Over the past week several charities called off fundraising events at the President’s Florida estate over concerns about his response to the recent violence in Charlottesville. Some expressed concern that the locale would create distraction and controversy. There is a real logic in this rationale, as in the lives of nonprofits few pursuits are more delicate than asking people for money.
Others took a bolder stance, claiming that holding an event at Mar-a-Lago would be at odds with their mission. In explaining its decision, the American Red Cross proclaimed, “we must be clear and unequivocal in defense of [our principles].” Nancy G. Brinker, founder of Susan G. Komen, was even more direct, saying “There are no excuses, parsing or moral relativism when it comes to racism, bigotry and violence.”
There are risks to any public-facing decision, especially for large and visible nonprofits like the Red Cross, Komen, and the American Cancer Society, which took a similar tack. Backlash can be swift and vicious: there is already a campaign to boycott companies that withdrew from the President’s business advisory councils last week on similar grounds. Behind even the clearest and boldest statement lies plenty of deliberation, however vast the swell of public support.
There are times when an organization’s mission—especially its commitment to it—is publicly tested. Relief groups during natural disasters are one obvious example. At these moments, organizations we ordinarily may not think of every day are thrust into the glare of public attention and scrutiny.
Reverberations from Charlottesville provide a particularly interesting public test because the organizations speaking up are interpreting their missions in broad, humanistic terms—in the spirit of their programmatic work, but reaching well beyond it. Charlottesville had nothing directly to do with breast cancer or disaster relief, but the leaders of those organizations saw a deeper, urgent relevance, rooted in ethics and morality. No doubt they also had their donors in mind.
Mission and vision statements, however aspirational and enshrined, are no more than strings of words assembled by people. They are crafted with care and precision, with the intent to focus and inspire an organization. But to be effective, the people of the organization must put the mission and vision to work every day. And continuously interpret them with candor and vigilance, with an appreciation of an organization’s broader role and responsibility in the world.