Welcome to the Nonprofit Provocateur
By Tim Jacobson
Life is many things, but inevitably included are tough lessons--often gained through trial and error.
Anyone who puts himself or herself on a public stage--such as by leading an organization, writing a book, producing a documentary film, organizing an event, creating art or giving a speech--gets exposed to criticism and (hopefully) the opportunity for acclaim. An author first faces the red pen of an editor and later the reviews of critics and readers. A nonprofit organizational leader faces the critiques of employees, board members, donors and other stakeholders.
A stand-up comic receives very immediate and visceral feedback from the audience. Either they're laughing at the jokes, or the room will have an unsettling quietness punctuated only by the clearing of throats and the nervous shuffling of feet.
An organizational leader, on the other hand, may received feedback indirectly and delayed, like the sluggish control response of an ocean-going cargo ship.
There can be benefits to not receiving constant feedback. Just as investors need to avoid obsessing over every little dip and spike in the stock market so as to not succumb to churning a retirement account, leaders need to make decisions without letting every nervous-Nelly board member derail plans before they've had sufficient time to bear fruit.
Nevertheless, there's value in straight-talk. Hearing it said like it is. Speaking truth to power. Calling a spade a spade. Unearthing the ugly truths of our prim and proper society.
Nonprofit leaders usually can't afford to be so frank. They must be polite and delicate with their volunteers and donors lest they be lost. Nonprofit staff members engage in a delicate dance with board members who happen to be their bosses and often largest financial donors. Board members sometimes spare their poorly-paid executive directors from criticism out of fear that they'll end up with no executive to oversee.
As a nonprofit leader myself, sometimes I had to bite my tongue and keep personal opinions to myself lest my thoughts be confused as the official policy of the organization I represented.
That's where the Nonprofit Provocateur comes in. Here is a forum where truth can be told, where opinions can be expressed, and where cherished notions can be challenged--even bashed. The great thing is: nobody's feelings get hurt. It's not personal. It's not about you. It's about the issues and challenges people face in the nonprofit world every day. And if it's one of your cherished notions that's being challenged, that's okay, too, because it gives you and me an opportunity to reevaluate our assumptions. Maybe you'll even reaffirm and strengthen your own beliefs. That's okay, too. I don't claim my opinions are necessarily "correct," but I do try to substantiate my opinions.
As a lawyer, I'm trained in, and a big fan of, the Socratic method--a form of inquiry and discussion based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to illuminate ideas. It's a dialectical method, often involving a discussion in which the defense of one point of view is questioned; one participant may lead another to contradict himself in some way, thus strengthening the inquirer's own point. It's a negative method of hypothesis elimination, in that better hypotheses are found by steadily identifying and eliminating those that lead to contradictions. I intend to employ the Socratic method in this blog by posing challenging questions to the nonprofit community. My hypotheses may be wrong, but that's okay. That's how we learn together. But let's not fear the challenge.
"Times of great calamity and confusion have ever been productive of the greatest minds. The purest ore is produced from the hottest furnace, and the brightest thunderbolt is elicited from the darkest storm." -Charles Caleb Colton (English cleric, writer and collector)
Don't be surprised if you introduce a new idea to your workplace or challenge a long-held assumption and get pushback. That's the way it has always been. People fear change.
“There is no more delicate matter to take in hand, nor more dangerous to conduct, nor more doubtful of success, than to step up as a leader in the introduction of changes. For he who innovates will have for his enemies all those who are well off under the existing order of things, and only lukewarm supporters in those who might be better off under the new.”
Here's an opportunity to heat up the furnace and toss some thunderbolts back-and-forth through the storm of society as we, the nonprofit community and its supporters, struggle to bring about social change and improvement. Here's a chance to learn some important lessons the easy way--from the mistakes of others rather than making them yourself. Hopefully, we can poke a little fun at ourselves as well as commiserate about the stupid obstacles we face. I look forward to engaging in a dialogue with you with the goal of strengthening nonprofits and empowering them to do good.
Untether your organization's potential and soar!
P.S. ‘Like’ and/or 'Share' this article below if you agree that the nonprofit community would benefit from a vigorous discussion of issues, and use the comment field to provide ideas for subjects you'd like to see covered. I'd like to hear from you!
Tim Jacobson is president of Visjonær Consulting & Communications, LLC. He's been a board member and executive of a number of nonprofit and for-profit organizations over the past two decades. He's the executive producer of a documentary film, Mysteries of the Driftless, broadcast on PBS, author of the book Explosive Marketing for Nonprofits: Trajectory for Success, to be published in 2014, and author of Amazon best-selling thriller The Kurchatov Penetration. He has led successful efforts to raise millions of dollars for nonprofit organizations in the form of grants and individual donations. He's been featured numerous times in magazines, newspapers and on TV for his organizational consulting, nonprofit and business leadership, his film and writing projects, and his exploration of international peace issues.
This article is copyright (c) 2013, Timothy S. Jacobson. All rights reserved.