Choosing Sides: How Nonprofits can Play a role in Re-uniting a Divided Country.

Nonprofit and Social Enterprise champions are bastions for peace, justice, and global prosperity, and we have an amazing opportunity. Here’s how.

This article was written by featured writer Amber Smith.

Years ago, I sat in an international development class in college on the edge of my seat. The class had been divided into two groups and asked to identify our stance on a policy issue. Then, the professor pulled the ole’ bait and switch, assigning us to debate the opposing side’s viewpoint. It was a challenging and exhilarating exercise. Both sides were forced to consider the moral, ethical, and practical, and even emotional reasoning of the other. In the end, it’s possible nobody changed their mind from their original view. But both sides shared a respectful nod and — more importantly — a clear understanding of how we could work together to accomplish goals we both shared in ways that would be satisfactory to all of us. We could move forward. We could take action — respectfully, productively.

I felt like I’d been handed a critical tool. My mind was opened up to a new tool I could employ to tackle big, complex social issues. What most excited me was the prospect of helping eliminate a social problem at its root — ending hunger and homelessness. Creating a world without human trafficking. Finding a cure for cancer. The big stuff. But none of these problems are simple.

They involve a myriad of systems and tangled up institutions and conflicting parties. To dig in and even try to solve any one of these problems is going to take a huge effort, with a first step of understanding what is holding people back from forward-moving action.

Before I go any further, it’s important for me to state that not all opposing viewpoints deserve credit. Genocide is cut-and-dry evil. There are no ‘merits’ to slavery and oppression. What I do believe is that understanding how humanity arrives at a place where those things become acceptable is critical so we can watch for the signs and take action to stop them.

Nonprofit and Social Enterprise champions are bastions for peace, justice, and global prosperity, and we have an amazing opportunity here: We can use the unique skills we’ve had to learn to tackle these problems — understanding who our stakeholders are, gathering feedback, hearing and moderating the cases made by different sides — and play a role in bringing the pieces of a divided country together. Here are four ways how:

1. Remind us all what we have in common as humans.

Human beings are emotional creatures by nature. It can be difficult to think about giving even a moment of airtime to a group advocating a side of an argument you can’t fathom. But Nonprofit warriors and Social Entrepreneurs are uniquely positioned as leaders in addressing big issues. We are often seen as truth-seeking, data-loving pioneers whose first love and first duty is solving the problem. That means we can lead here.

Division festers when we dehumanize ‘the other’. A first step Social Impact Sector folks can take to unite people is to remind them what we all share as humans.

Imagine you invite two people on opposite sides of an issue to meet you in the same room, face to face. Then, you ask them to raise their hand if they think all children deserve safe, happy homes. When they both inevitably raise their hands — I’d like to believe that the likelihood that anybody would disagree with that sentiment is slim — ask them to look each other in the eye and acknowledge their shared belief. Now, hopefully, the real conversation can begin.

Everybody generally agrees that children are owed lives without abuse, hunger, and harm. Everybody needs to eat. Everybody needs clean air to breathe. We simply tend to disagree on how to best reach these results — but that’s where conversation comes in, once the door has been opened to see one another as people like us. These human needs are at the core of issues Nonprofits and Social Enterprises are tackling every day. These human needs are so basic, so essential, that they represent a starting point of discussion for people on all sides.

How can we in the Sector help humanize humans in our own communities? Select volunteers and supporters doing amazing things for your cause but who are very different from one another, and showcase them together. Invite those often considered ‘victims’ of a social problem to the table as equals to be a part of solving the problem alongside these other supporters. And, if possible, be conveners: Host community conversations where you explicitly reach out to invite folks with diverse views.

2. Learn from those who have been at it awhile.

Many of us in these roles have learned skills like identifying stakeholders and navigating the waters of opposing viewpoints. But we can take these skills a step further and apply them to other layers of our work by learning from the pros. There is some amazing work being done by organizations who have taken up the mantle of community dialogues.

We all have plenty on our plates, and there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. What skills can we build on by learning from these seasoned pros? What training strategies that promote harmony and conflict resolution can we integrate into our work on other issues? What tactics to inspire action can we utilize?

3. Bring opposites together to act on something they can agree on.

My personal area of Nonprofit work is volunteerism and community engagement. We are not aligned with any political side; in fact, as a policy, we don’t engage in any campaigning or lobbying. Our mission is to inspire locals — of any background or belief — to get involved and volunteer to help area causes. Many folks who come to volunteer with us become acquaintances or even friends of mine, and reach out to connect on social media. Those social media connections are how I know that folks within the network of my organization have different — often very different — political and religious beliefs.

Still, they continue to volunteer together. I see photos of them with their arms slung around each others’ shoulders in camaraderie regularly. Whether they are ignorant to each others’ views or simply don’t care about them, I couldn’t say. The point is, service for a cause has brought them together. By coming together and painting a school’s hallways, packaging food for families in need, or serving dinner at the men’s shelter down the street, they are seeing the good in one another, despite other disagreements. Because of that, they’d be able to take a step further to have more complicated conversations, civilly disagree if needed, and, I’d like to think, come to some fair conclusion on how to tackle a problem.

4. Continue to seek out and highlight the truth.

In a world where distrust abounds, we aren’t guaranteed to keep our status as neutral leaders and experts in issues. We have to work to maintain and build up public trust, then use that trust to unify people around issues and around each other. To do that, we have to remain truth-seekers.

We want to move the needle. Sometimes, that means finding out something we thought we knew before, or something we built a project or program around, is wrong. It sucks, but similarly to more traditionally scientific fields, it’s the nature of the work. When it happens, we have a responsibility to put that truth forward and form new strategies around it. Showing that our only bias is towards the truth and how it can help solve the world’s problems will, in time, earn the respect of skeptics and rally folks from all viewpoints to our side.