Tim Arnold shares how he led with “and” throughout his 10 years heading up a homeless shelter to make stronger decisions than an either/or approach allows.
It’s no secret that nonprofit leaders play a challenging role in their organizations. They operate with small teams and limited resources to achieve the lofty goal of improving the world. As a result, leaders are often faced with difficult decisions and a choice between alternative values that appear to compete with each other.
Having led a homeless shelter for ten years, Tim Arnold deeply understands this reality. But he’s sought a different way of approaching these challenges.
Instead of staying in an either/or mindset when faced with multiple options, he seeks to move beyond that binary. He looks for the benefits of each side and tries to bring them together in what he calls “both/and leadership.”
Through coaching and his book, “Lead With And,” Tim is also helping other nonprofit leaders and professionals move beyond either/or thinking.
Read on to learn about managing the tension and how doing so led Tim and his team to better outcomes for everyone involved.
In his book, Tim describes six leadership tensions: pairs of ideas that leaders shouldn’t choose between but, instead, strive to embrace together.
For instance, one of the tensions is being profit-focused and purpose-driven. These two ideas might seem to clash, but both elements must be present for a nonprofit organization to thrive.
Rather than viewing mission and margins as mutually exclusive, a strong leader recognizes that each is essential. Then, they can make more balanced decisions that incorporate both values. That’s what managing the tension looks like.
Let’s explore three instances where Tim managed tensions throughout his nonprofit experiences.
When overseeing a 40-bed homeless shelter, Tim solved his fair share of problems daily. But more often than not, he found himself frequently called to manage tensions.
An example is “fairness,” one of the shelter’s core values. Each of these core values was prominently displayed on the wall of the shelter to remind the team of what they were striving to embody.
As his staff and volunteers sought to uphold fairness, many defined it as “consistency and a lack of favoritism.” “Everyone knows what’s expected — there [are] house rules,” he says of their perspective.
But the coaches who worked one-on-one with those experiencing homelessness saw another story. They understood that the staff and volunteers’ expectations of some residents weren’t realistic or compassionate for other individuals with traumatic experiences or mental health issues.
The coaches’ take was this: “Fairness isn’t that everyone gets the same thing. Fairness is that everyone gets what they need.”
These two applications of fairness — fairness as consistency versus for the individual— existed as an either/or paradigm. The team argued about which take was correct until Tim brought a both/and mindset to this core value.
“That beautiful plaque of core values on our wall that says fairness? All that will ever be is a word on a wall unless as a team [and] a nonprofit, we can realize this is not a problem to solve — this is a tension to manage,” he told the organization.
Applying fairness as a core value wouldn’t look like picking either one or the other, consistency or individuality. Instead, the shelter would work to do both well over time.
This approach wasn’t a compromise — it was a commitment to showing consistency in some situations and individuality in others. “We’re going to do both fully,” Tim explained to the staff and coaches. “[Fairness] is going to guide our decision-making.”
The team’s decision to manage the tension between fairness as consistency and fairness as individuality allowed them to truly apply this core value. When they began to lead with “and,” the staff, volunteers and coaches found unity and common ground. They committed to fairness in multiple forms and truly applied their core values.
Of Tim’s six leadership tensions, nonprofits tend to connect with one in particular: the tension of caring for others and caring for yourself.
“I can’t tell you how many nonprofit leadership teams I’m dealing with that are saying … Our organization is about caring for others. That’s in the DNA of the fabric of what we do,” Tim says.
In philanthropic work, it’s natural to focus on caring for others — often to the exclusion of caring for oneself. Moreover, the caring individuals in the nonprofit space are often also juggling personal care for their families — so self-care can be practically nonexistent.
But failing to manage this tension and incorporate both kinds of care will quickly leave you depleted. Over time, not caring for oneself leaves nonprofit leaders without the energy to care for others.
Tim compares it to breathing and the contrast between inhaling and exhaling. If someone woke up and decided that today was an “inhale-only day,” they would soon be blue in the face. Our bodies need both the inhale and the exhale to survive, let alone thrive.
Similarly, when nonprofit leaders spend all of their energy caring for others, the joy of giving can turn to resentment — and simply getting out of bed in the morning can become difficult. To care for others, we need the energy that self-care provides.
Managing this tension between self and others doesn’t mean abandoning care for others to only care for yourself. Tim encourages teams to start small by spending even 10 minutes caring for themselves each day.
He spoke with a woman who leads a long-term care home. Her ten minutes of self-care before her shift are spent with a cup of hot tea — no phone or computer. She said that this time spent reflecting and looking out the window gives her what she needs to deliver during each shift.
And that is how effectively managing tension begins.
A woman at the homeless shelter had a substance in her possession that was outside the shelter’s established guidelines. These rules meant that she would typically be asked to leave the shelter for several days and go to a detox facility or a safe alternative.
A shelter manager who has a bias toward consistency felt that there was no question and held firmly to the reasons she should be asked to leave for a detox center. They cited the safety of the woman and of the community.
But a coach who knew the woman explained that she’d recently been doing well and had plans to go to a treatment facility less than 24 hours later. This access was difficult to gain access to in that part of Ontario. The coach advocated for her by explaining that, if she was forced to leave that night, she wouldn’t end up going to treatment the next day.
And that reality meant that the shelter would likely never see her again.
Once again, the application of fairness was in question. The team was stuck in a binary approach until someone said, “This young woman deserves a better conversation than we’re having right now.” And they began to think of other solutions.
Someone else suggested contacting the woman’s circle of support: four or five volunteers who knew her by name and had built trust with her. They created a plan to have someone with her constantly. She would leave the shelter and go to detox — but from the moment she left, someone would be with her every minute until they drove her to treatment the next day. And she’d never be alone.
If they had stayed in the binary approach of two known options — she stays or she goes — the team would have never thought of another approach that allowed the woman to get the care she needed.
The approach the team took potentially saved the woman’s life. And no one involved felt like they “lost” — instead, they experienced making a powerful decision together by looking at the values of both sides. “It opened up a brand new world of possibility,” Tim says.
Whatever decisions you’re facing as a nonprofit leader, the both/and mindset can open new pathways for solutions that expand your impact.
Where either/or problem-solving can often divide, leading with “and” creates unified, purpose-filled teams who are equipped to make a powerful difference in the world.