by Josh Jacobson

I’m fired up!

During the May 22 session of The New Normal, I had a chance to chat with three staff leaders of local nonprofit organizations about their major gift campaigns:

  • Jenni Gaisbauer outlined the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library Foundation‘s Common Spark campaign, which aims to raise substantial funding to open a “knowledge center for the future” on the site of today’s uptown branch.
  • John Searby discussed Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation‘s Vision 2025 capacity-building campaign which aims to engage across North Carolina and South Carolina, recing in to 26 counties of the Catawba river basin.
  • Banu Valladares walked through efforts by Charlotte Bilingual Preschool to raise funding to fuel the organization’s new strategic plan, which calls a dramatic increase in the number of children and families served over the next ten years.

Did you miss this awesome session? Stream it on-demand now.

Hearing them discuss such exciting visions for the future, it wasn’t hard to get excited about where our community is going. Up until a few months ago, the Charlotte region’s social good sector was cranking along at a pretty good clip. Buoyed by a strong economy, nonprofits were planting flags of ambition and setting out to generate the resources needed to make them a reality. And then, in what felt like only a few short weeks, it all came to a grinding halt.

Or did it? ‘Full-stop’ is certainly the perception at this time of economic (and societal) uncertainty. From the outside looking in, it appears that the health crisis repositioned our region’s narrative. Strategic efforts to advance our goals across everything from arts and culture to economic mobility seem to have been replaced by bail-the-boat activities meant to simply keep the community afloat.

And yet, because we work with nonprofit organizations for a living, we know that nothing just stops.

While our panelists last week acknolwedged that their major gift campaigns were modified by the realities of COVID-19, each spoke to a deep commitment to seeing their organization’s overarching visions realized. For most, that is likely going to mean changing the timeline, and for some, potentially the degree of ambition. But halting entirely? Not a chance.

The reason is simple – we need forward-looking inspiration. It is a resource on which a growing community like ours thrives. A natural disaster like COVID-19 demands a response, much like a hurricane to the Florida coastline or a tornado to the farmhouses of Kansas. It requires our community leaders to assess the damage done and determine a pathway forward. It justifies an outpouring of resources to combat its impact, as much an emotional reaction as a reasoned one.

But this response (we call it the ‘pandemic effect’ on social good) can also lead to the absence of inspiration that drives our community forward. It can result in a numbness to the damage done because it penetrates so completely our societal narrative. Inside each of us is an ache not just for things to ‘get back to normal,’ but for hopefulness and expectation. It is the human condition to seek inspiration; it fuels the sort of risk-taking that leads to all the best things in life. Love, marriage, career fulfillment, starting a family, launching a business – all require the sort of risk-taking that is fed by inspiration and hopefulness for a bright future.

That does not simply go away. It may become muted, but it is still alive in all of us. Smart nonprofit leaders know this, because it is ingrained into every grant application and request for support.

While everyone else is talking about getting back to normal, nonprofits need to be brave enough to talk about not accepting ‘normal,’ because the way things were before COVID-19 were not good enough. This requires risk-taking by social good organizations when conventional wisdom about ‘being out-of-step’ suggests otherwise.

Nonprofits are uniquely capable of inspiring others – it is a part of the social good DNA. Covering that up to attend to immediate needs makes sense when the crisis first strikes, but letting loose that inspiration at the appropriate time is the only way we can hope to move our community forward.

Back during the Great Recession, nonprofits sat on their ambition, not for months, but for years. Not this time. We’re a different Charlotte now – wiser for the road we’ve been on.

Like I said, I’m fired up. It is time to get back to building our city.