Who says we can’t learn anything from politics? A new podcast, The Wilderness, examines the rise and fall of the Democratic party through the 2016 elections. However, sandwiched in between interviews of historians and politicos is a wealth of knowledge about how the nonprofit sector can improve its own work.
The political autopsy detailed by podcast host Jon Favreau, former Barack Obama speechwriter and co-host of podcast Pod Save America, isn’t new. The Republican party conducted a formal self-evaluation, the Growth and Opportunity Project, following their loss in the 2012 Presidential election. These exercises are meaningful because they prompt leaders to affirm that their activities still represent and support the people they aim to serve, and political parties are some of the largest case studies of collective action. Political parties’ assessments of what they’re doing right or wrong in mobilizing people for social good may generate lessons that translate to the nonprofit sector. And while The Wilderness is unabashedly partisan, our goal was to pull the lessons we can all learn from, regardless of political affiliation. At the end of the day, whether a political party or a local charity, we’re all trying to mobilize people to improve lives and communities. Why not learn from one another?
Here are six lessons for nonprofits from The Wilderness:
- Form a winning, diverse coalition – The podcast discusses the challenges that any party faces in forming a cohesive coalition that is comprised of so many different types of people. Similarly, over 1.5 million nonprofit organizations spanning size, scope, political ideology, and mission prove difficult to mobilize around shared, sector-wide issues. Democrats learned that their party needs to come to terms with discriminatory parts of their history, and groom leaders that look like the people they represent. At the same time, the hosts recognize that an inclusive, winning coalition means they cannot write off or stop engaging any demographics, including white, non-college age voters. Similarly, sector-wide coalitions and infrastructure organizations must acknowledge their own privileged roots and biases, and aim to promote diverse leaders and voices who reflect the communities we serve.
- Power through setbacks – An entire episode of the podcast focuses on what happens when you experience setbacks. One speaker describes backlash against social change as an inevitable part of the process. The key is to not get discouraged and keep moving forward. We know that social change takes decades for this very reason. Sustaining action over such a long time period is incredibly difficult, which is why Independent Sector is dedicating a session at Upswell this year to hear strategies from nonprofits that pushed past setbacks and won. In a later episode, interview subjects also remind us that this type of opposition also pushes us to innovate, resulting in better strategies that will help us succeed.
- Mobilize around values and vision – Pollsters and strategists agree that people take action because they’re inspired by a shared set of values and a daring vision, not just facts and economic self-interests. In our own advocacy work, nonprofits have been accused of relying too much on data to justify our work to the public and policymakers, rather than appealing to their hearts and presenting a vision to inspire them. On the podcast, Heather McGhee, distinguished senior fellow at Demos, says people want to mobilize around values and follow courage. They want to see people and institutions that stand up for what they believe and take on powerful people on behalf of those who suffer. Particularly in the policy arena, nonprofits often try to head off criticism from policymakers or opposition rather than presenting our vision for what is needed. Democratic analysts concluded that collective action would be much more successful if they play visionary offense, not defense. Nonprofits can follow this lead, by shifting their efforts away from answering critics and focusing instead on what they stand for.
- Meet people where they are – A nuanced add-on to the previous point is the lesson to frame values and arguments in a way that speaks to most Americans, but leaves the door open for compromise and practical solutions. Meeting people where they are means respecting people’s culture and values, even if they’re different from our own, and looking for common ground rather than absolute agreement on all aspects of an issue. The hosts of The Wilderness provide examples of immigration and anti-poverty campaigns that worked to understand hard-to-reach audiences. As values-based organizations, we should remember to intentionally break out of our typical circles and reframe our issues to win new allies in new forums.
- Safeguard our most precious asset: Public trust – In an episode on changing trends in the media, we hear a vivid case study about how the public’s declining trust in media institutions damages civil society. Without trusted media sources, it is more difficult to create shared knowledge or experiences. It’s more difficult to break through partisanship and misinformation and inform public discourse on critical issues. Consequently, the very nature of how people organize to advance the common good has changed. This cautionary tale should frighten nonprofits to our core. We know that the value of nonprofit institutions in civil society is predicated on public trust. It is the social currency that enables us to do our jobs. Unfortunately, policy proposals and changes over the past decade pose a significant threat to public trust in the sector. Repeated efforts to politicize our own organizations by repealing the Johnson Amendment represent a continuation of this trend. Although the episode on the partisan dismantling of the media seems irrelevant, it gives us a glimpse into the future of institutions in our sector if we don’t proactively fend-off similar threats.
- Voting is a critical step to achieve social change – The last episode ends with an interview from former President Barack Obama, who says one of our biggest challenges in social change is overcoming Americans’ cynicism about the democratic process and reluctance to participate. “Voting is the small step each of us takes to make things a little bit better – and that’s worth a lot.” Research and social commentary agree that nonprofits are the best at encouraging voter participation, thereby fighting the prevailing cynicism that plagues democracy. We must tackle these two barriers to advance our missions and improve our communities in the future. Be sure to encourage your networks to register to vote this week!
These are just a few of the lessons derived from the podcast. However, the real takeaway is the insight that can result from taking time out to examine where we come from, our changing environment, and learning to adapt. Unlike political parties, nonprofits don’t have election losses to push us in this direction. Independent Sector is working on the development of a “Nonprofit Sector Health Index” to help prompt this type of self-examination, but it still is early in development. In the meantime, we can learn other institutions’ efforts and be inspired to intentionally reflect on our own work on a more regular basis.