Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Person or the Cause

My blog is not about politics but I often find inspiration for my work with non-profit organizations by what I see in the political arena. They are very similar in scope and structure and in many ways connected. Yesterday there was an article in the Boston Globe newspaper about the ongoing U.S. Senate race in Georgia and President-Elect Obama's ability to influence the outcome there and helping to get the Democrat elected. Two paragraphs of the article caught my attention:

Today's runoff election between Martin and Chambliss will offer the first test of whether Obama is able to bequeath more to local allies than merely the trappings of a presidential campaign. The results may offer a tentative answer to questions that will ghost American politics for at least the next four years: Is there a sustainable Obama coalition, and is the Obama machine durable? Has Obama created anything greater than himself?

"He has a political army that is truly impressive, but that kind of loyalty to a person rather than to an institution is not as transferable," said Donald Fowler, a former Democratic National Committee chairman. "Yet this is a new day and this is a new kind of organization: it is highly electronic and it might work."

What struck me was the parallel between Barack Obama's presidential campaign and the experience of founders of non-profit organizations, particularly those founders who are trying to move their organizations into long-term sustainability. Consider this modified snippet of the quotation above:

Is there a sustainable [insert Founder's name here] organization, and is the [insert Founder's name here] vision durable? Has [insert Founder's name here] created anything greater than him/herself?

"[insert Founder's name here] has a program/organization that is truly impressive, but that kind of loyalty to a person rather than to an institution is not as transferable."

Get the idea? I notice founders of non-profits incubate great ideas and give birth to powerful programs. They often do so because big needs are going unmet, they are committed and passionate, and they can (and if they can't, they find a way to). And what happens in the years of building and growing and struggling is that an over reliance on the founder is created to hold the fledgling organization together while there is also an under reliance by the founder to generate support in the organization by others. Unintentionally, founders create loyalty to themselves and not to the institutions they have created therefore destabilizing the very institutions they have created. Loyalty has not been transferred.

New organizations survive primarily because people are dedicated to the founder and secondarily because they are moved by the mission. And this is also why organizations fail! Founders need to let go; stewards need to receive. Founders need to share and collaborate in service to the mission. Founders need to enroll others who love the work first and care for the founder second. Stewards need to care for the organization by asserting themselves and their skills in the process. Stewards and founders alike need to remind themselves their service is bigger than any individual and that together they will be successful creating an organization built to be sustainable. There is an intentionality that comes with building an institution that exists to serve a greater public.

In today's politics, many are asking themselves if there is a hope for change without he the only one who can deliver change? Or is the message for change so great and people have been inspired that others can lead them to it? In non-profit organizations all over this country people are asking, is there a hope for [insert your non-profit organization mission statement here] only if [insert name of founder here] does the work or do we have the capacity to fulfill the mission ourselves? Is the loyalty we have for the leader transferable to the cause?

I like to think of it that hope or change or curing a disease or securing a civil right is in each of us. We each have the capacity to care for something bigger than ourselves. And naturally, it seems, we join together and make what is inside us a larger movement. Individuals generate an idea and with leadership the idea grows into a movement and then we all own the idea. In the case of a non-profit, individuals take an idea and create organizations because inherent is the belief that collectives can create greater impact than an individual. Because of the individual's effort a group can emerge and take over and achieve.

My hope: Leaders and founders will be honored because they saw something that was possible and believed so intentionally and cared so much and exercised such courage that we joined in and learned and grew and owned it!