By Alliance President and CEO Susan Dreyfus

I am on the plane heading to Harvard University for a convening of organizations hosted by our partners at The Kresge Foundation. Kresge is focused on accelerating economic mobility and equity in the U.S. and understands that community-based organizations, like those in the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities strategic action network, are key partners in the ecosystem that can make sustainable change happen.

We have so many examples in our network of courageous organizations who are providing systemic changing leadership in their communities. You understand that our sector is more than providers of programs and services under contract with others—we are transformational agents of change because of the unique way we provide our programs and services; our deep understanding and authentic engagement of everyone we serve and the intersecting systems that interface in their lives; our leadership and deep partnerships; and our understanding that our paramount responsibility is to courageous advocacy for individuals, families, neighborhoods, communities, states, and the nation!

Well, here is one more of those stories. A frequent contributor to the CEO discussion community on myAlliance is Eric Schindler, CEO of Child & Family Resources in Tucson, Arizona. Like you, Eric is never looking for recognition or praise; he is just focused on advancing the organization’s mission through its focus on prevention and strengthening families. While not appropriate for all organizations, Child & Family Resources is so focused on what it is trying to achieve that three years ago, the organization eliminated its behavioral health services because it believed the services were not core to its mission, they were being done by others, and they were not being appropriately funded for the way the organization wanted to provide them to be most helpful to children and families. That takes courage.

This is just like what Deb Rex, her team, and board at Beech Brook in Cleveland, did when they closed their long-held children’s behavioral health residential beds to be singularly focused on prevention and family strengthening. Deb shared with me she and her team realized they were spending more time on a small number of children (she estimated 70 percent) versus the larger number of children’s lives they know they can positively influence. We have so many examples in the network of organizations that are re-visioning themselves for heightened focus, excellence, and ways they can make a deeper contribution in their communities.

Child & Family Resources is modeling courageous systems leadership right through their leadership to form a coalition, secure funding (even their own), and get on the ballet a half cent sales tax increase to provide financial aid to all Tucson families of three and four year olds, on a sliding scale, to enable them to afford high quality preschool.

The vote is next Tuesday, so thank Eric for his courage. He has been verbally attacked through this process and the bottom line is that the opposition, I believe, has brought to the forefront the stark reality of how disconnected we have become from one another, inequity, and racism in his community. Not to put words in his mouth but what I admire is that Eric is basically saying is, “If not us, who?” Who will dare to lead to create real systemic change in our communities? He could have stayed silent but he knows that Tucson prospers when all children thrive and are on pathways to reach their full potential.

Bob Feikema, CEO of Family Services in Winston Salem, North Carolina, is leading a similar effort in Forsyth County, North Carolina, for universal pre-K and the county board will be voting on the proposal in the spring.

This systemic leadership, which is defined as organizations and leaders who are spending as much time moving, advocating, and participating in systemic change in their communities as they are inside their organizations perfecting operations. They don’t see these as mutually exclusive but rather reinforcing and strategically necessary. This is a crucial element in what we found in our research to be present in high-impact nonprofit human serving organizations that led to the Alliance’s Commitments of High Impact Nonprofit Organizations and that we put in as a key leadership characteristic in our rEvolutionary Leadership model .

The pace of change in our field and sector seems relentless and yes, it is full of some very real challenges but our network also knows it is filled with immense opportunities.

Together, we are leaning and leading into the headwinds of change!