I sit on a lot of nonprofit boards — an occupational hazard! — and in the last week it seems that each one has has a meeting. So far, five board meetings this week, and more to come next week. These are really great organizations — to name just three of the batch, Goodwill of Greater Washington, the Community Foundation of the National Capital Region, the Washington Hospital Center. Such organizations also include leaders from other, similarly service-minded organizations, such as the Girl Scout Council of the Nation’s Capital and the SEED Foundation. Each organization touches and comforts and helps and heals thousands of lives. And each, like so many other nonprofits, is worried deeply about the impact of the recession on their ability to keep providing services to people in need. The theme at every single meeting, gray as the skies outside, was about the need to retrench in the face of declining charitable gifts and endowment values, even as the needs of clients are increasing as the toll of this economic crisis marches through neighborhoods.
Yet, these organizations, like thousands of others all over the country, are rising to the challenge with creativity, courage and great conviction in the necessity of their respective msisions. These are places where the hours are very long for most of the staff, the work is hard, and salaries are relatively modest. The leaders of these organizations truly model the entire idea of ‘servant leadership’ to the very core — they are uniformly kind and wise, committed to mission, able to be tough in appropriate ways while always putting people first. These executives could be making much more money in other organizations, but they have chosen this life because of their deeply moral commitment to the service organization ideals.
I mention all of this, and my admiration for these and so many similar leaders, because this has been a bad season for leadership — from the appalling conduct of the Illinois governor to the stunning arrogance of the Big Three automaker CEOs flying their private jets to the bailout hearings. The behaviors of so many public leaders have been so disappointing that both media and the general public have taken to dismissing anyone with “CEO” in their title as somehow corrupt, overpaid, greedy, ineffective, vultures — even “campus gargoyles” to take a phrase from a Boston Globe column trashing college presidents. (Ouch. I’ll think of that as I drive my not-gently-used faithful old Honda home to Hyattsville tonight…)
The best leaders I know are those who behave in ways that are quite the opposite of those headline-grabbing gargoyles — the leaders of local agencies that are quietly, bravely trying to keep everyone employed, to keep services accessible, to keep health care available to the poorest of the poor, to improve living conditions for those living on the margins of this region. These are leaders who are great advocates for their organizations but not for themselves; they have compelling vision for how to improve other lives every day, and somehow they make it happen with increasingly scarce resources. They truly live the “habits of the heart” that makes the charitable sector an irreplaceable pillar of our nation. Government cannot possibly do what these organizations accomplish largely through charitable gifts and volunteer services.
This is already a cruel winter for so many people in the Washington Region, and we have not yet seen the worst effects of the recession. We have to keep all of these great nonprofit organizations vibrant and sufficiently funded so that they do not have to cut back on services or programs that serve so many people in need.
I urge everyone in the great Trinity family to consider making charitable gifts in lieu of tangible presents this year — that’s what I’ll be doing. I’ll be increasing my gifts to these organizations — and also to Trinity, of course! Trinity is also one of the great organizations that makes life for so many in our city just a little better each day.
To learn more about how to make a gift to a great nonprofit organization, visit the links on the names above, or go to Network for Good and find an organization you like. You can also give through the Neighbors in Need fund of the Community Foundation that then makes grants to service nonprofits.
Your gifts to Trinity help to support just some of the $4.5 million that we devote annually to student grants.
Whatever charity you choose, choose charity! You will help soften this cruel winter for someone else — and that is the best gift you can possibly give.