What does it mean to collaborate right now? This was the question among a team of nonprofit state association CEOs at a recent meeting. As we all leaned into the conversation, Laurie commented, “We need to collaborate now more than ever. But exhaustion in the sector makes it hard to bring our best to the effort.”
Let’s unpack that. With all the changes happening in our sector and the opportunities created by the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and other federal investments that are underway, this is a time when working together across sectors and within our own nonprofit sector is not just nice to do, but essential if we are going to maximize all the new (and temporary) resources coming online. Indeed, the funding is coming in large chunks and with promises of significant, community altering positive impacts. But that can only be true if we work together to understand how our communities can best be served by these one-time federal investments. Working together, we can influence how the money is invested. We can think bigger about how business as usual needs to shift to create lasting changes for the people in our communities. And if we work together, we are more likely to navigate the current uncertainties—the Great Resignation, the challenges posed by COVID, the changes to volunteerism and giving—and come out with not just surviving but thriving organizations.
Yet, we need to face the second part of Laurie’s observation. We are collectively tired. We are exhausted. Indeed, many were exhausted before the pandemic and certainly the impacts have been inequitable in the worst ways. We don’t mean to suggest that there aren’t important distinctions about the burden we are feeling, and collectively and to a person, the level of exhaustion is palpable. Another colleague noted, “This hefty bag is full and bursting at the seams.” We are facing burnout and churn among staff at all levels and serious shortages for frontline positions. We are feeling disconnected and socially awkward from all of the hunkering down. And from this, we must ask, “How do we stretch to meet this new challenge with openness, creativity, and a collaborative spirit?”
The good news is that for many nonprofits public trust and collaboration are your superpowers. Those powers are regularly at play in our daily lives. They position us to lead the way by prioritizing our mission and cause above our organization. They help us think big across fields of service to discern where funding can make the biggest, most lasting impact for us all. And they help us center equity as we focus our energy within communities most impacted by the pandemic and systemic oppression. For us, our commitment to equity is one thing that keeps us getting out of bed every morning. This pandemic is far from over, especially for Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) communities, people who experience disabilities, refugees, and others facing oppression.
Superpowers alone won’t get us where we need to go, we must lean into each other and pool our resources and our resolve. In those stores of energy, we will find our ability to be more curious, embrace more complexity, and find common ground both within our sector and across our communities.
The funding is coming. In some cases, it is already here. While we keep our eye on the big ideas and possibilities, we need to balance those expectations with the grace and space to lean into each other and our own needs for rest and renewal.
We may not yet have all the answers, but we are doing our best to model our best advice. We decided to write this article together after finding energy from each other’s ideas. More than a burst of energy, it gave us newfound optimism. Our hope is that this small example and perhaps just us sharing our thinking out loud will lead to other small steps in your life that bring you energy and joy. Join us. Maybe we can get a virtuous cycle going—more collaboration, more energy, more change. We think there is hope.