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Managing the Tension: How To Achieve Nonprofit Goals With a Both/And Mindset

Tim Arnold shares how nonprofit leaders can make more effective decisions by moving away from either/or problem-solving and toward managing tension.
  • We live in an either/or culture: right vs. wrong, good vs. evil, and win vs. lose. This mindset impacts every facet of our lives, including our decision-making as nonprofit leaders. But this binary isn’t always the right approach.
  • Tim Arnold is a strong proponent of both/and leadership and advocates for embracing the tension between opposing ideas. Instead of settling for the better of two options in front of you, work to find the best option by bringing together the benefits of both sides.
  • Expanding your views doesn’t have to come at the expense of your values — and it often leads to greater creativity and better decisions.

From their earliest school days, children learn to see their world through the lens of “either/or.”

An answer is either right or wrong. A sports team is either a winner or a loser. An idea is either good or evil. This perspective is helpful in math class. What about when it’s not the best way forward?

Tim Arnold is up to the challenge of helping professionals learn to grow their thinking beyond the either/or to embrace what he calls “both/and leadership.” In fact, he literally wrote the book on it.

Nonprofit leaders, in particular, face complex challenges in their work to serve their communities every day. When approached with either/or thinking, these situations may have two solutions, each of which would result in a winning party and a losing one. But Tim knows firsthand that there’s more to the story. 

He joined Pursuant CEO Trent Ricker on an episode of the Go Beyond Fundraising podcast to share how both/and leadership can lead to creative solutions and innovation you couldn’t have imagined before.


From Solving the Problem to Managing the Tension

The purpose-driven work of nonprofits presents leaders with lots of difficult decisions that seem like problems to be solved. But an either/or problem-solving perspective — trying to find the one “right” option of those available — is often not the best.

“If we get stuck in that binary approach where I’m going to choose one side and neglect the other, it will lead to our downfall,” Tim explains. 

He says that nonprofit leaders often feel “stuck” and unable to take their organizations where they want to go because they are overly focused on solving problems. “Some of the big challenges we face as nonprofit leaders are tensions to manage,” he says. 

Rather than choosing one option or the other, Tim believes that solid leadership is rooted in an understanding that you can embrace the space between two alternatives. Each option can be valid, and a stronger outcome likely represents both options.


The 6 Leadership Tensions

In his book, “Lead With And,” Tim shares six leadership tensions to manage. These ideas invite leaders to balance both sides instead of picking just one.

  • Become optimistic and realistic.
  • Embrace change and preserve stability.
  • Become profit-focused and purpose-driven. 
  • Have expectations and extend grace.
  • Care for others and care for yourself.
  • Become confident and remain humble.

This may seem like a list of mutually exclusive ideas. But the both/and leader allows for that contrast and seeks to balance each of these options. 

Tim acknowledges that, at different times, nonprofits may focus on one of these tensions in particular. He encourages leaders to pick one tension to lean into for a season or across the organization, understanding that another may be more relevant later. The key is to avoid taking an all-or-nothing approach. If you identify that caring for yourself is a growth area, your next step shouldn’t be to jump into that full force. Rather, start by taking small steps to move toward it (and not at the expense of caring for others, either) — this is what managing the tension is all about.


Choosing From Two Good Options

A leader’s first step should be to examine whether the options are clear-cut “right and wrong” when facing an important decision — if that’s the case, the answer is clear. But what about when the options are a right and a right?

When we think of making a decision when two “good” options are before us, many of us gravitate to the idea of compromise. But Tim cautions that this isn’t always the right answer, either.

Compromise often looks like meeting in the middle, particularly when two groups of people have needs to be met as a result of the decision at hand. But this route can involve each group sacrificing their needs. Tim’s approach is to seek out the benefits of both sides. 

This requires an increasingly rare skill in a polarized either/or environment: diplomacy. Nonprofits need leaders who listen well to understand everyone’s perspective so that they can bring forward the positives of all sides.

The challenge with this approach is that it’s not only more complex than choosing a single readily apparent option, but it may not be obvious to everyone why you made the decision you did. Leaders may want to make decisions that are widely embraced — however, the right choices aren’t always popular.

Embracing the tension, though, can bring people together and lead them to cross gulfs of beliefs or values they never knew they could cross. 


Not Changing Your Views — Expanding Them

In an increasingly polarized political and ideological climate, moving towards others’ beliefs can seem like an insurmountable task. Between our news sources and social media algorithms attuned to give us more of what we already agree with, we gravitate toward more of the same.

“We’re getting better at identifying and kind of hanging around with people who share our point of view,” Tim says. “What I’m inviting leaders into is not to give up your views and values, … but to expand those views and values.”  

As a leader, this takes recognizing your own biases and incorporating others’ points of view.

For instance, Tim acknowledges his own leaning toward candor over tact. When sending a potentially sensitive email, his temptation might be to ask for feedback from someone who shares his bias. But he (and his team) are better served when he asks for an additional perspective from someone whose bias, instead, is toward diplomacy and tactfulness.

It will always feel natural to find others who affirm your view and values. Letting others challenge those beliefs will lead to greater momentum toward achieving your goals.

An open mind invites creativity and the possibility of ideas that you might not have thought of before.


Facing the Future as a Realistic Optimist

The first of Tim’s six leadership tensions — being optimistic and realistic — is particularly poignant for nonprofit leaders. They must acknowledge the brutal facts of reality, even as they strive to positively impact the world. 

“Our job as a leader is not to have rose-colored glasses,” Tim explains. “It’s actually to say, this is the reality we’re facing. And we have to have the optimism to say, We will get through this, and this will actually make us better.” 

This perspective isn’t just wishful thinking. It allows true leaders to focus on what is within their control and play their part in making a more hopeful, better world. 

“A leader who’s optimistic and realistic stands out from the crowd — those are the leaders people want to work with.”

This article is based on an episode of the “Go Beyond Fundraising” podcast, hosted by Pursuant. Learn how we can extend your fundraising impact and help more people to experience the joy of giving.