Written by DeliverFund Director of Operations U.S. Navy SEAL (Ret.) Michael Fullilove
There has been much press about the Navy SEALS and their successes defending our nation. Many of the same questions exist today as they did 20 years ago, when I joined. The overriding question that has persisted through time is: What qualities make a Navy SEAL?
I will answer that question here as well as explain how the best nonprofits exemplify the same qualities. Bottom Line up Front (BLUF) — It is all about the focus on impact! There are other key components as well, but they all end at the same point.
One of the earliest lessons you learn in SEAL Training (BUD/S) is if everybody is not moving with the same purpose, an immense amount of pain will be forthcoming. In BUD/S if not everyone is in sync when paddling a boat through the surf with 8/10-foot waves then the entire boat crew will be dumped into the surf courtesy of mother nature. The only way through the breakers is unity of purpose, unity of effort, and commitment.
DeliverFund has this mission focus at its core. We may have differing opinions on matters and debate them intensely, (this is encouraged at all levels of the organization) but once a decision is made it is time to “shut up and row”. With this, we maintain our focus on our mission of ensuring law enforcement is able to arrest human traffickers and save children. This has allowed us a culture of encouraging expression of differing viewpoints while maintaining the mission focus.
In the nonprofit world, if the entire team is not working with the same unity of purpose, unity of effort and commitment then your organization will be metaphorically dumped into the surf. There is simply no way to accomplish the Sisyphean task of changing the world if people are worried about hurt feelings and are not working towards the same goal. Focus on the mission!
The SEAL Teams did not start out with the funding and profile they enjoy today. In the early days (Startup phase) the SEAL Teams begged, borrowed (and yes stole) for everything they needed. As a new nonprofit that may be your current lot in life. The experience of adversity will only make you better in the end. Nothing in life is free, and as a SEAL trainee, you learn early in that if you want a break you are going to have to work for it!
An example is that if you wanted to have a short break from holding a 200-pound log over your head, then you had better give everything you have to get through the set of exercises. It did not matter if you were an officer or a 17-year-old kid fresh out of high school. All worked and did whatever was needed to accomplish the job.
At DeliverFund everybody contributes to all aspects. The Executive Director helps set up and break down the classroom for our training courses. Sr. Vice Presidents perform duties normally associated with that of interns or assistants. The converse is also true. We solicit input from all levels of the organization because we realize that executives do not hold the patents on good ideas. The result is a cohesive team with no ego. Organizationally, it breeds a culture of respect.
If a nonprofit wants to succeed then all levels of the organization must be willing to do all jobs. There can be no hard stratification of positions. The moment the Executive Director is unwilling to “take out the trash” the nonprofit is doomed. The moment someone else is not ready to take command if the ED is hit by a bus, the nonprofit is doomed.
The adage of “The plan doesn’t survive the first contact” is well-worn and true. Often as SEALS, on missions the target would change locations while we were in transit to interdict him or her. Contingency planning and flexibility allowed us to change direction and we would routinely “flex” to another location. Sometimes the initial route to a location would be blocked or there would be updated reports of Improvised Explosive Device (IED) emplacement which would force us to change our plan.
The point is, things out of your control will cause change (usually when it is least convenient). This doesn’t mean take off willy-nilly through the countryside on a wing and a prayer. Have a plan but don’t be so rigid in your planning that you are unable to adapt to the external factors that affect your mission.
DeliverFund is so flexible our mascot should be Stretch Armstrong. Stretch if you’re still out there, call me — let’s talk. For our niche in the sector, we must be able to adapt quickly. Adaptation may not initially be pretty but then remember rule number one — mission focus, not how pretty it is. This flexibility allows us to be adaptable to changes in the environment.
When adult media Backpage was seized, there was considerable concern about what various actors in the nonprofit space would do. At DeliverFund we had no such concerns. DeliverFund was able to quickly pivot and was ahead of the traffickers when they reemerged and found new platforms. We literally were taking bets on where they would land.
For other nonprofits, the lesson is the same. This is true whether you are encouraging literacy in poor areas, providing food for the homeless and underserved children, or saving whales and working in the anti-poaching space. Whatever your cause, look at your operation and determine if you are so rigid in your processes that if something affected you in your supply chain if you would be able to adapt. Does your organization have the flexibility to change in a dynamic environment? If you think your environment is static, it is time to turn the reins over to someone else.
This one should probably be at the top of the list, but I sort of thought it went without saying. People are fallible, and this was evident even in the SEAL Teams. Things sometimes go all pear-shaped and people make mistakes. 99 times out of 100 things were recoverable — except when there was a violation of integrity. Integrity is doing the right thing when nobody’s looking. It means doing the hard right as opposed to the easy wrong.
As a small unit, integrity was the foundation of everything else. Because you had to know you could trust the person to your left and right. Integrity meant you gave accurate information about targets and if the news wasn’t good then so be it — it was reported as such. Bad news doesn’t age like a fine wine.
At DeliverFund, we hold transparency and integrity so sacrosanct it is one of the few things that result in dissociating ourselves organizationally from people who violate it, internally as well as externally. This may mean a slower pace in fundraising but in the long run, it has paid dividends as we don’t have to worry about something in the closet coming out to bite us.
In the nonprofit sector, integrity comes in the form of transparency. Most people want to trust nonprofits for the legitimate good they do for the world. Unfortunately, when a nonprofit begins to inflate numbers (as all too often happens) in order to attract fundraising they have violated the rule of integrity. Integrity transcends all forms of enterprise and if you, individually and organizationally, do not have it your organization will sink.
Failure will occur. It is a natural part of the learning process. Certainly, there are times when failure is more opportune than others. However, it is how you handle it that will determine your future. From the beginning, BUD/S trainees’ lives are one big lesson in abject failure. If at one point a trainee had mastered a skill and the environment surrounding the application of that skill changed but the trainee’s method did not — he failed.
Most times we adapted and learned, though admittedly some of us (namely me) may have learned a little slower. We learn through failure. Embrace it and analyze it! If an operation overseas did not go as planned or was deemed a failure there was always a retrospective look to determine what could have been done better. We learned from those failures. That is not to say one should aim for failure or that there should not be checks to mitigate it. It is simply to say don’t be so risk-averse you stifle innovation.
At DeliverFund, one of the reasons our analysts are so good (scary, dangerously good) is because we encourage them to fail quickly. We have them push themselves and the envelope to find that failure point then we make the course corrections as necessary. The results are magnificent. DeliverFund analysts can find information and operationalize it into actionable intelligence on timescales that rival the premier Special Operations Units and National Intelligence Agencies. We are able to find and operationalize the intelligence and provide it to our law enforcement partners for action in an operational cycle of fewer than 24 hours! We got to this point by pushing the envelope and learning from failure.
In the nonprofit sector, often times failure is seen as a negative. It doesn’t have to be. Encourage people to push boundaries (within ethical limits). They will grow as will your organization. The key is to capture what the failure points were, learn from them and move on. Go ahead and fail. Fail fast and drive on.
These principles have served me, as well as countless other special operators, well. These principles have served DeliverFund extremely well also. By focusing on impact and adhering to the above principles, you will have the 90% solution.
Featured image: Coronado, Calif. (Jan. 21, 2014) Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUDs) students participate in Surf Passage at Naval Amphibious Base Coronado. Surf Passage is one of many physically demanding evolutions that are a part of the first phase of SEAL training. Navy SEALs are the maritime component of U.S. Special Forces and are trained to conduct a variety of operations from the sea, air and land. | U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Michael Russell [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons