Third Sector Grit

A series on the driving—but often unrecognized—forces behind many nonprofits.

Grit, as defined by Webster’s Dictionary, is a “firmness of mind or spirit, unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger.”  Tales by Robert Louis Stevenson or the movie The Red Balloon were the stories of my childhood that got to the essence of “grit.”  Recent movies like Life Is Beautiful, Shawshank Redemption and Slumdog Millionaire are examples of modern stories that outline that grit is still popular.

The nonprofit sector is great for many reasons, but one of the main reasons for its greatness is what I term “Third Sector Grit,” which lives out every day in the many stories of unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger.  It is a quality that is abundant but at times minimized in the face of “innovation.”  Third Sector Grit is most times not the stories of the sector’s executive leaders; more often it refers to those community champions in each nonprofit who do not have the larger titles but without whom the organization could not move forward.  I would venture to say that the definition of Third Sector Grit are the individuals and stories in each nonprofit that showcase its most valuable asset, the ‘firmness of spirit and unyielding courage in the face of the hardship’ toward fulfilling its mission.

I led an organization through a merger a couple years ago, and we were discussing the immersion of staff between the organizations.  Through this process some staff cuts were planned and nearly every staff member within the organization fought tooth and nail for a long-term administrative assistant.  This person came to resemble the heart and soul of the organization, and when the others described her, they described the many courageous acts that she had taken, without recognition, by putting herself in very difficult circumstances.  She lived and bled the organization, and if Third Sector Grit was in the dictionary, her picture would be right there, smiling.

Recently I attended an event with many corporate social responsibility leaders throughout the United States.  Networking with several beforehand, they spent much of their time talking about the amazing stories of their grantees or the site visits they had made to “the field”.  They called them their “war stories.”  At the ensuing luncheon, they peppered their nonprofit partners various inspiring tales about their work.  Nearly every conversation outlined Third Sector Grit, and it served as one of the major motivating forces behind the convening of these corporate philanthropy leaders.  If I could have bottled Third Sector Grit, I would have sold it by the truckload.

Third Sector Grit is the main motivating force behind why I work in the sector.  I have many stories and love to share them.  From the boxing coach in Washington State who used his pet orangutan to build relationships with young people to the two former drug dealers who turned their lives around following the death of a family member by starting a touch football league to the counselor who works with lonely seniors each Saturday in the back room of an Embers.  Talk to most in the nonprofit sector and you will get Grit stories all day.

As part of my regular blog postings with the Stanford Social Innovation Review, I will periodically feature a “Third Sector Grit” story.  If you have one that you would like to share, please feel free to send to me as I may highlight.  My e-mail is [email protected]

I look forward to hearing from you!


Read more stories by John Brothers.