Nonprofit work is largely based on the belief that we should try to make our community, network, state, nation or world a better place. I’ve heard nonprofit workers talked about as a bunch of dreamers, idealists, and visionaries seeking to go against all the odds! With hard work, energy and the right attitude that anything is possible. Hooray! However, we see new and old societal ills persist in our communities, arts access can still be sequestered to those with wealth, and our nonprofit educational institutions can perpetuate systems of inequality. I think there is a link between a culture of optimism, and a failure to truly make progress. Allow me to provide a defense for the realists in nonprofits, and that a dash of a realist mindset with some optimistic drive may be helpful, particularly in these trying cultural and political times.
“Realist: a person who recognizes what is real or possible in a particular situation : one who accepts and deals with things as they really are (thank you Merriam-Webster).” It’s important to define “realist,” as some cultural mores would have us believe that harsh critics, or floundering cynicism depicts realism, when that should sit in the negative Nancy pessimist corner.
Realism, optimism, and pessimism are all laced with our own biases, identities, backgrounds, and perspective. However, striving for a perspective realist focus can see both opportunity and pitfalls. I'm going to lay out different areas of nonprofit culture: one that describes the pitfalls of optimism when realism is ignored or dismissed and one that shows what can be missed when you focus on pessimism
1. But, we worked hard on that program for so many years!
Yep, and the qualitative feedback from those participants and the 3-7 evaluations say it isn’t working. Nonprofit effectiveness in delivering services, improving community member results, increasing access, and changing outcomes requires more than just hard work and energy. Success in outcomes requires pivoting and scrapping what doesn’t work in order to construct the effective. Nonprofits can efficiently run a program, and that is often seen as the measure of success, even if the program is becoming stagnant or diminishing effectiveness. I’ve seen organizations lean into what they have done year after year for certain programs, even with neutral or negative programmatic outcomes because it was efficient (ie cheap). If you put enough optimistic liberal arts majors in a room together with a so-so evaluation, you’ll find the positive spin. But we are in the business of making the world equitable, so let’s not delude ourselves with alternative facts to make ourselves feel better.
I once worked at a transitional living home for youth experiencing homelessness. They had been working on keeping youth off the streets for years and years, but in the late 2000s, they continued to see the same kids coming in and out of the short and long-term shelters. The goal was to get these young folks stable housing and provide opportunities to build lives that were secure and sustainable. In partnership with researchers and other organizations they developed a set of principles, based on successful practices, that would impact every element of a youth’s experience in the shelters. At the time they were forging a new way to support youth experiencing homelessness, through strengths based, harm reduction, non-judgemental and trauma informed youth work. That meant a significant shift in both staff attitude, approach, and care. When I arrived several years after the implementation, the culture had shifted drastically and the program was finding success. This was only possible because staff had said, what we are doing isn’t good enough.
When we don’t grasp with our failures, we don’t grasp with what our impact is as a nonprofit sector. We can be strengths based in our approach to client support, community engagement, and resource gathering. But programs are not people.If we only apply a strengths based approach to what we are doing programmatically, we can perpetuate systems of inequity by not carefully analyzing and recognizing when we haven’t been successful. Knowing what doesn’t work is a gift, it helps narrow where to focus on success.
2. But he’s a good guy!
At best, blind optimism can make progress clumsy. At its worst, it can be dangerous and put people at risk. Google “volunteer arrested,” after that Google “nonprofit employee arrested." Whenever you read this blog post, somebody will have committed something illegal or immoral and been caught in the last couple days, if not hours.
Realists wait until after background checks have cleared before putting volunteers in rooms with children or vulnerable adults. A realist focus makes sure multiple unrelated staff/volunteers/board members have a transparent eye on the budget. For example, the treasurer, chair, and vice-chair of YNPN-TC are the ones who get our mail. We never open our mail alone, and it is always opened with another of the three physically present. I trust my fellow boardies deeply, however I’ll also always open the mail with them present because that policy may stop fiscal shenanigans seven years down the line.
Realists can sound like real buzzkills when saying that folks can’t drive a car to the program together with a volunteer, or sets aside a fingerprinting budget for those new great employees, or does unannounced room checks with staff or volunteers working with individuals in a senior care facility. But a realistic perspective knows that shitty things happen, and we should strive to do our best to prevent them from happening. That doesn’t mean inaction, but considered and thoughtful action.
3. Well we should just give up on the whole effort.
Pessimism can rear its head, in compassion fatigue, burnout, political, cultural, or regional apathy. The work we strive to do is hard, difficult. Often, when done well, isn’t easy. Being critical doesn’t mean giving up, but rather striving to do better and achieve effective outcomes. There have been nonprofit initiatives that have brought communities together, addressed social inequities, pushed to recognize already empowered voices, and made great strides towards a better world. Realism recognizes that the world can be different, the organization can be different, that process can be different, the hiring can look different.
Something might not not be working, so get rid of that ineffective shit, whatever it is. But that doesn’t mean giving up on the outcome you seek. The goal is still worthwhile, even if you’ll all have to come up with a new pathway to get there.
I’ve seen a culture of optimism exist in many nonprofit organizations, and have seen incredible feats accomplished with this delightful grit. Combine some optimistic greatness with a sprinkle of realist questioning and process building, and your nonprofit organizations can get a lot done And will hopefully be much more prepared for those negative surprises. Don’t discount someone who brings up a concern, especially if they’ve got a solution or two as well. If someone is worried about a risk, it may be valid, even if it “has never happened here.” Most terrible things only have to happen once to make an impact. If you see the world through sunshine and rainbows, that is great! All the better! But make room at the event planning meeting for those realists who can see the thunderclouds in the sky. Realists put ponchos, event tents, or alternative rain locations in the budget.