TL;DR: Getting called in and called out comes with the territory of being a thought leader. You need to learn to manage that, regardless of how uncomfortable it is, or find another line of work.
Over the last few weeks, our friend and colleague Tom Ahern made a series of bad decisions that rightly resulted in the cancellation of a AFP webinar he was scheduled to present later this week. We were increasingly alarmed and then flat-out appalled by Tom’s commentary before and after the event cancellation. As a result, we here at Nonprofit Marketing Guide have decided to pause our hosting of Tom’s webinars indefinitely. Is this pause permanent? We don’t know yet.
I’m sharing today’s long post for two purposes: (1) to explain to our Nonprofit Marketing Guide community my personal approach to thought leadership in hopes that you will feel more comfortable talking to us when you believe we have screwed up and (2) to share some (admittedly unsolicited) advice with other white thought leaders in the nonprofit sector who are struggling to understand and to react appropriately when their perceived positions of authority are being challenged.
3/24/21 Edit: As I mention later in the post originally published on 3/22/21, this is not our first experience with Tom being rude or dismissive of people who disagree with him, and I chose not to focus on specific instances of those injustices, but rather on what happens when injustices more generally are called in or out to thought leaders. I see now that not articulating those details may lead some people to believe that I am not fully acknowledging the specific harm of the most recent incidents that were directed at and about BIPOC fundraising professionals and practices. So let me be clear: Tom’s most recent comments in both style and substance were especially ugly and hurtful to the BIPOC fundraising community and reeked of white supremacy. We stand personally and professionally in full support of the Community-Centric Fundraising model and its community of practitioners. We applaud the hard conversations taking place throughout the sector, and while we don’t really consider ourselves fundraising practitioners per se, because so much of those conversations are really about communications and marketing more generally, we are actively listening, watching, engaging, and always learning. ~Kivi
As Kristina and I were working through the Nonprofit Marketing Guide site redesign over the winter, our web developer asked us for our values for the About Us page. As a very small company — it’s just Kristina and me formally, with a variety of freelancers helping in different ways — the company values ARE our personal values. The ways we live personally and the ways we work professionally can’t be separated.
I’d honestly never really considered drafting our business values in a formal way. Just being them seemed good enough. But I love a good writing prompt, so I sat down and did the homework. Here’s what we came up with, which is on the About page:
Understanding and Empathy
We are constantly listening to what nonprofit communicators need and empathize with them about all of the challenges of working in the nonprofit sector. Even though we are thought leaders in the nonprofit sector, we understand that our lived experiences and “our way” are not inherently more valuable than yours or anyone else’s.
Enthusiastic Problem Solving
We approach problem solving with creativity and enthusiasm. We enjoy geeking out on process or technology when it leads to making nonprofit communicators’ lives easier or your work more successful.
Being Direct and Pragmatic
While we constantly cheer for and defend nonprofit communicators, we also believe in being authentic, honest, and direct, even when conversations are hard. We are not particularly interested in theory. Instead, we focus on real-world practice and results. We never want to waste your time because we know you have little to spare.
Living Our Lives in Draft
We make mistakes and get it wrong. But rather than quickly moving on, we learn as we go. Our next attempt will always be better than our last because we are committed to constant learning and doing better for ourselves and for you.
The Roles and Responsibilities of Thought Leaders
One of the topics we teach at Nonprofit Marketing Guide is how nonprofits can position themselves as thought leaders. I explain that being an expert on something doesn’t make you a thought leader. Nor does simply being an exciting or entertaining communicator. You really have to have both the substance (the expertise or experience or big ideas) and the style (the communications and marketing know-how) to become a thought leader.
We teach several different styles of thought leadership, but what they have in common is the willingness to say something others are not saying or to say it out loud in a new way. I tell nonprofits that want to move beyond their expertise to become thought leaders that they need to find their voices and to be opinionated.
I also make clear this is not a job for the faint of heart. When you step out on an issue, you may find yourself far out on that proverbial limb, hoping it bends in the way you are advocating, without it breaking and crashing you to the ground. You hope the tension of being out on the limb makes both you and the tree stronger.
But tree climbing, especially out on those high, thin limbs, requires a lot of balance and real-time adjustment. It — and thought leadership in both the substance of what you say and the style in which you say it — are risky business.
The more often you climb up and out there, the more experience and comfort you’ll get. But you also increase the odds of your limb snapping. Or a strong gust sending you flying. Or someone seeing you up there as an easy target and deciding to take their shot.
What Happens When I, as a Thought Leader, Fall
These thought leadership lessons we teach are learned not only from watching nonprofits do it but from working to become a thought leader myself in nonprofit communications and marketing. I try to take care when I go out on limbs, but I’ve had my share of injuries and know all too well the adrenaline rush when you hear that limb cracking and you wonder what’s coming next.
As a white, Gen X, cisgender, non-disabled woman who is a nonprofit sector thought leader, I have been called in and called out for word choices and the ways I have described certain situations or people. It’s not fun. It hurts. But all growing pains hurt. And that is what is ultimately being called for: Growth.
