Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Forgiveness as part of organizational life

In the current issue of The Atlantic Monthly describes a moment early in Hillary Clinton's first Senate term when she began attending a Bible study with other senators. When she first began participating, Republican Senator Sam Brownback confessed to her that he had hated her and said derogatory things to her. She forgave him.

Like Hillary Clinton, who led efforts in the first Clinton presidential term to pass universal healthcare, nonprofit leaders often take hits.

In the middle 1990’s the CEO of an organization I worked for asked me to direct a campaign to raise $1.2 million to help close their nursing home for adults with developmental disabilities and open about a dozen small group homes for them to live in.

I deeply believed in the cause. I knew many of the people who lived in the nursing home and I knew that their lives would be greatly improved by moving into smaller homes. As the head of the nursing home resident council would say, “You know me. I like peace and quiet,” something that was impossible in the noisy, crowded nursing home.

Neither the organization nor I had ever done a capital before and the board decided we would do it without a campaign consultant.
Many people thought we would not succeed in raising the money needed. I can understand their doubts because it’s very difficult for an organization to raise that much money without the help of a consultant to keep the campaign on track.

Fortunately for me, a retired YMCA executive from the Chicago area took mercy on me and offered to come out every few weeks during the campaign to advise us.

Despite this, one of my colleagues who
was in a position to track what I was spending to prepare for the campaign, was convinced we would fail. She began to spread rumors through the organization that I was wasting money. She actively opposed the campaign in staff meetings and made life miserable for my assistant campaign director.

One day my colleague and I were both working late. I went to her office, listened to her anger about my spending, and tried to respond. Nothing I said seemed to help. It was deeply painful to have her questioning my integrity. I got tears in my eyes for the first and only time in my 20 years of employment at that organization.

Almost every morning since 1977 I’ve written in a spiritual journal, often writing about whatever current challenges I’m facing. During those days I wrote about the tension I felt as I launched the campaign. Gradually I realized that I was carrying a lot of resentments toward my colleague.

One morning as I was writing in my journal I had a sense that I needed to forgive my colleague. I listed out five different things she had done to undercut me and the campaign.

That winter day on the way to work I drove a country road and stopped the car next to a creek. I picked up five stones and one by one I dropped them in the water, forgiving my colleague for each of the five things she had done to undercut me.

As I dropped the stones in the moving water in the creek I noticed how the stones immediately dropped to the bottom but the water flowed on. I sensed God telling me that I had forgiven my colleague and my life could flow on like the water in the creek.

Life did flow on and eventually it appeared that the campaign was going to be a success. My colleague then solicited a club she belonged to, to donate to the campaign.

When the campaign was completed I resigned and went on to working as a consultant to help other organizations do similar campaigns. After I resigned my colleague said to me, “In a few years we are going to have to have you back to do another campaign.”

Because I had forgiven her I could gratefully accept her compliment on my work.

Good to Great and the Social Sectors: A Monograph to Accompany Good to Great, Jim Collins describes Level 5 leaders as people who have little personal ambition but incredible will "to make sure the right decsions happen--no matter how difficult or painful--for the longterm greatness of the instituiton and the achievement of its mission..."

Forgiving harsh critics can help nonprofit leaders keep on making sure the right decsions happen even after taking lots of hits.