David Brooks’ new book, The Road to Character, has received a lot of press attention because it suggests that there are two distinct life paths we all face. There is the path lined with “résumé virtues,” or those focused on personal brand-building and pursuit of success at all costs. Then there is the path lined with “eulogy virtues,” or those character traits we all want to be remembered for, such as humility, empathy and care for others over self. Brooks holds up stories of icons like Frances Perkins and Dorothy Day, who avoided status symbols, dedicated their lives to a particular calling and worked diligently to solve problems, while appreciating the process of learning (and often failing along the way). He exhorts readers to follow the same path of eulogy virtues because that’s the path toward both personal fulfillment and long-term betterment of society. Have we gone so far that a discussion about character seems extraordinary?
These choices are real for many, and I have to admit that I had a moment facing these paths myself. I recall a conversation with a dear friend where I revealed my frustrations with a misalignment between my values and work. I asked myself, “when I die what will I be remembered for – my acquired wealth and mediocre outcomes – or for a contribution to something more?” Within two months, I left the organization I was with and joined Community Wealth Partners to commit myself to solving social problems at the magnitude at which they exist. Every day, I am honored and humbled to work besides leaders from around the country who have pursued a single path that aligns their resume and eulogy virtues. I am grateful to learn with them and from them, and observe an unwavering commitment to solving our country’s most intractable problems.
Based on Brooks’ seeming concern about Americans’ community mindset, you’d think the nonprofit workforce was very small. However, according to Nonprofit HR’s 2014 Nonprofit Employment Survey, the nonprofit sector is the third largest U.S. industry behind retail and manufacturing, employing 10.7 million people or 10% of the private workforce. While this includes hospitals and universities – the largest nonprofit employers – in addition to community organizations, NGOs and associations, the nonprofit sector is expected to add more jobs than the private sector in the coming years, according to Nonprofit HR. Keep in mind that this doesn’t include a growing number of social-purpose businesses that prioritize positive social or environmental impact alongside financial success. All of which means that now, more than ever, we have a great opportunity to attract the very best diverse talent to solve social problems. There is great urgency to do so given the enormity of our problems but there is also a growing number of new leaders who our value proposition will appeal to. Will we make the case?
Brooks’ new book profiles leaders who are humble, virtuous and promoters of causes. Sometimes, however, in service to the cause, we overlook the strategic importance of investing in communications and capacity-building efforts that bring talent and new resources required to solve social problems. Like promoting our causes, promoting the nonprofit sector’s value proposition is one of the most important strategies we can employ towards solving social problems and achieving our goals. It will enable us to attract the best, brightest and most diverse talent, and it can help us fund development opportunities and “brand” nonprofit career paths in the same way corporate finance or law careers are “branded.”
The road to character is our sector’s employee value proposition. It’s authentic and resonates with the emerging leaders who are needed to replace retiring boomers. If David Brooks’ book creates a space for the conversation about character, we who chose this life path and love it should respond with vigor and not shy away from making clear the benefit of our work to ourselves, society and even to our résumés.
Build your resume AND eulogy virtues here. Two paths, one choice: the nonprofit sector.
Will you make the case?