How Nonprofits Can Carry Dr. King’s Vision Forward

Much has changed since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his powerful “I Have a Dream” speech from the Lincoln Memorial steps during the March on Washington in 1963. And yet it’s clear that we still have far to go to ensure fairness and inclusion for people of all races, genders, and nationalities.

Dr. King’s words ring particularly true today, as we become increasingly polarized in the United States and around the world. Making sense of it all can feel overwhelming while at the same time, in the nonprofit space, we’re intensely focused on making a difference in our communities, perhaps without realizing who we’re leaving out of the process.

The federal holiday commemorating Dr. King has taken place on the third Monday of every January since President Ronald Reagan signed it into law in 1983. This year, the day lands on his birthday: January 15. How can we in the nonprofit community honor Dr. King’s legacy?

First, set aside whatever you’re doing and take time to listen to Dr. King inspire the 250,000 civil rights marchers assembled on the Washington Mall. Focus on his words. Notice the impassioned responses from the crowd. Be present and open to Dr. King’s call for racial, economic, and social justice. Consider how his words are as relevant and necessary today as they were nearly 55 years ago.

Reflect on Dr. King’s message and how it resonates with your nonprofit’s mission, the community you serve, and the people who make it all happen. Look around at your staff, your core volunteers, and your board. It’s remarkable how much they accomplish day in and day out.

Ask yourself: Is anyone missing? Who else could we include?

We tend to gravitate to people we know or who seem familiar, which often results in a uniform group of friends, co-workers, and entire communities, creating an echo chamber of thoughts and ideas. In a nonprofit, lack of diversity can stand in the way of positive change, effective fundraising, and outreach, even the sustainability of the overall organization.

Doing good work is a lot easier when you have input from people from all walks of life. A diverse team speaks from different experiences and worldviews. Diversity means having a variety of resources to pull from and fresh ideas that advance your cause faster and more effectively than if everyone’s coming from the same place.

Moving into 2018 and beyond, resolve to widen your organization’s human scope. What are the gaps in your board, for example? Set a goal for inclusion and recruit new board members accordingly. When Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took office, he deliberately made his cabinet 50% women and 50% men to better reflect the nation’s people. That’s a start.

Do your staff and volunteers reflect the community your organization serves? Reach out in new places to engage people who are underrepresented. Expand your outreach to civic clubs and community centers, schools, and churches, even social gatherings like neighborhood block parties. Create volunteer opportunities that reach deeper into your town or city. Find out what’s preventing people from getting involved—scheduling, transportation, child care—and then find solutions to make it easier.

Change won’t happen overnight, but ensuring that everyone has a seat at the table and an equal voice in the conversation honors Dr. King’s vision and builds a future where we are all stronger together.

“Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a better person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.” —Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., March for Integrated Schools, April 18, 1959

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