How to Lead in Uncertain Times


The word I hear lately more than any other is uncertainty.

Here in the US, every four years on January 20 there is a change of power. It comes with the awesome privilege of being part of this great democratic experiment called the United States of America.

In my lifetime as a voter, there have been plenty of times when the guy I voted for lost. In fact, that’s probably more the rule than the exception. And no, I didn’t vote for the man being inaugurated this week.

But this feels different. I am anxious in a way I never have been before. More uncertain. Less because of the “who” as much as the “how” and what all of it says about the world we live in.

In this, I know I am not alone. Not at my kitchen table. Not in my neighborhood and certainly not among nonprofit leaders I connect with every day.

And the anxiety isn’t just coming from those who didn’t vote for him. I know Republicans who feel uncertain as well. Sure, they voted for our new President. But they’re not entirely sure what to expect going forward.

There’s a lot we all just don’t know yet.

But this blog isn’t about politics. It’s about nonprofit leadership. And that’s what I want to discuss today – how nonprofits are navigating a world turned upside down.

I have questions. I know a lot of you have questions.

– Has there already been an impact on the way nonprofits are doing things?

– How are nonprofit leaders approaching the uncertainty strategically?

– What’s the best way for nonprofit leaders to lead those in their organizations that are feeling particularly anxious or vulnerable?

I asked some folks in the trenches – five wonderful and diverse nonprofit leaders across sectors – to share their thoughts about how they are approaching the uncertainty in their organization and to offer a piece of advice on how to contend with the unchartered waters ahead.

One important note. The uncertainty does not rest solely in what would be called “progressive” or “liberal” organizations. And the list below is hardly representative. I do hope that folks of all ideological stripes will weigh in with comments.

My “panel” today is comprised of these five wonderful nonprofit leaders:

A big thank you to each of you!

Here’s what I asked them…


“We are deeply concerned, especially about the impact of folks living with HIV on the repeal of the Affordable Care Act… One staff member told me, ‘My soul hurts.’ I am reminding people that we chose this work because we are fighters.“

“Our team is motivated and we feel prepared and ready. This moment feels very pregnant since everything is all so theoretical and not yet real.”

“As a performing arts organization, the magnetism of political polarization can distract from our core mission. The Arts take on a renewed urgency in an atmosphere of division and distrust. The work of orchestras tangibly demonstrates the power of unity as we reach for something greater than ourselves.”

“Staff is responding differently. Some struggling, but many are jumping into a new state of concentration, looking for new opportunities as well as focusing on how to preserve gains.

“The uncertainty has galvanized us. My staff is inspiring me!”

Summary: Renewed focus, a sense of urgency, deep concern


“Fostering non-politicized spaces for interaction is an act of radical service to society right now. I am reminding our musicians and as many people as I can that we have a shared purpose to meet the human need for beauty with music.”

“We are consulting with allies at other nonprofits – trading ideas, strategies, and suggestions. We are focusing on sharing approaches with friends and colleagues.”

“As an organization, we are turning to history, reaching back to challenging and uncertain times we have faced to remind all of us that we have been here before – and triumphed.”

“We are participating in conversations – as many as we can – to learn as much as we can about what could happen. We are working hard not to be reactive (and not to overreact) but to be strategic. We have a strong strategic plan and now more than ever, it needs to be a living and breathing document – if we have to shift, we will. Our goal is to work to anticipate and get out in front.”

“We raise money to help young girls internationally and so we are looking to partner with US based organizations to raise awareness of the work.

Summary: Build partnerships, create bridges, find ways to engage outside of politics, look to the past for inspiration


“As a leader, ask yourself how you can lend your voice to creating a shared global movement? Focus on your voice and your messaging. People are listening.”

“Tap into the fierce passion about your mission. Keep your eyes open as you may be forced to make rapid decisions in a setting in which there is so much we do not know. Be alert, nimble, act with urgency and be fierce!”

“Keep your board in the loop – the good, the bad, the ugly and share what you are uncertain about – be authentic and offer them the opportunity to support and partner with you.”

“Be patient. Have we not learned that government moves slowly? Many changes may be 12 – 18 months down the road. We may have more time than we think (or feel).”

“Stick to your core. When you are not sure what to do, make sure that everything you do comes from your mission. Collaborate with others, reach beyond yourself, and do this with total clarity about what you do, whom you serve and why it all matters.”

“How can you be a leader in these times? Not just in your organization. You have a unique role in your organization, your sector, your community, your state, your neighborhood. People respect you, admire you and look to you as models. Use your platform to engage people in real conversation about what really matters.”

“Remember that regardless of what you do and the anxiety you may feel, your work elevates society in deep and profound ways.”

Summary: It’s hard to miss the theme. Focus on your mission. Don’t let yourself get distracted. Be agile. Communicate well. Partner and collaborate.


The nonprofit sector has such a critical role to play in lifting us all up in times of uncertainty. And that has ZERO to do with who you voted for, who is in the White House, and it’s true regardless of the mission of your organization.

At times of uncertainty, people look to the voices of the leaders around them – not just to assure them but also to engage them.

You know how folks say that going to the gym and working out can reduce stress? If you’re not actively engaged right now, maybe it’s time to think about volunteering and moving from the stands onto the field. The nonprofit sector needs you. And maybe – just maybe – you need them.

I am reading a terrific book and I highly recommend it. Particularly now. It’s called Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, by Tim Harford.

Not coincidentally, Tim will be a guest on an upcoming podcast. He and I both use the word “messy” in a factual and not in a pejorative way. In fact, my podcast is actually called Nonprofits Are Messy.


Parisa Parsa is from a small and mighty organization called Essential Partners, which is advancing the work of the Public Conversations Project by fostering dialogue across divides.

Parisa and I spoke recently for the podcast about what we can do at our kitchen tables, in our classrooms, in our houses of worship to help reduce polarization. Solving conflicts feels so very hard. And maybe our society is too raw.

I told her I was hearing folks use metaphors like “battle plan” and “crisis management.” But maybe we should just begin by learning to talk to one another. To have difficult conversations with those who have different (or diametrically opposed) points of view on issues that matter to you.

One thing Parisa told me is that the image to keep in mind is The Karate Kid.

Focus, balance, power.

I found our conversation both inspiring and therapeutic. I felt a lot better. If you haven’t already, you can click this link to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Android, Google Play, and other platforms. The episode will be available on January 21.

Hope you will join us.


One of the common threads from my panel of nonprofit leaders above was just how important it is to reach out to each other. To partner. To become part of a community of leaders.

I’ve been thinking a LOT about how to help build just such a community and will have a lot more to say about this in the coming few months. We need it now more than ever before.

For now, I know the Comments field is not the most robust forum but it’s here so we might as well use it.

Share your advice below. And as always, thank you for leading.