Who really knows what is best for the people your nonprofit serves?

OK, y’all. Get ready for a great story from a nonprofit, and an ugly cry:

I recently listened to an episode of NPR’s Ted Radio Hour podcast called “How We Love.” It’s a collection of TEDTalks (with follow-up commentary) on the subject of love: why we love, how we chose who to love, different types of love in different cultures, etc. The final story in this episode, “A Father-Daughter Dance – In Prison?” featured Angela Patton’s TEDTalk about a nonprofit she runs for girls in Richmond, Virginia (my hometown). Her TEDTalk is only around 8 minutes long and is well worth a listen. Not only is her story moving and authentic, but it also highlights a key element of nonprofit success – listening to, and trusting the wisdom of, the people you are there to serve.

How did a father-daughter dance take place at a jail?

Ms. Patton is CEO of Girls for a Change, a nonprofit youth development organization aimed at empowering Black girls and other girls of color in Central Virginia to visualize their bright futures and potential through discovery, development, innovation and social change in their communities. 

The girls in Camp Diva Leadership Academy, a Girls for a Change program, were planning a father-daughter dance, and one of the girls bravely shared that she was sad that her father would not be able to participate, because he was in jail. After some brainstorming among the girls, communication with the Richmond City Sheriff, and thoughtful planning, a father-daughter dance took place at the jail.

The fathers (inmates) traded their jail uniforms for shirts and ties. The girls, dressed in their Sunday best, arrived in a beautifully decorated room to dance and play with their fathers, enjoy a catered meal, and record video messages from their fathers that they could take home with them after the dance. The fathers had the opportunity to prepare a plate for their girls, pull out their chairs, and offer their hands for a dance with their daughters. The Sheriff was fully supportive of the dance, saying that “When fathers are connected to their children, it is less likely that they will return (to jail).” The dance was good for the fathers and good for the daughters. A win-win. As Ms. Patton remarked, “Because a father is locked in, does not mean that he should be locked out of his daughter’s life.”

Here’s one way that this nonprofit’s CEO embodied strong leadership:

When a girl in the program said that her father could not attend the dance because he was in jail, the adult in the room did NOT jump in to solve the problem. She consistently said things like:

    • I asked the girls…
    • The girls decided…
    • What do YOU think we should do about this?…

The adult who was running this program did not leave all of the decisions and details up to the girls. But she did rely on the wisdom of the girls to find a solution that would meet their own needs and desires. Ms. Patton said:

They already know what they need. The wisdom lives inside them. 


How can you apply this at your nonprofit organization?

When you are planning programs and events, to what degree do you rely on the wisdom of the people you are serving? Not just asking their opinion on plans that already are in progress, but really asking them for their suggestions on how to solve a problem or address a need. Do you take their ideas seriously? When they have an idea, do you support them in implementing it? Are you working towards achieving your organization’s mission not just for the people you serve, but WITH the people you serve?

Remember: They already know what they need. The wisdom lives inside them.

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