As an African American who was born during the turbulent ‘60s, I’ve been working along with African American-led and focused organizations all my life. Whether it’s the church, schools or organizations fighting for civil rights, these institutions have had to navigate some of the toughest cultural challenges known in human history and – for the most part – have come through relatively intact.
While the successes have been epic – desegregation, equal rights and countless other victories – it’s the quiet failures that provide lessons that, unfortunately, many of these organizations choose to ignore, rather than using them to strengthen the way they pursue their work.
In Philadelphia, as an example, two of the nation’s oldest historically black colleges and universities (known as HBCU’s) are struggling with leadership challenges while seeing declining enrollments, rising costs and increased competition. While this could characterize hundreds of other non-African American colleges and universities, the fact is that the two HBCU’s have had to navigate additional challenges that make these conditions even more acute. Declining state funding, fewer African Americans academically able to pursue a college degree and a host of other factors have created a fragile situation that is a crisis in the making.
So while venerable institutions have fought the good fight in conquering such noble goals as guaranteeing quality education for all, some of the organizations seeking to fulfill these legacies are suffering from not having stopped to address the un-ignorable moments that have presented themselves along the way.
Not too long ago, one of those un-ignorable moments occurred when an HBCU President made some offensively sexist remarks in a setting in which he felt he was “safe” to do so. The remarks went viral, became irreversible and resulted in a way-too-late apology and the President’s resignation, and avoidable upheaval for the institution as a result.
In their book, “The Moment You Can’t Ignore: When Big Trouble Leads to a Great Future,” authors Barry Dornfeld and Malachi O’Connor point to four characteristics that define those moments – all of which were reflected in this instance that led to the President’s demise. Two have already been discussed…the incident was “public” and the remarks were “irreversible.” The other two – the systemic nature of the problem and how the moment can challenge the identity of an organization – are a little more complex.
On the systemic side, any time a leader of any organization uses language that marginalizes members of that very institution, you have every indication of a cultural problem that is systemic. And because that failure comes from the top where the banner for standards should fly the highest, the organization’s identity – by definition – is compromised.
Sadly in this instance, as in many of the businesses and nonprofits that serve African American consumers and communities, there is usually a rush to “circle the wagons” when things go wrong rather than open up to a productive scrutiny that can resolve the problem and push progress forward. To be fair, there has been good reason not to trust outside the narrow circles as several causes have been sabotaged by those hell-bent on resisting change.
However, many African American-focused organizations are struggling to find ways of attracting new leadership, broadening their appeal to new audiences and developing novel ideas to sustain their continued viability. That struggle is the result of multiple factors.
First, African American-focused organizations often anoint their leadership from within versus outside. By definition, that tradition limits the perspective to an insider’s view that often carries with it historic blindspots and an over-reliance on methods that may be comfortable, but outdated.
Second, like most organizations that focus on ethnic communities and consumers, there is a penchant for hiring other ethnic minorities that can create an environment that, ironically, becomes less diverse. The more homogeneous the staff (regardless of complexion), the less diversity there will be in ideas, creativity and challenges to the “new” status quo.
Third, there is a long-standing tradition of forgiveness and redemption within the African American culture, an ethos that sometimes overlooks behavior and create levels of impunity that severely handicap an organization. This not only weakens the integrity of the enterprise, it can serve to deflate talented individuals whose effectiveness is neutralized by the “we’ve always done it this way” mantra.
Add all of this to the fact that African American-focused organizations are typically under-capitalized, under-resourced and overwhelmed by the expanse of their mission, and you have a formula that makes the climb all the more difficult.
That doesn’t mean that the climb won’t be made. The determination that drives these organizations enables them to overcome superhuman obstacles while keeping their eye firmly on the prize. But learning from the missteps will ensure that the climb remains on solid footing.
David W. Brown is Founder and Managing Director of The Marketing Collaborative – a nonprofit organization that provides strategic direction to other nonprofits on a range of communications and management issues. (Dbrown@marketingcollaborative.org)