Guest Essay: What if nonprofits radically transformed their work and their sector?The Nonprofit Journal Project

Editor's note: This story originally ran in our sister publication, Second Wave Media.

I remember reading a powerful article in Slate when the novel coronavirus hit in early March (forever ago). America Is A Sham: Policy changes in reaction to the coronavirus reveal how absurd so many of our rules are to begin with. As the frenetic energy of the crisis spread, the writer’s words steadied me.

They opened a portal that allowed me, and our team, to embrace now as the time to re-imagine everything. At NEW we asked, “what must and will transform as a result of what we’re learning as individuals, organizations, and a community?” George Floyd's murder was a reality check that reform (trying to fix a broken system) wouldn’t save the lives of Black people. Reform in our communities wouldn't suffice either. What we’re longing for is transformation - things made anew.
It was a time to question everything. Time to honor our shared wisdom, experience, and the collective genius we each harness. We began to say, “things are not working,” aloud. We began to challenge ourselves to be and act differently. Truth is, though, that it shouldn’t have taken a pandemic for us to get here.

As a community and nation, we’ve known for a while that the ways we’ve been working, leading, serving, and being aren’t healthy. And they certainly haven't been transformative. How could they be in the conditions we’ve been operating under? Stress, burnout, lack of diversity, equity, or inclusion...Even the marginal outcomes our missions strive towards demonstrate unmet opportunities. Despite many best efforts, the work of the social sector has been slow, arduous, and incremental. NEW is not an exception. In recognizing all this, I knew I wanted to help our staff through the crisis (and beyond). As a new leader, I sensed the need to go deeper in our work.

And so, like many others, we used this moment to reflect upon the absurdity - heightened, not new - of our conditions. We questioned our role as an organization within our community. How would we start to re-imagine everything? By default we started by transforming how and where we worked. And as I prepared for a COVID-related financial hit, we transformed our relationships with donors. We got braver, bolder and less performative.

Next, we transformed our proximity to community leaders. We started learning more from their diverse and unique leadership styles through our Centering Justice series (BTW -please join us next week and hear how area leaders are re-imaging the fall). They know so much more about community change than we do. We began staff dialogue about racial inequity and how it sits in the core of the nonprofit sector the way white supremacy sits at the core of the nation. I’ve started to ask aloud, “Does our sector exist because racism does?”

More recently I’ve been questioning our work in governance and stewardship. How must our ecosystem transform to unlock the potential for meeting our bold and audacious visions? What must we learn from the powerful work of mutual aid groups, healers, and community organizers whose models don't rely on charity or large complex, hierarchical systems for working? Internally, what structures prevent us from engaging the many gifts our teammates hold outside of their neatly crafted job descriptions?

Today as I write, I’m thinking about something a colleague said yesterday. We were talking through supporting our staff who are parents or caregivers as we all re-imagine the fall, school and life. We talked about providing childcare stipends (please consider donating) or resourcing pandemic pods, or, tapping state funds so they could scale back on hours through the WorkShare program (ummm, Congress, we're waiting....).

At the end of the call we wondered aloud…what if paused our organizations just long enough for our colleagues to be able to be with their babies and loved ones during this fall. What if we didn't have to try to figure out how to 'make it work' like so many are having to? What if we modeled a new way of being?

What if we radically transformed our work and our sector the way families are re-imagining their lives?
Yodit Mesfin Johnson (she/her), has been working at the intersections of racial justice and liberatory practices for women and black, indigenous and other people of color for nearly two decades. She became President and CEO of Nonprofit Enterprise at Work (NEW) on January 1, 2020. Stay tuned for her next entry in our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19 is impacting the nonprofit sector--and how they are innovating. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.ACT.