Nonprofits have tough jobs. Every day we work on behalf of the interests of our communities through our endeavors in the arts, conservation, healthcare, housing, food, economic development, mental health, and other aspects of Montana’s wellbeing. More often than not, our jobs are made more challenging because of uncertainties related to the political environment, fluctuations in funding, economic ups and downs, and other factors out of our control. On top of that, nonprofits today are confronted with the additional difficulty of trying to do good work in an increasingly polarized and gridlocked political climate. Here’s where it gets tricky: as a sector we decry the divisiveness and extremism that leads to gridlock. At the same time, it’s all too easy for us to become part of the problem. And it’s not out of ill intent; in fact, quite the opposite.
Nonprofit leaders have always been activists. It’s part of our DNA to be generators of social change. But with that comes tension and conflict, which is not inherently bad. In fact, it is probably necessary for transformation. But only if we let disagreement occupy its right place in our conversations and problem-solving processes. We need a variety of different perspectives to come up with full-body solutions. However, in spite of our best intentions, giving real space to diversity of thought is an uphill climb. Especially at a time when we find ourselves increasingly connected, socially and politically, with people who see the world like we do, and decreasingly associated with people whom we disagree. It’s like we’ve forgotten the art and skill of finding common ground – not as organizations, but as people. Common ground cannot be cultivated in an environment where categorical, either/or thinking and behavior is the driver.
What do I mean by either/or behavior? I’d venture to say we most often find it easier to notice in someone other than ourselves, but here are some examples I can relate to:
- Reading opinion pieces and deciding whether the author is “for” or “against” what we already believe in. We’re not really seeking new information as much as we are looking for confirmation of what we already think.
- A news story comes out about someone from the “other party” (doesn’t matter which one) doing something admirable. We mention it to people in our circle along with a skeptical comment about the hidden motive that surely must be present.
- We use social media to talk about people in ways we would never dream of saying to their face.
- We categorize and write off whole groups because of the way they vote, their beliefs, the causes they take up.
The list could go on and on. And here’s the problem. The more we individually participate in either/or thinking and behavior, the worse societal divisiveness becomes and the harder it is to have a civil society that meets our common needs. When we begin to see events or people as all one way or the other, we unwittingly increase what divides us rather than cultivating the shared space, or what we have in common. As the divide grows, we are pushed further toward the edges where we are surrounded by people who are more like us than different. And in this way the middle space, or what we might think of as the common ground where differences coexist, shrinks.
I believe nonprofit leaders are in an ideal position to intervene in this cycle. In fact, as primary forces for good in civil society, I believe we owe it to our communities to lead the way in reclaiming common ground that is being overcome by extremism.
How do we do that?
First, I think we need to understand the degree to which the tension caused by divisive, negative behavior is taking a toll on all of us. The tension is real, and it’s making life harder. A recent Gallup poll showed that Americans are among the most stressed, worried, and angry people in the world, and that is in spite of a strong economy and low unemployment. Yuck. That needs to change.
We can forge a path of hope not only through the great work we are doing within the nonprofit sector, but also at a much more personal level. For example, I can evaluate the extent to which I personally gravitate to people who are like me. I can assess the various ways I deploy an either/or lens. I can notice and change my own behavior. No, I can’t change the whole world, but I can make personal change. That’s hopeful.
Activism is a respectful and powerful way to affect change in a gridlocked society. But it shouldn’t preempt diversity. I admire people I know who work tirelessly for the cause while also maintaining humility and deep respect for a very large circle of people around them, including people who vehemently oppose their cause. We can do more of that.
I think it behooves us to pay attention to external pressures pushing us to more extreme thinking and behavior. What is the role of social media? Of dark money? And how do we feel about being played by these external forces? Sometimes we react to something on social media and, while we feel better, we haven’t actually done anything. We just feel like we have. Are we comfortable with that?
There is no question society sometimes requires extreme behavior to bring about necessary change. But maybe in today’s climate of divisiveness and political deadlock – holding the middle ground could be considered a new extreme behavior. Perhaps compromise could become the radical thing to do and seeing nuance instead of using an either/or lens would become cutting edge.
As nonprofit leaders we are the keepers of the common good and drivers of civic culture. Our communities and the larger society we are part of rely on us to attend to this middle ground where we come together, make room for our differences, and advance the good of the whole in the process. That’s the heart of civil society. Working in this way requires intention, leadership, and a certain amount of insight into ourselves. We might wish someone else would be in charge of ensuring a good swath of common ground be made available to us as needed, but in fact we’re probably going to be the ones who bring it.
MNA is actively pursuing ways we can support nonprofits engaged in activities specifically designed to strengthen Montana’s civic culture. We’ve been working with Philanthropy Northwest, Humanities Montana, and Leadership Montana to develop a framework through which we might be able to make progress together. Is there anything happening in your community to intentionally advance civic engagement and civil discourse? Let us know by posting a comment below. And we’ll keep you posted as we move forward to ensure Montana’s vibrancy and prosperity is secured for the future through an engaged, diverse citizenry, able to tackle tough issues as we seek out and find common ground.