When confronted with ways I have caused pain, my first reaction is defensiveness — the classic (and exhausting to those you’ve hurt) “but I didn’t mean it that way” response. But that quickly morphs into deep sadness and regret for letting others down. In all those random personality tests we take, I am whichever acronym or color or animal denotes “the responsible one who takes care of everything.” I feel HORRIBLE not just because I have emotionally hurt people but because I have acted irresponsibly.
Earlier in my thought leadership career, I’d stop there: I apologized, felt a few days of anguish-filled depression at letting others down, and then I moved on.
When I’ve made mistakes more recently (like in the last five years or so), I’ve tried to do the much harder work of understanding not just the impact of what I did but also understanding where that behavior came from in the first place. It might be conscious or unconscious bias, ego, competitiveness, laziness, ignorance, or impatience, for example. It’s been all these things and various combinations at different times.
When being called in or out, I still get defensive, and I still feel like my insides are crushed, but I try to work through it to find the real meaning and lesson so that the growth can happen. And that’s what I commit to doing next time I get called in or out. And yes, it will happen again. Kristina and I are human, and we create a lot of content here at Nonprofit Marketing Guide.
It comes with the territory in which I choose to live and work. I want to be a part of pressing my little corner of the world (nonprofit marketing and communications) in better directions. I want to be true and authentic with our coaching clients and those who attend our training. I hope they will also feel comfortable being true and authentic with us. I will try to be honest and direct, even when those conversations are hard, and especially when it requires that I am the one doing the calling in or out. That’s not always easy, either.
I attempt all of this while trying to stay in the values stated above, especially listening, being as empathetic as I can, acknowledging my own weaknesses and imperfections, learning from mistakes, and always, always, always trying to do better next time.
But the reality is it’s hard work climbing those trees and going out on the limbs and I will sometimes screw it up and fall to the ground. But these days I try to spend a little longer lying there on the ground and thinking through what I just did to make that fall happen. I will not blame the tree nor the wind, only myself.
What about those people taking cheap shots from the safety of the ground? Yeah, there are some of those trollish or jealous types every now and then. Some red-pencil editors like to nit-pick every word, and when you are a prolific writer, there’s always something that could have been worded better, including in this essay. I do try to move on more quickly when this is very clearly what’s happening.
What Happens When Our Thought Leader Friends Fall
I believe in not just second chances, but many chances. I believe in recovery and redemption, in both my personal life and my professional life. It’s part of my faith, parenting style, Girl Scout troop leadership, entrepreneurship, thought leadership, you name it. But with the generosity of many chances — both given and received — comes responsibility and accountability.
And that brings me back to what precipitated this post.
Our long-time friend and colleague Tom Ahern is a brilliant writer and a very engaging speaker. We’ve worked closely on some intensely emotional projects together, including editing the final manuscript of our now deceased dear friend and fellow thought leader, John Haydon. We at Nonprofit Marketing Guide have hosted many of Tom’s fundraising webinars for years.
Make no mistake, people are craving the direct style that Tom delivers every time. Too many consultants and trainers in our sector get mealy-mouthed about anything approaching a debate. We know people flock to his training because we see all the registration activity happening on the back end — and we have benefitted from it financially via our webinar hosting commissions. Tom has a very devoted following, in large part because he loves industry research and is constantly updating his materials. Another reason people love him is because he climbs up that tree and goes out on those limbs. And let’s face it, daredevils can be really fun to watch sometimes.
But other times, like all thought leaders — and all humans — he screws up. We’ve had conversations with Tom in the past about being too rude and dismissive of people who disagree with him. He had been willing to listen and admit when he was in the wrong.
This time, though, when he went out on that limb, his branch cracked and creaked in the form of several warnings on social media. And yet he ignored the multiple calls to “Go back, go back!” and pushed himself even further out on that limb, until it broke clean off. It was a terrible mistake.
I am hoping with all of my heart that Tom will get beyond the defensiveness and start doing the work to see just why his journey out on that limb was so very painful to others. But until that happens, we won’t be hosting any more of his training. Whether he will ever want to work with us again, I do not know.
But in the spirit I have tried to articulate here today, if he does the work of taking responsibility, being accountable, showing some real humility, and learning from the mistakes he made, we are open to a conversation about it.
Being Grateful for and Inviting Change
You are only a leader as long as others are willing followers. It’s a privilege that you earn, and that you must continue to earn every day. You don’t make it as a thought leader in the nonprofit world and then get to sit back like some untouchable tenured professor. Change is fundamental to nonprofit work, and we must all be open to that change in this sector, especially as thought leaders, even when that change and growth hurt. Always be grateful that people are willing to listen to you in the first place. Never forget you serve at their pleasure.
If you feel compelled to call us in at any time, email is best. We are not big phone and voicemail people. Email Kivi directly or Kristina directly. Obviously, we prefer the call in to the call out. But if you need to do that instead or in addition, we are @npmktgd, @kivilm and @kristinaleroux in the usual places.