It’s no secret that I’m a fan of superheroes. And why wouldn’t I be? They’re all about people doing extraordinary things to tackle problems for the greater good.
This year saw the second team up of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes in Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, bringing Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Black Widow, Hulk, Hawkeye, and others together to take down a global threat. While the movie had its ups and downs, I realized that nonprofits can learn a lot from this group of do-gooders. After all, they too face seemingly insurmountable problems and have to overcome internal and external obstacles to achieve their goals.
So here are six lessons nonprofits can learn from the Avengers:
- You can’t do it alone. The Avengers are a group of superheroes who do plenty of good on their own. They each have their enemies and problems that they tackle in their own corners of the world (and universe). So what would force these different heroes to come together? A problem that none of them could overcome by themselves. Yes, they had differences to work through (see below) but they knew they needed each other because none of them could do it alone. Nonprofits are often like Iron Man or Thor, thinking they are mighty enough to do it all without help. Others are like Captain America, rallying others to work together, some are like Black Widow or Hawkeye, ready to work with others as needed, and others are like Hulk, afraid of working with others at all. The bottom line is that if nonprofits want to tackle big problems at scale – solving systemic, root causes – they need to come together. This is how the buzzword “collective action” came about: the idea that we need to work together to achieve real, lasting change. Each organization has its own goals and niche but we come together around a common vision and collectively succeed.
- Teamwork is most successful when each member gets to apply their unique skill set. Yes, they’re all pretty fit and strong, but the Avengers are a hodgepodge of heroes, each with their own talents. They clash when there is ego and competition – who’s strongest, smartest, fastest? – but they succeed when they each respect one another’s unique talents and divide the work accordingly. The same is true for nonprofits, whether it’s within an organization or different organizations working together. Instead of one person or organization taking charge of all the work, it’s important to recognize the point above – you can’t do it alone – and divide the work such that each member gets to apply a unique set of skills. Be respectful of each other’s contributions and be humble enough to let others have ownership over something.
- Disagreements can be healthy discussion for growth. Because they’re big personalities, each with their own experiences and perspectives, the Avengers don’t always see eye to eye. Captain America and Iron Man/Tony Stark notoriously butt heads, eventually leading to a Civil War among heroes (to be featured in a film next year). In the latest Avengers film, Tony ends up disagreeing with not only Captain America, but Thor and Bruce Banner too, as he pursues his own agenda for creating a security system for the planet. But in the end, these disagreements are how Tony learns to set aside his personal goals and be a better teammate. Sometimes in the nonprofit world, we’re so consumed with our perspective that we don’t want to hear others’ opposing viewpoints. But being open to others’ views and ideas can help strengthen our own by showing us our weaknesses or by offering new questions, thoughts, and insights that help us develop and expand our own thinking. Smart organizations seek out new ideas, rather than dismissing them.
- The best intentions can have unintended consequences. In his attempt to protect the planet from another alien invasion, Tony works on the Ultron Project: an artificial intelligence system designed to act as a first line of defense. Of course, what he didn’t foresee was that the system would be so intelligent it would consider humans a threat to themselves, and therefore attempt to eliminate humankind. Similarly, nonprofits set out to solve problems but don’t always consider all the possible effects their actions may have. Taking a simplistic or myopic view of your work and its outcomes may leave you unprepared when things change or the unexpected happens. Organizations should invest in scenario planning – considering different possible futures you may encounter – and in risk assessments that lay out mitigation plans. The best way to ensure you are successful is to plan ahead and be prepared to adapt.
- Tackling problems means going after root causes. The Avengers track down Ultron with the aim of destroying him before he destroys humanity. As they attempt to stop their enemy, they also make sure to take care of all the people in danger’s way. But while the Avengers save innocent bystanders, they ultimately they go straight after the root of the problem. Nonprofits don’t always do the same, sometimes dealing with the immediate without ever tackling the root cause. While it’s important to handle the effects of the problem until the problem is solved, it’s far more important to go after the source of the problem, staving off any further negative effects. Effective organizations go after root causes to ensure a lasting solution to the problem they’re facing.
- Solving problems means following through to the end. Because Ultron was an artificial intelligence, it wasn’t enough to just destroy his physical form. In order to ensure that Ultron was eliminated for good, the Avengers had to destroy every last robot he built and controlled, so that there was no remaining piece of the program that could survive and rebuild itself. Nonprofits should work towards doing the same – going after the problem with the aim of eliminating it. Not reducing it and not just treating the symptoms of it but pursuing the eradication of the source of the problem. It isn’t going to be easy, but hey, neither is anything worth doing. Organizations should be making progress towards reducing the problem, not just keeping it at bay.
So go ahead. Mock me for liking comic books and superheroes. But don’t dismiss these important lessons for anyone aspiring to tackle societal problems and creating lasting change….