general newsletter

The Right Leader For the Job – Sector Leadership Spot

July 13, 2020

By Denise Harlow, CEO of Community Action Partnership

We are a nation and a sector galvanized toward change, to end racism, to jettison the hierarchy of human value base on race, to push back and tear down systemic and structural racism, and to ensure equity is at the core of our work. The global pandemic continues to rage across America, hitting communities of color hardest, stretching resources and systems. A recession has arrived and is likely to grow and increase the depth of need in this country beyond anything since the Great Depression. You know this. You are living it. You feel it. You carry it with you every day. You are energized by it, and you are exhausted by it.

As nonprofit human service leaders during this time, to make decisions based on need, funding, mission, and the changing landscape pose significant challenges. For the good or for the bad, the big decisions end up on your desk with staff and board members watching your actions, critiquing them, weighing them against what they would do in your place. Human service organizations are working to provide that foundation and structural support to strengthen family wellbeing in a superstorm environment and lives are impacted by the choices you make. What will you do? Will it be enough? Where will you fail and where will you succeed? Who do you turn to for guidance? These are only some of the questions that keep you up at night. They keep me up at night.

Today, we are digging deep inside of us as leaders in the nonprofit sector. We are staying nimble and responding to growing and changing needs; we seek engagement and direction from the individuals and families who receive our services; we are motivating staff and board members to stay focused and engaged while they (and we) are tired, exhausted, fatigued, and scared; we see a quickly approaching future with decreasing federal, state, and local tax revenues, knowing that charitable giving cannot fill the void, leaving us the view of a financial future that will challenge the sector. So many external and internal challenges.

Do I sound tired? I am. You are, too. We are blessed to be this tired, but that does not make it any easier. As we juggle, the world around us tells us – Be outcome focused! Collect and analyze data in real time! Accountability is a must! Watch staff morale! Keep an eye on your budget! It comes from all sides. At this moment, your leadership comes from within. You have fed it, nurtured it, and put yourself in a place to use it. Yes, you have put yourself in a place to use that experience along with your heart, mind, and passion for this work, to make this moment matter, to move us forward as a country. You are taking those years of tough jobs, failures and successes, reading and learning, customer and community engagement, and you have the opportunity to make it matter. You have packed your soul with the luggage you need for this trip, rely on it. If not you, who?

Through my work with the nation’s 1,000 local Community Action Agencies that are fighting the causes and conditions of poverty in every corner of America, I find the following to be true: leaders have taken the hard times that have come before, infused it with their core values, and have leveraged that experience to deploy services and innovation; leaders are trusting themselves, but not working in isolation as they seek input from customers and communities, from partners and funders, from staff and board; and that leaders are tired, yes, but they come back the next day and the next day and the next day. Leadership in today’s nonprofit world, especially for those who work in human services, is not for the indecisive, the hesitant, or the lone wolf. It takes action, boldness, collaboration, core internal values, and courage. I am inspired by local Community Action Agency leaders every day who exhibit these traits. I am inspired by you.

Community Action’s vision is “A nation that creates opportunities for all people to thrive, builds strong resilient communities, and ensures a more equitable society.” That is the vision we all have for this country. Racism must end, structural inequities are barriers that must be addressed, and we believe that this nation has the capacity and moral obligation to ensure no one is forced to endure the hardships of poverty. We believe that with hope, adequate resources, and opportunities, everyone can reach their fullest potential.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in times of comfort or convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy.” You are stepping up in times of challenge and controversy. You are leading. You are the right person to lead your organization in this historic moment.

Denise Harlow is the CEO of Community Action Partnership and serves on the board of National Human Services Assembly. The Community Action Partnership is a national hub that links the nation’s 1,000+ Community Action Agencies (CAAs) to each other and leaders looking for solutions that connect Americans to greater opportunity. Its mission is to ensure that the causes and conditions of poverty are effectively addressed and to strengthen, promote, represent and serve its Network of member Agencies.