As each primary day grows more consequential for the Republican and Democratic front-runners, the campaign-trail discourse has become even more shrill and more prone to discourage the public from getting engaged in civic life.
As nonprofit leaders, we depend on Americans being motivated to change the world — to believe their participation as volunteers, donors, and advocates matters. Politicians need to take a page from our playbook and focus the discourse in this country on solving our biggest problems. And it’s incumbent on us to help them do so.
Here’s what I’d tell the politicians running for office today:
Focus on values and mission.
To thrive, a nonprofit must have — and must clearly articulate — a compelling mission, vision, and values. What is the mission in politics today? What is the vision that citizens can rally around? What are the core values?
Work with other leaders to get things done.
Nonprofit leaders know that the only way to solve the really big problems is through collaboration, through reaching out, through listening and learning, through working toward shared goals that make a difference to those we serve. Why can’t our political leaders understand that the outcomes are more important than individual agendas?
Give the public the accountability it demands. Just as donors look to nonprofit leaders for transparency, there is a palpable desire among voters for the same thing from candidates, who often promise openness and accountability but seldom deliver.
Nonprofits are held to account in myriad ways. Our financial documents are public. Watchdog organizations like GuideStar, Charity Navigator, and the Better Business Bureau offer one-stop access to that information and provide user-friendly ways to compare and evaluate it.
There are also guidelines for ethical operations. Independent Sector, for example, has outlined standards suggesting how any organization working for the public good ought to operate. Nobody has to follow them, but the groups that don’t are the ones that most often find themselves in trouble.
Through these and other means, nonprofit leaders have to demonstrate that the way we work and allocate our resources benefits those we claim to serve. It’s hard for us to ignore the rules, to hide what’s not perfect, to escape accountability. The same should be true for politicians.
Remember that public life is all about the common good. No one can look into the hearts and minds of leaders, but it’s fair to say a sense of obligation and passion motivates people to work in the nonprofit sphere. For most of us, it is not about the money or the visibility. In fact, I often feel that nonprofit leaders are viewed as “lesser” than their private-sector counterparts. Why would anyone who really is a great leader choose to run a nonprofit rather than a corporation?
The answer is that nonprofit leaders are motivated to serve others.
Nonprofit leadership makes a great pathway to political leadership. Mission, collaboration, and accountability can be powerful tools in public life, just as they are at our organizations.
I have seen that in my own work. Junior League leaders have become the first female mayors of their cities, have been elected to state legislatures and today serve in Washington. I watch these women work and see how hard they strive to make a difference for people. There are not enough of them.
Americans deserve better from their politicians — so let the nonprofits lead the way.
Originally published in The Chronicle of Philanthropy