To survive, nonprofit organizations must devote much of their time and effort to raising money and increasing their visibility.
Michael F. Suarez, director of the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia, on Tuesday reminded an audience of nonprofit executives, board members and philanthropists that they must not lose sight of their missions and the people they serve.
“Do we have great dreams and aspirations, or are we tied to business as usual — simply because it keeps our donor base happy?” Suarez said. “To do business as usual is to abdicate the responsibility that these times force upon us now.”
Suarez was the keynote speaker at the 10th annual Philanthropy Day Luncheon, a fundraising event of the Center for Nonprofit Excellence. The CNE seeks to educate and strengthen local nonprofits with workshops, networking opportunities and other resources.
“Philanthropy Day is a chance for us to recharge our batteries in the ongoing effort to make this community as resilient and compassionate as possible,” said Kakie Brooks, CNE board chairwoman.
Suarez, a professor in UVa’s Department of English, was appointed to the National Council on the Humanities by then-President Barack Obama in 2015. As a Jesuit priest, Suarez has served as a prison chaplain at Rikers Island Prison Complex in New York and worked in a home for unwed teenage mothers in the Bronx.
Suarez said nonprofit leaders can craft better strategies for their organizations by practicing discernment — “determining what the greatest good is, and how we can arrive at it in partnership with the people we serve.”
Suarez said the viral social media hashtag #MeToo — a platform for women to share their experiences with sexual assault and harassment — illustrates a profound need for people to tell their stories and feel that they have been heard.
“If our philanthropy is primarily top-down, I don’t know how we can attend to the hurt of the world in all of its forms,” he said.
Suarez said “resume virtues” of accomplishment and success were less important than “eulogy virtues” — kindness, loyalty and other qualities for which people like to be remembered.
“Leadership isn’t just about how effective or efficient we are,” he said. “In the end, leadership is about who we are as persons.”
Suarez acknowledged that all nonprofits must balance noble intentions with pragmatism; he said he devotes most of his working hours as director of the Rare Book School to fundraising and mundane management tasks.
“This is not a free pass to get touchy-feely and not balance the books,” he said. “But we in Charlottesville are uniquely privileged. There is much social capital here, and there is really good financial capital here, too. You need to have both to make the nonprofit thing work.”
Cristine Nardi, executive director of the CNE, said the center’s membership of 250-plus organizations in Central Virginia has been galvanized by the violent Unite the Right rally and related racial strife in Charlottesville.
“All of our nonprofits have doubled down since the summer,” Nardi said. “There is still much to be done to make Charlottesville a place with opportunity for all.”
Attendees of the sold-out luncheon, held at the Boar’s Head Inn, received a postcard with the blue “C’ville” heart designed by Rock Paper Scissors after Aug. 12. They also received a handwritten message of encouragement to pass on to local youth as part of the #DearYoungPerson postcard campaign.