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  • Pat Libby

Let "Directed Optimism" Be Your North Star

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

Several weeks ago when it really and truly looked like nearly everything in the world was falling apart (although, come to think of it, that could easily have been today) my rabbi stood before the congregation and said something that struck me as very moving and profound.

She talked about relatively recent times in the history of our country when things looked sickeningly bleak.

And how, through the work of many people, those situations improved.

Just think for a minute about the 1970 Ohio National Guard shooting that killed four Kent State University students (and wounded nine others) who were peacefully protesting the U.S. military bombing of Cambodia.

Or about Michael Donald, a twenty year old student who was lynched by the Klan in 1981 simply because he was African American and in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I’d like to think those types of events couldn’t happen today.

Rabbi Devorah posited that if we all work to create the change we want to see in the world, 100 years from now, people will look back at these times and marvel at how far we’ve come.

Being a person of action, she told us about some of the ways that we could volunteer:

It was positive thinking at its best because it not only infused people with optimism, it also presented a clear path for how to move forward.

It was a perfect example of leading with what I call, “directed optimism” – which is both an attribute and a practice of great nonprofit leaders.

What is directed optimism?

It is optimism that doesn’t come from blind faith, naïveté, or wishful thinking.

It is optimism that emanates from:

  • A solid understanding of a problem

  • Knowledge of how people are being affected by the situation today

  • A careful analysis of possible solutions

  • Thoughtful reflection

  • Confidence in a plan that will address the situation

As an example, UCP of San Diego, which has traditionally served people with cerebral palsy and other disabilities in primarily sheltered work settings, is now, after decades of lovingly caring for the people it serves, taking a fresh look at how it can help its clients move toward even greater independence and community integration.

Together, we’re developing new ways of delivering services that are designed in response to the hopes and dreams of the people UCP serves, state-of-the-art models of service delivery, best practice research, and funding opportunities.

UCP’s leaders are being directed optimists in their approach to these changes.

Most nonprofit leaders are optimists. They do what they do because they believe they can provide a service or good that will improve the world in some way.

Yet it takes more than The Power of Positive Thinking; simply being an optimist alone isn’t enough.

In order to inspire staff, Board, donors, and the general public to both care and take action, nonprofit leaders have to be directed optimists.

It’s the best way I know to address those enormously scary problems that are facing our world today.


Pat Libby is a nonprofit consultant. Pat works with organizations on organizational strategy and lobbying efforts. She also helps nonprofits re-imagine their boards, and conduct executive searches.

Pat has served as an academic, senior executive, board member, and consultant to innumerable nonprofit organizations and foundations for more than three decades.

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