by Jim Wehner
My mind is turning this morning. Not about mission or program. I am thinking about funding. Third quarter for FCS is always our most difficult quarter from a financial perspective. We have years of data showing an annual progression I have been unable to change. The summer months represent the low point of our year in terms of donations. So we enter the fourth quarter with cash flow levels that sometimes require difficult decisions in regard to staff and programs. These decisions are often the low point of leadership.
Organizational survival. It is the bane of the nonprofit leader’s existence. I do not know a strong nonprofit leader that doesn’t feel similar tensions on a recurring basis. An organization demands a certain amount of administration that too often feels like it takes away from the very calling we started out pursuing. However, I am beginning to see that this tension is a necessary part of our development as leaders.
You do not have to read too far into the Scriptures to see a strong example emerge. In Genesis 12, we see the story of Abram’s calling. God told him, “Go to the land I will show you.” The rest of Abram’s story - all the highs and lows - flow from his first steps to obey that calling. After Abram, we see literally dozens of examples of individuals doing the same thing. Following a vague, but persistent, sense of calling into a new and textured future that connects them to something bigger and greater than themselves.
I wonder if Abram would have taken the first step of obedience if he understood what was coming? Another way of saying this is that without the sense of calling, he never would have endured the trials and distractions to be able to see the fulfillment of that calling. The journey is just too difficult.
In my role at FCS, I see this tension almost daily, whether I am interacting with someone on my team or a leader from another organization. Somehow, when we start on the journey, we do not realize the mission we are pursuing will have its share of challenges and distractions. These activities of organizational survival - accounting, marketing, HR, supporting staff, board development, fundraising, and on and on - are all crucial to following our calling well. But these tasks often just do not feel spiritual.
Might the best way to deal with this reality be to lean into it rather than avoid or lament the tension it causes? One of the ways we at FCS live into this tension is by connecting to our calling as neighbors, rather than only community development professionals. Years ago, our founder Bob Lupton made this decision to move into the neighborhood he was serving. It was his way of stepping more closely into the Great Command: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. This single decision has remained core to our DNA as an organization.
When I leave the office to head home, I travel eight blocks into the center of the neighborhood FCS serves. Our Executive Director and Director of Economic Development have lived in the neighborhood for years. Other staff have moved into the neighborhood as they’ve come to work at FCS, with some lived here already when they joined the team.
Being a neighbor and loving my neighbor as myself is at the very core of my faith. Living in South Atlanta changes the ways our staff work out our personal sense of calling to empower neighborhoods to thrive. We live there. And it is my role as a neighbor that keeps me grounded when the day-to-day challenges of organizational survival cause me to question my role as a nonprofit leader.
I was speaking with a staff member about a school board function she had attended. She commented that she did not know whether she was invited because of her leadership on a local charter school board, her position at FCS, or her role as a parent of two children in the neighborhood. We agreed it was her community and parenthood roles that drove her passion to attend, while her organizational connections gave her opportunity to leverage influence in the meeting on behalf of her neighbors. Our sense of call and our organizational roles can integrate in powerful ways. And in the end, we may not always be sure what brought us to the table.
Following my individual call through neighboring sustains me in the moments of nonprofit leadership that feel more focused on organizational survival. I know the work of FCS is having significant impact, and it thrives because of time and energy investment in the details of running an organization. But being a neighbor is not an add-on to my work, it is core to my sense of calling. These two key components work together to create significant impact.
If you lead a nonprofit, what things do you do to stay grounded in your sense of calling when the everyday details seem to pull you a different way?