With the documentary about Fred Rogers receiving critical acclaim, we thought we’d take a look back and lift up lessons the nonprofit sector could take away from his life and legacy in public service.
Fred Rogers lived his life in support of his beliefs. His testimony on PBS funding is one of his more prominent forms of activism, but it was certainly not his only one. He found ways to engage on issues outside of traditional advocacy. Through the creation of diverse characters – both living and puppets – he sought to include depictions of people and storylines that brought often taboo topics and social issues to children’s living rooms.
We recently met with Derrick Feldmann, managing director of INFLUENCE | SG, who is beginning work that examines the power of pop culture on social causes. With the release of the Mister Rogers documentary, we thought we’d ask him for his opinion on the impact of Mister Rogers on society. “Causes must go beyond their own methods to directly engage the public in issue awareness and understanding,” Feldmann said. “This is a clear example of how Mister Rogers used the power of entertainment, media and storytelling mediums to influence the public on complex issues. It is the aggregate of informal, formal, traditional and untraditional methods that will persuade the public to change perceptions, attitudes and beliefs – this is a good example of this focused and subtle approach to change he employed.”
Like Mister Rogers, nonprofits need to use all the methods at their disposal to influence audiences to make social change happen. Here are just some lessons we can take away from his life and legacy.
Advocacy Through Action
Mister Rogers did not shy away from his beliefs. While a lot of his energy was focused on education and change through his show, he didn’t stop there. He went straight to policymakers with his advocacy, and while you may not be able to testify before Congress, you can certainly contact your members of Congress about an issue and encourage others in your networks to do the same.
Lead with Intent
Mister Rogers was a leader, often in unexpected ways. He wrote characters and storylines into his show at times when they were controversial. He included storylines about political and social issues, and through inclusive dialogue with characters, he was able to lead the conversation with openness and compassion. Nonprofits can, and should, play that leadership role. The charitable sector can lead by having an open dialogue with the communities that they serve. Leaders are at their best when they lead with others, not on their own.
Be Open to Change
Mister Rogers always did his best to create a product that was inclusive of all. Sometimes he was unsuccessful. He once heard from a fan, a young blind girl, who wrote him a letter expressing her concern that his fish weren’t being fed. From that moment on, he went on to verbalize every time he fed his fish. Such a simple action spoke volumes, and nonprofits can learn from this simplicity. The sector takes on some of society’s biggest problems, but no action is too small.
Mister Rogers was often most successful when he was subtle in his message. He knew that there would be controversy around some of his storylines. He chose to show the simplicity of kindness, and in doing so made political statements feel completely nonpolitical. In inviting actor and singer François Clemmons onto his show, and even more specifically in washing their feet in the same pool, he made a statement about the segregation of public pools in the late 1960s. At a time when this was highly controversial, he managed to make a loud statement with such a simple and quiet action. Nonprofits can take a lot from this. At a time when even simple ideas can seem political, the sector needs to continue its work without hesitation. We need to find new ways to show that our society can make progress in small yet impactful ways.
Karen Avery, senior director of institutional giving at The PBS Foundation and IS Public Policy Committee member, knows a thing or two about Mister Rogers. When we asked her about what the nonprofit sector can learn from him, she responded with this:
“I think the nonprofit sector and all sectors can continue to learn from Mister Rogers in practicing kindness and decency, and in supporting all children to learn, grow, and thrive. We need the warm and caring philosophies of Mister Rogers today more than ever.”