When everything is partisan…remember the mission.
For anyone leading a mission-driven organization or nonprofit, this has been a tricky year. Trying to speak up for the communities that look to us, while avoiding mission creep, has felt like walking through an ideological minefield.
I have the honor to lead a national nonprofit that serves as a megaphone for military families. The Military Family Advisory Network (MFAN) serves two primary, equally important, audiences: military families and those who serve them. We take what we hear from military family members, test it through scientific research, and then we develop collaborative solutions to share with those in leadership roles. Our mission is critical: the strength of military families impacts force retention, force readiness, and ultimately the ability to maintain an all-volunteer force. This drives everything that we do. It requires difficult decisions during these divisive times, including determining who in Washington can help advance our mission.
The leaders we advise in the public and private sectors are entrusted with the health and well-being of the military families we serve—and the needs of military families are diverse. The Armed Forces is a microcosm of our country. Service members and their families represent every background and viewpoint and are diverse in ways that are visible and invisible. It is impossible to fully define our community, much like it is impossible to define all U.S. citizens. Sometimes, it can seem like a love of country is all that they have in common but, miraculously, that’s enough.
As an organization, we are committed to sharing the needs of everyone in the military community, with anyone who is empowered to make military life better.
It is rare for our organization to work with someone in leadership who is embraced by every member of our community, and we never expect to find someone who will invest in policies and decisions that are fully reflective of what we hear from families through our research. That is idealistic, not realistic. We have learned that it is not necessary to be aligned with a leader on every issue to work with that leader on the issues where our passions intersect.
For MFAN, this has meant working with Senator Richard Blumenthal on mental health; Senators Thom Tillis and Mark Warner to address problems in military housing; Senator Kaine on childcare for military families; Senator Patty Murray on military families’ financial health; Second Lady Karen Pence on military spouse employment and entrepreneurship; and Senator Duckworth on military family food insecurity. On each issue, there were members of our community who were disappointed that we chose to work with someone with whom they disagreed. On each issue, however, we were able to improve the lives of thousands of military family members because we recognized where areas of alignment existed. As an organization, MFAN is committed to building bridges, not burning them, and working with those leaders that will best support our mission. We are unapologetic in this approach, because it allows us to do good for those we serve.
Using Data to Find Common Ground
Looking for alignment comes naturally to MFAN because we are a data-focused organization. Our data drive our work, and our findings don’t change based on who we are speaking with. That doesn’t mean that we are going to focus on all data-informed needs with all leaders. Instead, we highlight areas of shared interest and start there—we build a bridge. We take the time to understand the other individual or organization’s focus areas and strategic priorities. Then, we look at where our data and our mission match with their goals, and we tailor our message accordingly. What may resonate with one person may not resonate with someone else, and that’s okay.
Nonprofits segment messages constantly when it comes to fundraising. We learn what makes someone tick, what they are interested in, and that’s where we start. That same segmentation is necessary to move the needle when working with those in positions of power, and it’s necessary for any organization that hopes to tip-toe through the present partisan minefields. Leading with what could cause someone to shut down will close the door on an opportunity to do good.
There isn’t a singular military family experience much like there isn’t a singular champion of military families. So, we build outreach strategies based on what people need, common ground, and shared values. Because MFAN enjoys many relationships with leaders on both sides of the aisle, we know who will champion certain causes and who (for whatever reason) will not. We know there is no silver bullet, and there will never be a single relationship that will address all the areas of need in a community as diverse as ours. We see this as a positive, not a negative, and we see diversity of thought as a strength, not a weakness.
By remaining laser-focused on our mission, we are able to work with everyone who can help us fulfill that mission. That may sound simplistic, but it requires thick skin, especially now. Tensions are high; even toilet paper has been politicized. It is the duty of leaders to maintain focus on the mission. It is my goal as a nonprofit leader to keep my personal politics private. This isn’t about me, it isn’t about politics, it is only—and always—about the mission.