This post originally appeared on Third Sector Today, following the death of Nelson Mandela. Third Sector Today has since merged with TopNonprofits.
His was indeed an inspiring life. But Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) is the first to tell us that if we are to change our world, actions speak. We know action is what the nonprofit sector is all about. The organizations in which we work and volunteer would not exist if someone had not taken the action of founding an entity that began with a cause.
While our circumstances may pale compared to Apartheid, can we possibly distill and apply just some of the South African leader’s example in our life’s work and path? It seems like an appropriate time as we remember his remarkable life to take a breath and try. Who knows better than those working in the nonprofit sector that little steps start big movements.
Mandela’s courage was remarkable under extraordinary circumstances and decades of imprisonment. We hope not to be so tested—but you never know. On a routine basis, if you are leading a movement, raising funds, or writing about a cause, it’s still about getting out of the box, physically and mentally. Mandela stressed the importance of removing one’s mindset from the prison setting. Is your office setting hampering you? Get out from behind your desk. Leave physically if you must—to think, to recharge. Visit the locations where your mission is implemented in real time and perhaps work with your volunteers for an hour. Talk to those you serve. Emulate little actions that reflect your mission every day. Get to the core of you mission; that’s the heart of the courage that started it all.
Take time to think. And read. Mandela spent 27 years in prison. He credited that imposed “time” with providing him room to learn and to better understand others’ perspectives. Some time management lesson, right? Need more time? Learn to read faster; speed reading should not be underrated.
“Anyone can shake hands,” writes Tom Cohen, CNN Digital writer who covered Mandel and South Africa, 1990-98. Easy, but perhaps much harder work under Mandela’s circumstances. He was even known for saying he wanted to put the audience in his pocket and take them with him. Cohen recounts, personally, the power of Mandela’s handshake, determination, and, yes, sense of humor in his story, a powerful first-hand account of the leader’s style.
“Shakespeare’s Complete Works”—popularly known as “The Robben Island Shakespeare” was shared by 34 prisoners held with Mandela off of Cape Town. Mandela spent 18 years there, during which the volume was secretly passed around with the invitation for prisoners to note passages of meaning.
Shakespeare expert Sylvia Morris observes in her The Shakespeare Blog that “The impact of this remarkable book has been extraordinary and I’ve been interested to see how many people have, over the past 12 hours [since Mandela’s passing was announced], quoted the lines from Julius Caesar highlighted by Mandela in it [in 1977]”:
Cowards die many times before their deaths:
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.
–Julius Caesar, Act II, sc. ii
Your mantra may be Shakespeare or Twain on your screensaver, Gandhi or King on your mobile phone, John Stewart or Oprah on your mouse pad. Place something that’s in your heart before your eyes.
Visually, what could be better than this New York Times portfolio of poster chronology of Mandela’s struggle?
While Mandela had stern and serious intent, his smile captivated those who only ever saw a photograph of him. Does our mission make us smile? Remember that a furrowed brow sends a much different message than a smile. No one will think you are working fewer hours when you share a smile.
Ghazal Omid is executive director of a Washington, DC-based nonprofit with a timely and challenging mission. Iran and Its Future is an NGO and IRS-registered organization aiming to provide positive images of the people and places of Iran to balance ongoing political and international relations coverage. Her determined approach includes sharing beautiful images of individuals and locations that tell many aspects of Iran’s multi-cultural story.
“Learn from his example and make a difference,” Omid says of Mandela on LinkedIn. “That is what he tried to tell us with his actions.”
No one ever said working for a cause would be easy. It may be easier if we stop to recall an imprisoned leader who even found a way to put a positive spin on being in jail.