5 Things Seasoned Nonprofit Pros can learn from the #NeverAgain movement

Article written by our featured writer Amber Smith.

I remember what it was like to be a young starter. I remember what it felt like to not get a call back from CEOs or community leaders, or to be told that my interest in my cause would fade over time because “it was a phase”; because “I was young”. But I was patient, and over several years, I built up vital skills in organizing and communicating. I met goals and set bigger ones, and eventually earned the respect of others. I learned that passion paired with persistence wins out. Eventually, you draw supporters to your side.

Now, I am watching as a group of teens learn and do in weeks the things that took me years to figure out. Observing with curiosity and awe, I’m reminded that we always have something to learn from the generation after our own.

Those of us who have spent years or even decades in the world of nonprofits and activism would be wise to take heed. Through trials and triumphs, it can feel like we’ve learned all we can from others; that our battle scars are proof that we are now wise. But the world is changing everyday. Those who commit to learning from those after us as well as those before us will be agile enough to succeed as tides turn.

As I’ve watched these kids step up to the plate, I’ve noticed five lessons in particular that I believe can benefit my professional peers in the nonprofit world:

Lesson 1: Listen and learn

A refreshing observation I’ve made of the Parkland teens is that they are not pretending they know everything. They have called all sides to the table to urge a conversation. The gun control debate is not new, but it is persistently and highly politically charged. At its core, on both sides of the argument, is fear; fear of losing rights, fear of lacking safety, fear all around. In an age where arguing on social media has turned us into angry antagonists, these teens remind us that inviting and welcoming everyone to the table, face to face, forces everyone to pay attention. They’ve reminded us that to solve a problem, you first have to shed your assumptions, start with the foundation that we’re all human and care ultimately about the same things (being safe, having rights, being alive), and listen.

Lesson 2: Identify your stakeholders

The Parkland teens figured out who their stakeholders are, lightning fast. They acknowledged right away that their fellow students weren’t the only ones with something to say, and expertly identified the players — parents, teachers, the NRA, politicians, entire school districts — who could hold any kind of sway in getting them what they needed. Whether you agree with the strategy or intent behind the #BoycottNRA campaign, its understanding of power dynamics is fairly sophisticated. It highlights, in plain terms, for everyday people, the connections between different industries and sectors and the value they each place on money and political capital. When I was their age, I was lobbying my school to let me wear dELiA*s spaghetti strap tank tops (true story).

Lesson 3: Capitalize on your existing strengths

I was intrigued and delighted to learn that those at the forefront of the #NeverAgain movement were drama club kids. They rallied their peers in those circles, identifying what other talents they had to offer their burgeoning movement, from singing to public speaking to social media mastery. Within days of the attack on their school, they were in front of cameras and audiences, appearing poised and comfortable, ready and empowered. While I’m sure preparation was a part of that, so was knowing and being confident in the diverse skills the team already had to bear. Good leaders use what they’re good at, and find others to lift up the team in the areas they as leaders are lacking in.

Lesson 4: Know your vision

Many who enter the world of nonprofits and activism start with an idea for a project or program they want to implement, but this way of thinking is backwards. It assumes that your project or program is what the world needs, skipping over the careful research and analysis required to really know if that’s true. The #NeverAgain team started, instead, with their vision. They could answer with clarity, “What would the world look like tomorrow if you successfully changed it?” And they worked backwards from that: Inviting stakeholders from all sides to the discussion, hearing what they had to say, and fleshing out the changes they would demand from those in charge.

Lesson 5: Do not equivocate

The leaders of the #NeverAgain movement have determined what they wanted, and they are being clear about it. It’s near impossible to get others behind your cause when they aren’t clear what you want. By using clear, succinct, simple and powerful words, the Parkland teens have been able to elevate their message quickly and easily. It may make enemies; that’s inevitable. But itt’s easy to grasp. It’s easy to share. There’s nothing vague about it. They stepped onto the scene with a rare combination of confidence and humility to set the tone, determined what concrete goals they’d aim to accomplish, and figured out quickly how to talk to the general public about it.

As the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have started to make history, some have asked why them, and why now?

What is it about this group of teens that makes this rallying cry for gun control different than those that came before? One theory proposes that the kids of Parkland, Florida have been prepared for this for years through a top notch education, but crucially, one that encourages civil discourse, debate, and study of social issues.

If we want to create generations of passionate, social-issue savvy, articulate people, school seems like a great place to start.