Remarkable rum, delicious cigars, sensual music and classic cars — these are some of the icons that have made Cuba famous in eyes of the western world. Beyond these sensations, however, are many nonprofits that protect Cuban culture from social, economic or environmental threats.
This spring, I visited Cuba with the UCI Center for Global Leadership to meet some of these nonprofits and learn their stories. Why? Learning from others who care about similar causes – but operate in different countries– can help us to solve problems in new ways.
While in Cuba, I met nonprofit leaders like Yociel Marrero Báez, director of the program for responsible consumption and economics at La Fundación de Antonio Núñez Jiménez, who educated me on many of the stories shared in this article.
As I met with leaders like Yociel, I was reminded of three very important lessons that apply globally across organizations:
1. Purpose is the foundational motivator for nonprofits.
In a nonprofit, it is easy to stress over motivating people with a variety of incentives. Yet we often forget the reason why people joined the organization in the first place: the purpose.
The origin story of the Cuban Civil Society reminded me of this lesson. The Civil Society – which refers to the social grassroots organizations of Cuba – arose in the 1970s in response to Fidel Castro’s new regime. In this regime, Castro focused on improving three areas: health, education and production.
To focus on these human-centered priorities, Castro decided after years of debate to centralize Cubans under one social party. As a result, 1959-1970 experienced significant censorship, “to prevent differences among Cubans because differences could weaken the revolutionary process,” says Yociel. In consequence, the Civil Society strengthened in the 1970s as a response by grassroots organizations to represent social challenges that were not addressed by Castro’s priorities of health, education and production. Thereafter, eight Cuban foundations, and many international nonprofits were founded in Cuba to preserve its culture, history and environment.
These nonprofits created a space for people to talk about their shared values, culture and purpose in Cuba. This gathering of people reminds us that, at its core, a nonprofit is designed to bring people together who are passionate about addressing an unmet need.
This unmet need or purpose is a powerful motivator. Nonprofits thrive on the collective actions of people who are passionate about its cause. People join the organization because it is the best channel for them to help fill a void in society.
Therefore, before giving other incentives, nonprofit leaders need to communicate their purpose constantly to inspire membership.
Whenever your organization experiences an achievement, share it with your stakeholders and explain how it connects with your cause. Short two-minute videos, highlighted blog posts, and public meetings can be effective channels for sharing your impact and motivating members.
2. The enemy of my enemy is my friend.
It can be hard to develop relationships because of differing beliefs or bad blood. However, rekindling an old relationship or fostering a new relationship can help nonprofits to increase their impact.
One effective for building a new relationship is to find unity through causes that both organizations care about. I learned this while meeting with Yociel at the Antonio Núñez Jiménez Foundation of Nature and Humanity. He shared that the foundation was born out of the period of economic crisis in the 1990s called the Special Period. During this period, the government permitted domestic nonprofits to help with civil issues.
In response, the Antonio Núñez Jiménez Foundation of Nature and Humanity was founded to explore Cuba’s historic development, as well as its relationship with nature. As it evolved, it became the principal organization responsible for environmental conservation and sustainable development.
La Fundación de Antonio Núñez Jiménez believes that people are responsible for driving a sustainable planet and society. So do many nonprofits in the United States, including our nonprofit Seed Consulting Group. While Cuba and the United States have differences, our two organizations are unified in protecting our environment. This shared cause opens the door for our nonprofits to potentially collaborate someday if it would help us both to improve the environment’s well-being.
This principle can apply for all nonprofit leaders. Meet with someone new each week and explore how you can collaborate to impact the community. The collective power of both your organizations can be stronger than the impact of only one nonprofit.
3. Earning trust is the most important first step in growing your organization.
Trust is a catalyst for enabling nonprofit leaders to increase their impact. Without trust, people are less likely to invest in your team, support your programs or help you manage a crisis.
I was reminded of this lesson as Yociel shared the following story about the founder of La Fundación de Antonio Núñez Jiménez, who was a “renaissance man often referred to as the fourth founder of Cuba” says Yociel. He was a researcher, explorer and geologist who demonstrated that the cultural, social, and scientific elements of society were integrated. His accolades include serving as the first president of the Cuban Academy of the Sciences, publishing the first book on Cuban geography, and becoming colleagues with global icons such as Oswaldo Guayasamin and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
After years of service, Jiménez earned Fidel Castro’s respect. In 1994, Castro granted Jiménez permission to start his foundation. Why? Because Castro trusted Jiménez. He trusted that Jiménez was committed to improving the environment and sustainable well-being of Cuba.
This trust was earned because of years of proven hard work. We must apply this principle in our nonprofits as well. It is easy to wonder why we aren’t receiving the support of sponsors, donors or partners. However, what have we done to demonstrate that our organization is worth investing in?
Before making your first big ask for help or support, make sure to engage individuals in your successes over a minimum of a six-month period.