How to Lead in Uncertain Times

by Joan Garry

The nonprofit sector has such a critical role to play in lifting us all up in times of uncertainty. And that has ZERO to do with who is in the White House.

The word I hear lately more than any other is uncertainty.

Here in the US, every four years on January 20 there is a change of power. It comes with the awesome privilege of being part of this great democratic experiment called the United States of America.

In my lifetime as a voter, there have been plenty of times when the guy I voted for lost. In fact, that’s probably more the rule than the exception. And no, I didn’t vote for the man being inaugurated this week.

But this feels different. I am anxious in a way I never have been before. More uncertain. Less because of the “who” as much as the “how” and what all of it says about the world we live in.

In this, I know I am not alone. Not at my kitchen table. Not in my neighborhood and certainly not among nonprofit leaders I connect with every day.

And the anxiety isn’t just coming from those who didn’t vote for him. I know Republicans who feel uncertain as well. Sure, they voted for our new President. But they’re not entirely sure what to expect going forward.

There’s a lot we all just don’t know yet.

But this blog isn’t about politics. It’s about nonprofit leadership. And that’s what I want to discuss today – how nonprofits are navigating a world turned upside down.

I have questions. I know a lot of you have questions.

– Has there already been an impact on the way nonprofits are doing things?

– How are nonprofit leaders approaching the uncertainty strategically?

– What’s the best way for nonprofit leaders to lead those in their organizations that are feeling particularly anxious or vulnerable?

I asked some folks in the trenches – five wonderful and diverse nonprofit leaders across sectors – to share their thoughts about how they are approaching the uncertainty in their organization and to offer a piece of advice on how to contend with the unchartered waters ahead.

One important note. The uncertainty does not rest solely in what would be called “progressive” or “liberal” organizations. And the list below is hardly representative. I do hope that folks of all ideological stripes will weigh in with comments.

My “panel” today is comprised of these five wonderful nonprofit leaders:

A big thank you to each of you!

Here’s what I asked them…


“We are deeply concerned, especially about the impact of folks living with HIV on the repeal of the Affordable Care Act… One staff member told me, ‘My soul hurts.’ I am reminding people that we chose this work because we are fighters.“

“Our team is motivated and we feel prepared and ready. This moment feels very pregnant since everything is all so theoretical and not yet real.”

“As a performing arts organization, the magnetism of political polarization can distract from our core mission. The Arts take on a renewed urgency in an atmosphere of division and distrust. The work of orchestras tangibly demonstrates the power of unity as we reach for something greater than ourselves.”

“Staff is responding differently. Some struggling, but many are jumping into a new state of concentration, looking for new opportunities as well as focusing on how to preserve gains.

“The uncertainty has galvanized us. My staff is inspiring me!”

Summary: Renewed focus, a sense of urgency, deep concern


“Fostering non-politicized spaces for interaction is an act of radical service to society right now. I am reminding our musicians and as many people as I can that we have a shared purpose to meet the human need for beauty with music.”

“We are consulting with allies at other nonprofits – trading ideas, strategies, and suggestions. We are focusing on sharing approaches with friends and colleagues.”

“As an organization, we are turning to history, reaching back to challenging and uncertain times we have faced to remind all of us that we have been here before – and triumphed.”

“We are participating in conversations – as many as we can – to learn as much as we can about what could happen. We are working hard not to be reactive (and not to overreact) but to be strategic. We have a strong strategic plan and now more than ever, it needs to be a living and breathing document – if we have to shift, we will. Our goal is to work to anticipate and get out in front.”

“We raise money to help young girls internationally and so we are looking to partner with US based organizations to raise awareness of the work.

Summary: Build partnerships, create bridges, find ways to engage outside of politics, look to the past for inspiration


“As a leader, ask yourself how you can lend your voice to creating a shared global movement? Focus on your voice and your messaging. People are listening.”

“Tap into the fierce passion about your mission. Keep your eyes open as you may be forced to make rapid decisions in a setting in which there is so much we do not know. Be alert, nimble, act with urgency and be fierce!”

“Keep your board in the loop – the good, the bad, the ugly and share what you are uncertain about – be authentic and offer them the opportunity to support and partner with you.”

“Be patient. Have we not learned that government moves slowly? Many changes may be 12 – 18 months down the road. We may have more time than we think (or feel).”

“Stick to your core. When you are not sure what to do, make sure that everything you do comes from your mission. Collaborate with others, reach beyond yourself, and do this with total clarity about what you do, whom you serve and why it all matters.”

“How can you be a leader in these times? Not just in your organization. You have a unique role in your organization, your sector, your community, your state, your neighborhood. People respect you, admire you and look to you as models. Use your platform to engage people in real conversation about what really matters.”

“Remember that regardless of what you do and the anxiety you may feel, your work elevates society in deep and profound ways.”

Summary: It’s hard to miss the theme. Focus on your mission. Don’t let yourself get distracted. Be agile. Communicate well. Partner and collaborate.


The nonprofit sector has such a critical role to play in lifting us all up in times of uncertainty. And that has ZERO to do with who you voted for, who is in the White House, and it’s true regardless of the mission of your organization.

At times of uncertainty, people look to the voices of the leaders around them – not just to assure them but also to engage them.

You know how folks say that going to the gym and working out can reduce stress? If you’re not actively engaged right now, maybe it’s time to think about volunteering and moving from the stands onto the field. The nonprofit sector needs you. And maybe – just maybe – you need them.

I am reading a terrific book and I highly recommend it. Particularly now. It’s called Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, by Tim Harford.

Not coincidentally, Tim will be a guest on an upcoming podcast. He and I both use the word “messy” in a factual and not in a pejorative way. In fact, my podcast is actually called Nonprofits Are Messy.


