There’s an important lesson to glean from the Komen Foundation-Planned Parenthood debacle—one that no one is reporting but that we all need to learn.

Writers continue to derive obvious PR lessons for nonprofits from this debacle: “don’t lie about why you are doing something” and “have a consistent story” are just a few. What they are not talking about is diversity.

Diversity is a much discussed issue in the field of social entrepreneurship—we talk about breaking down gender and race barriers or point out that too many leaders come from upper-class backgrounds. A more dangerous diversity issue is one that no one talks about because it is so taboo: ideological diversity.

In a country polarized by political and ideological partisanship, social change organizations have too often joined one side or the other, and in doing so, they’ve missed their opportunity to be transformational forces.

Recently, an education social entrepreneur asked me to help spearhead her organization's diversity efforts by interviewing some diversity trainers—these are people devoted entirely to helping organizations embrace diversity of all types, both internally and externally. In one interview, I explained to the leader of a top diversity organization that to accomplish the goal of education reform, we needed to convince conservative Republicans about the importance of our work. I asked him how his company would help us build a more ideologically diverse team and navigate partisan issues, bridging the ideology gap.

He seemed flustered by the question and snapped, “We would not train you to convince Republicans. We would train you to speak truth to power. We would train you to fight for what you believe in. Diversity training has nothing to do with selling out your principles.”

This was a leading diversity trainer, and his strategy for approaching diverse political ideologies was to fight them and win. He viewed working with diverse opinions as selling out.

American public policy life today is an ideological trench warfare that poses possibly the greatest threat to the nation’s well being. Instead of bridging that gap, the vast majority of social change leaders have settled into the comfortable role of righteous indignation: my views are good, theirs are evil, let’s fight.

Family planning, LGBT, and environment groups have given up their earlier strategies of working across ideologies to achieve their goal by aligning to the left. Faith-based groups—demonstrated by the Catholic Bishop’s announcements this week—are giving up their long-held ability to impact people of many different faiths and philosophies by lining up with the right.

The social sector is becoming as polarized as our political sector, and the losers are those we aim to serve.

There are strategies for crossing the ideological chasm and for translating the work of your cause to both sides while maintaining your integrity and the truth. In the early ‘90s, as head of adolescent health in Massachusetts, I was tasked with supporting and developing school-based health clinics and introducing a condom availability campaign to high schools. I learned the power of engagement across ideologies from a Republican governor and our head of Public Health, who was a former Catholic priest. Both of them traveled from town hall to town hall to explain to concerned parents that our school-based health centers were not abortion clinics and that condom availability did not mean encouraging teenage sexual activity.

Both of these initiatives eventually scaled throughout the state, leading the nation. Why? Because we listened to our opposition and respected their perspective as we explained ours. We could have accomplished our goal through political mandate, but by respectfully engaging all parties in dialogue, we created sustainable change around very controversial issues.

Understanding is not agreement. Gaining understanding, tapping into empathy, and seeing and respecting opposing positions are critical to effective leadership. As social change goes global, the degree to which leaders respect and gain respect from individuals and groups with diverse ideologies will be the fundamental measure of their ability to create sustainable change.

Until social change leaders really understand the depth of ideological diversity and the hold it has on our culture, our causes will rise and fall on the political wins or losses of those with whom we agree.

Read more stories by Rich Tafel.

Tracker Pixel for Entry