First of all, strong leadership is needed in both church related institutions and secular nonprofit organizations. If we are going to serve people well, it requires processes and methodologies that make the most of every dollar. If we are attempting to care for the needs of people on a fairly large scale, there are systems that can help us be efficient and effective. Effective leadership is vital for success.
As I look at the photo of the people whitewater rafting, it makes me think of teamwork. How can we all work together to miss the boulders, keep the raft upright, and safely navigate to our destination? That is leadership in a nutshell. The executive director, the staff, the board of directors, the volunteers, and the financial donors all join in the mission of achieving the mission of the organization. Then, as we reach out and collaborate with other nonprofit organizations, local businesses, local government entities, the health department, the school districts, the churches, charitable foundations, philanthropists, and anyone else having a desire to be included, we can quickly see that steering the raft in a unified manner is not as simple as it may appear on the surface.
A number of people asked me why I left ministry to take on a role in a secular nonprofit organization. I don't feel that I left ministry. I am simply pursuing it in another way. The deacon is called to have one foot "in the sanctuary" and one foot "in the world". We are that bridge between the secular and the religious. Leading a secular nonprofit organization has put my foot more firmly "in the world" versus my foot "in the sanctuary." However, my preaching and teaching "in the sanctuary" is enhanced because of my deeper understanding of the pain and suffering of God's people because of my foot "in the world".
Someone asked me if my organization supports any endeavors that are in conflict with my conscience. Obviously not. I would not have accepted the leadership role if I had to compromise my convictions. We need people of faith in leadership roles at secular institutions to help guide processes and endeavors with integrity and a solid moral code.
The similarities of a religious organization and a secular nonprofit are numerous. Here are a few items that jump right to the forefront. You typically work with limited resources. You rely on volunteers. You have boards or committees of one kind or another. You are in perpetual fundraising mode. Good times! Right?
What is the most significant difference for me in working for a secular nonprofit versus a church related organization? In the church setting, every meeting began with prayer. I was frequently the one called upon to lead that prayer for the group. In a secular nonprofit, we don't start the meeting with a public prayer. However, I still quietly pray for everyone sitting around the table and for all of the people that we serve. Once again, it didn't change what I do; it just changed the manner in which I do it.
How is running a nonprofit different from running a for profit business? In my opinion, it is easier to track success in a "for profit" arena. The numbers tell the story. You can look at revenue and expenses and quickly draw conclusions from the bottom line. You can track sales, number of contacts with prospective clients, etc. These can all paint a picture of how well the business is doing.
A nonprofit organization can track certain pieces of data, but it may be more challenging to draw specific conclusions from that data. If you are tracking your organization's impact on high school graduation rates, but your agency is only working with early childhood education, how do you specifically measure your particular impact? The outcomes can be a bit more vague than the for profit business.
Having one foot "in the world" and one foot "in the sanctuary" helps keep my mind observant to see how we can bridge gaps in society. How do government agencies, businesses, churches, nonprofit organizations, healthcare institutions, schools, and philanthropists all come together to make a positive difference in the community? It requires a commitment from the leadership of all these institutions to work in a collaborative manner. A charismatic leader or two in that mix can certainly help move the process along in a positive and productive way. If my particular role in leading a secular nonprofit organization can impact that endeavor a little bit, my time will not have been wasted.
This Sunday, the Church celebrates Divine Mercy Sunday. We seek forgiveness and mercy from God for our failures and shortcomings. Let us remember to also be ambassadors of God's mercy to others. How can we lift someone up who is hurting?