Parisa Parsa is from a small and mighty organization called Essential Partners, which is advancing the work of the Public Conversations Project by fostering dialogue across divides.

Parisa and I spoke recently for the podcast about what we can do at our kitchen tables, in our classrooms, in our houses of worship to help reduce polarization. Solving conflicts feels so very hard. And maybe our society is too raw.

I told her I was hearing folks use metaphors like “battle plan” and “crisis management.” But maybe we should just begin by learning to talk to one another. To have difficult conversations with those who have different (or diametrically opposed) points of view on issues that matter to you.

One thing Parisa told me is that the image to keep in mind is The Karate Kid.

Focus, balance, power.

I found our conversation both inspiring and therapeutic. I felt a lot better. If you haven’t already, you can click this link to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Android, Google Play, and other platforms. The episode will be available on January 21.

Hope you will join us.


One of the common threads from my panel of nonprofit leaders above was just how important it is to reach out to each other. To partner. To become part of a community of leaders.

I’ve been thinking a LOT about how to help build just such a community and will have a lot more to say about this in the coming few months. We need it now more than ever before.

For now, I know the Comments field is not the most robust forum but it’s here so we might as well use it.

Share your advice below. And as always, thank you for leading.

12 thoughts on “How to Lead in Uncertain Times”

  1. Thank you, Joan. My stomach has been in knots since election day, and as you so rightly say it is the uncertainty of what is to come that produces this kind of anxiety. We just have to keep reminding ourselves that what we do does make a difference.

  2. I can breathe since this election! Darkness has covered the United States of America for the last 8 years with the Divider in office. The incoming President is a business man and with that knowledge, I’m hopeful that the deficit will decrease so our children can have a promise of tomorrow. I think his policies will make America a much better place to work economically!!!

  3. Shelley. I work hard to ensure that my advice is of value to all nonprofit leaders and is apolitical. Your comment illustrates that the effort is paying off. That said, regardless, your organization has lots to do to be effective enough to take advantage of new opportunities that may come your way! Thanks for your comment.

  4. I don’t believe I have ever in my almost 70 years of existence and 50 years of working with and and for people on the margins, been as filled with dread as I am right now! I fear for the homeless families I serve and I fear for my grandchildren. Will they get the healthcare and education they need and deserve? I am not a fearful nor negative person, so I have resolved to get involved. I will be part of the 4,000+ that will be marching at our state capitol in Montana on Saturday and I will be praying for our nation and its leaders.

  5. And thank you, Joan for your always uplifting and thought-provoking articles! You are my favorite blogger!

  6. Thank you for this thoughtful post, the themes from your panel are great. Working in the field of domestic violence and sexual assault, our organization and many of our supporters feel tremendous anxiety in this transition. Personally, the election of President-elect Trump made the world feel like a very unsafe place me as well as for those that we serve. However, as the days have passed and the initial panic has subsided, I see the possibility in this transition to let the difficult discussions around gender, race, poverty (and a multitude of other social issues) come to the surface for a new level of dialog. I’ve come to recognize that some of the “security” I felt, may have been superficial — window dressing and political correctness — and I’m encouraged by movements across the nation that are moving people from complacency to action. I’m beginning to see the potential for change that is progressive, not a set back; and more importantly there is an urgency to bring it to fruition. That is the energy we are attempting to channel.

  7. I cannot breathe since this election! New darkness will cover the United States of America for the next four years unless the issues that Sharon, Allison, and millions who will be affected by gruesome budget cuts and healthcare eliminations are dealt with in an equitable and humane way. Moreover, until we say NO to the negative values that this new administration has displayed toward women, diversity, and the very principles of our constitution, this country will NEVER be great, let alone again.

  8. So, I received an email earlier. “Emails like this is what cause uncertainty. I don’t feel uncertain at all. I feel more certain and can’t wait for this new President!” I felt a need to respond as there may be others who feel the same way. I believe I am always conscious of the diversity of viewpoints and ideological positions of my nonprofit leader readers. I think it is hard to disagree that regardless of ideology, a change in the White House always creates uncertainty for nonprofits and how a new government may alter priorities -either by virtue of the use of legislation or the use of the simple bully pulpit.

  9. Thank you for responding. This is a difficult topic to navigate even when you attempt to walk a thin line. Which is even more important for nonprofit leaders to remember — while my clients feel vulnerable, I have many conservative donors who are celebrating and I can’t continue to serve if I alienate my donor base — as we try to formulate communication. @blawton is right… pay close attention to what your constituents are thinking and saying (and seek to clarify… don’t assume to know what people mean).

  10. Joan,
    While I agree with the sentiment of your post, I feel that we must change the way we do business now. This is indeed a new day for our globe. The United States, as a leader in world events, has the power to dramatically,and traumatically, effect the lives of millions. Not just in our country. There have already been clear indications that this new administration is positioning itself as a kleptocracy. Having lived through one already and its subsequent overthrow, we cannot afford the luxury of doing “business as usual”. As non-profit leaders we specialize in mediation; walking the fine line between mission fulfillment and filling the coffers to pay for that mission. But there comes a time, and I think we are here now, when we must stand up and actively be counted. We must be intentional every day about this decision as it is a very easy and slippery slope to the wrong side of history, as was witnessed by the ACLU’s backing away from fighting against Japanese Internment camps during WWII. We must strike a balance between resistance for a reason and passivity for organizational preservation. Throughout history, times of extremism bring out our best selves and our worst selves. We are in that time now and I hope that those of us in the non-profit sector will work diligently to move our country and ourselves to bring out our best selves.

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