Bringing Community Back into Nonprofits

Tuesday, May 1, 2012 (All day)

I was the last in a series of speakers at a recent charity fundraising event and took a few minutes in my comments to appreciate the group’s profound, yet under-recognized achievement. In an age where “nonprofit” has often been reduced to meaning a bunch of harried believers running a cash-strapped service, this group had succeeded in building a nurturing, authentic community.

This was Circle of Friends’ first sit-down dinner after three previous, smaller annual gatherings. A young man named Alec Safan mingled among the donors, parents, brothers, sisters, politicos, pals of the honorees, and a passel of other supporters. The vagaries of nature endowed Alec at birth with a special need, what we often call a “disability” and, in Alec’s case, Down Syndrome. Yet Alec managed – with pals lending a helping hand here, a hug there, the occasional gentle nudge and always an encouraging word – to navigate the scene quite capably. The crowd that night was a living expression of Circle of Friends’ core values: understanding, acceptance, friendship and inclusion. I was struck in particular by the power of one of those values – acceptance – to describe what all of us together and each of us alone hopes will define the community that surrounds us our whole lives through.

And, I thought, what a rare and decent flowering to see it on generous display at one time, in one place, and fully embraced by all present.

One of the speakers who preceded me – Alec’s mother – reminded everyone present of the astonishment, unanticipated pain, and lifetime of discovery, even awe, that comes after learning that a beloved child will be compelled by genetic accident to live a life of challenge. Then it was 29-year-old Alec’s turn to have his say. He approached the stage hesitantly and stood silently, looking down. His presence commanded the room nonetheless. Everyone in the crowd, Alec’s crowd, knew to simply slow down, take a breath, wait until Alec was ready.

“Thank you,” he said softly, “for supporting Circle of Friends.”

At Alec’s words, the room rose as one. I was reminded of a poem by Galway Kinnell, who wrote:

everything flowers, from within, of

self-blessing

though sometimes it is necessary

to reteach a thing its loveliness

to put a hand on its brow

of the flower

and retell it in words and in touch

it is lovely

until it flowers again from within, of

self-blessing.

The clapping of those hands affirmed Alec’s loveliness. The sound surged as a living hand on Alec’s brow. And as he so graciously accepted the support of everyone there, his audience replied with the heartfelt reminder that they accepted him so very deeply in return. The circle around Alec that started with him helping non-disabled students in school understand his disability better had grown enormous since he was a boy. And in that room the circle went beyond Alec as well – the mutual understanding and acceptance of young adults with and without disabilities was apparent throughout the night and throughout the room, as Circle of Friends members mingled and chatted with each other and with other guests.

I would bet that not a single person that night ever considered for a moment that they were gathered under the banner of a “nonprofit.” This circle of friends is the place they live, a great manifestation of a lovely community they built together.

In our quest for professionalization – and in meeting the demands that auditors, funders, and governments place on us to professionalize – nonprofit leaders can easily lose sight of our role beyond services or advocacy: community building. Nobody wants a paid friend, or a charity friend – we want to be reciprocating members of genuine communities. When a nonprofit can help make this happen, the results are transformative. It was an honor to see this in action at Circle of Friends.