Five Lessons Nonprofits Can Learn from MLK' Last Campaign
This week, marks the celebration of the life and impact of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. While much attention deservedly goes to 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, Dr. King’s most ensuring impact on the nonprofit sector may be the Poor People’s Campaign.
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last campaign was the Poor People’s Campaign. This last work brought together a diverse coalition to demand economic and human rights for impoverished Americans. The central theme of the campaign is perhaps best explained in a speech entitled “The Other America,” where Dr. King explained that our country was divided beyond race; the United States was also divided by economic status and mobility.
“… there are literally two Americas. Every city in our country has this
kind of dualism, this schizophrenia, split at so many parts, and so
every city ends up being two cities rather than one.”
“The Other America” delivered by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
at Grosse Pointe High School – March 14, 1968
In “Other America” Dr. King described an America that was beautiful and one that was ugly. One overflowing with prosperity, equality and opportunity while the other America was overrun with lack, infestation and despair. His words remain prescient today as America’s nonprofit sector continues to advance his legacy of equality for all regardless of race, creed, or class.
Dr. King’s legacy continues to fuel America’s nonprofit sector. From basic human needs to civil rights to education reform and social justice – nonprofits have taken up the charge to research, resolve and implement meaningful change.
Reflecting on Dr. King’s systematic approach, nonprofit organizations can glean timeless strategies to sustain a movement despite a polarized political climate and ongoing disregard of marginalized communities.
1. Determine your differentiator. There is no shortage of nonprofit organizations making big claims, promises and remedies to combat societal ills. Realizing poverty has been a systematic issue for ages, what made Dr. King’s Poor People Campaign uniquely positioned to provide reform? Could it have been the campaign brought a human and global voice during a wave of automation or was it the message of nonviolent action in an era of warfare?
Dr. King’s Poor People Campaign was not as well received as some of his previous campaigns. In fact, some of his former partners wrote him off as missing a step. That said, the campaign was recently reestablished by the Rev. William Barber and a coalition of tens of thousands of activists and supporting organizations. Despite the mixed reception in the 1960s, Dr. King’s Poor People Campaign never wavered from its central values and thus it became a movement that outlasted a single era.
If there were only one list that your organization could be number one on, what would it be? What would your most loyal stakeholders or the community say it would be? How is the population you serve different? How is your approach transformational?
If it were not a competition to illustrate how many more people you serve, or how much more diverse your staff is – why would an investment to your work be warranted or important? Reframe the work so the focus is not how your organization is better, but instead demonstrates how your community will be better.
2. Implement the promise. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his last Sunday sermon said, “We are coming to ask America to be true to the huge promissory note that is signed years ago. And we are coming to engage in dramatic non-violent action, to call attention to the gulf between promise and fulfillment; to make the invisible visible.”Philanthropists are looking to make big bets on innovative, nimble and transformative projects. The weight of your organization’s worth must be grounded in the community and not the name recognition or reputation of the founder, executive director, board chair and past achievements.
Realize the dream and avoid the gulf between promise and fulfillment. Give the time and space for the important, non-urgent work - the research, the strategy, the visioning – that will provide the foundation to guide implementation that reflects the nuanced values and needs of the community you serve.
3. Call meaningful attention. As nonprofits we carry the mission, but how can we carry it to the masses? Though social media is widely successful in informing a large scale audience about your impact, it should not be your only communications strategy – especially when the executive director or organization itself is the only one recounting its good work.Your thought leadership should not be a jerk reaction to your followers’ applause or disdain. Your ideology is not a retweet. Come from out of the groupthink and the farce our culture has come to call reality.
Instead of living solely online, once you build meaningful relationships and innovative programs, others will be proud to showcase your organization as a grantee or to collaborate with you. Remember collegial relationships with others in the sector are part of a long-game strategy.
4. Pursue philanthropy of network. Dr. King said, “Now whenever anything new comes into history it brings with it new challenges … and new opportunities … We are coming to Washington in a poor people’s campaign. Yes, we are going to bring the tired, the poor, the huddled masses … We are coming to demand that the government address itself to the problem of poverty.”
As we carry the ideology of equality and political and social reform, let’s remember the importance organizing, cooperating and strategically aligning beyond silos. If you want to connect with a foundation that does not solicit proposals, connect with its grantee organizations. Not only will you get the eye of a new group of prospective funders, you will get the strength that comes with a collaborative effort.
Instead of shopping your project to the highest bidder, volunteer with another organization. This will give you an opportunity to pilot a new approach, meet new people, and have a different vantage point.
Also consider members of your Board or staff as a speaker’s bureau and actively pursue keynote, panelist and other speaking opportunities.
Create MOUs that incentivize cooperation. Replicate a vendor model where funders invest to have you carry out a service not only for the community, but also for their other grantees.
5. Reinvest. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s theory of the Other America offers principles important to the nonprofit sector across its lines of business. Oftentimes in governance, staffing, professional development and resourcing, nonprofits forgo reinvestment.
A lack of investment in capacity building and organizational development often reflect a gap in operationalizing core values. Instead of waiting to reinvest, strive to align the way the Board leads, the staff is valued, education is advocated, technology is provided with the compassion and goodwill your organization espouses.
Remember, the Poor People’s Campaign started on the basis of underemployment, employee rights, skills development and basic human needs. As beneficiaries of this legacy, the nonprofit sector has a responsibility to treat its constituents fairly.
Cultivating talent and leadership is critical to efficiency, effectiveness, organizational stability and sustainability. Scale the work as you scale the staff. Teach the ones that want to learn. Mentor the ones that need a more expansive worldview. Encourage lunch breaks, flexible work schedules and opportunities to learn different sides of the business.
Carry Dr. King's legacy forward. Give breath to your founders' vision. Be inspired to re-imagine the work.
Kaylan Somerville and Leigh Crenshaw-Player