Presume Good Will

17 08 2009

The nonprofit world is filled with people who have the best interests of their organizations at heart. Then why is it, when these board members, volunteers and staff professionals disagree, it is sometimes hard to maintain a cordial discourse?

Newspaper headlines focus on the negative, but I believe in the presumption of good will. I believe that most people really do want what is best for the organization. Let’s take, for example, a house of worship.

The people on the board of trustees, or vestry, or similar body, are volunteering their time to make this house of worship a healthy, vibrant place for all people who wish to participate. But sometimes, when there is a disagreement on the board, personalities are brought into the discussion and arguments become heated. Nastiness occasionally ensues. Trustees storm out. Rumors are spread. Email diatribes fly.

Yet each party to the disagreement probably began by arguing from a position of love of the organization; each wants the church, mosque, or synagogue to be the best it can be. How much more cordial the discussion would be if each party stepped back and acknowledged that they all want the organization to succeed. The disagreement is about how best to improve the organization, not about one party or the other wanting to see it fold. If we see that we each want what is best for the organization, perhaps we can be more tolerant of those who disagree with us.

Many people go through life with the attitude that it’s better to be nasty first, before someone else is nasty to you; an attitude that each new person must earn their respect. On the other hand, my mother, of blessed memory, always treated people with respect until they lost it. Watching my mother as she encountered new people, I realized that her life was richer, and new people she met were likely to live up to her expectations. She was a woman whose work was always behind the scenes. She earned no honors or awards but she had a smile and a welcome for each new person; at her funeral, we realized just how many people she had touched with this attitude.

Of course, there are disappointments. I am not a Pollyanna, and I will not deny that there are people who don’t have good will, are regularly nasty, or are just plain bad guys. But you can’t convince me that the majority of the world would not want to see it improve. I continue to believe in the presumption of good will. I may occasionally be wrong. But I know I will be far more often right.

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