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.
By Kimberley Jutze
Not too long ago, I met with the leadership staff of a nonprofit that provides 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. 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 with a mindset similar to the people they served: being satisfied with whatever support they could get.
It was difficult for the group to be confronted with such a significantly different perception of their identity than the image they intended to project. However, from the initial response, my comment seemed valid and worth considering despite, in the words of one staff member, “giving them a good shake.”
Shaken & Stirred
During our next meeting a month later, the executive director mentioned to me, and everyone else present, that she had shared this feedback with the staff and board of directors, but was yet to receive a response. She also added their parent organization had a history of undervaluing the social service mission of the nonprofit. This helped her colleagues 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 continued to consider this disconnect between the internal (values and behaviors) and external (image, brand and reputation) facets of their collective identity, it remained 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 its goals.
An Empowered Environment
The point of this story is that to be a change agent, you don’t have to be a social entrepreneur or work 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 discussing how the people we serve and our stakeholders perceive us and what kind of an impact are we really making.
And there are several ways to create such an environment including having an open door policy, regularly soliciting feedback, encouraging people to question work processes and unwritten rules of behavior for the purpose of improvement, allocating time in meetings for an open discussion and, perhaps most importantly, ensuring that staff feel heard by acknowledging and addressing what is said. To maintain this environment, however, the organization’s culture must 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.
When we choose to say what is on our minds, we increase our chances of being heard.
And as change agents we can 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, verbalizing an uncomfortable truth in front of my client provided me with greater insight into my role as a consultant and the impact of my efforts to facilitate organizational change. The incident also strengthened my relationship with the client by deepening our trust and ensuring authenticity.
The staff and board members benefitted from a better understanding of how the nonprofit is perceived. Re-aligning an organization’s culture and mission with its image is not an easy or trivial decision and requires a significant investment of time, money and other resources in a long-term change process.
Now as the nonprofit decides whether this is a worthy commitment for its long-term success, one factor to consider will be analyzing its ability to generate a meaningful impact in the lives of people central to its mission. In strengthening its ability to operate more effectively the organization is more likely to achieve its goal of supporting community members to care for themselves. Good practices, after all, should begin at home.
About the Author:
Kimberley Jutze is a socially responsible entrepreneur and Chief Change Architect at Shifting Patterns Consulting, which supports social enterprises in achieving their social change goals. She is the author of forthcoming Social Good Guide Nonprofit Funding and Long Term Sustainability.