and maintaining an environment where a conversation about the disconnection between intentions and impact can take place. Within this context, what we do and how we do it are just as important as how do the people we serve and our stakeholders perceive us as well as what kind of an impact are we really making? An environment where these kinds of conversations can take place can be developed in a variety of ways, such as having an open door policy, soliciting feedback from staff, encouraging people to question work processes and unwritten rules of behavior for the purpose of improving how things are done, allocating time in meetings for an open discussion of issues of concern, and, perhaps most importantly, ensuring that staff feel heard by acknowledging and addressing what is said. To maintain this environment, the organization’s culture needs to be aligned with its strategy, structure, talent, and operations. 

As changemakers, social entrepreneurs have the courage to tackle the root causes of seemingly intractable social and environmental problems. Similarly, regardless of our status as employees, consultants, or volunteers, we owe it to ourselves as well as our colleagues to “speak truth to power” when we encounter disconnects between what is said and what is actually done. Being a change agent means having the courage to step outside of our comfort zones to express these kinds of inconsistencies. It also means not taking the easy way out by pushing nagging thoughts to the back of our minds for fear of the consequences of verbalizing perceived truths that the people we work with may not be ready or willing to confront. When we choose to say what is on our minds, we increase our chances of being heard when we meet others where they are. This means taking the time to find out what is on the other person’s mind and whether they are prepared to listen. “Speaking truth to power” is not merely the act of speaking up. It is also about the ability to influence others to take action that is consistent with their own aims.  

As change agents, social entrepreneur or not, we have the greatest impact when our words and actions cause a ripple effect at the individual, organizational, and society levels. Going back to the story at the beginning of this article, the act of verbalizing an uncomfortable truth affected me on a personal level by providing greater insight into my role as a consultant and the impact of my efforts to facilitate organizational change. This incident strengthened my relationship with this client by deepening the trust and authentic communication that was already established. The staff and board members have also benefitted from a better understanding of how the nonprofit is perceived. Re-aligning an organization’s culture and mission with its image is not a decision that should be entered into lightly considering the significant investment of time, money, and other resources in a long-term change process. As the nonprofit decides whether this is a commitment worth taking on, one factor to consider is the opportunity to push the needle further in generating social change, which comes from being organizationally and financially equipped to support community members in tapping into their potential to care for themselves.

This post was published by CSRwire on February 4, 2014.

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