3 Lessons for Nonprofits on the Centennial of the Titanic Disaster

Photo from cliff1066

I watched a couple interesting documentaries last week on the Titanic disaster. The timing is right: this Saturday marks the 100th anniversary of the RMS Titanic disaster, when the ship struck an iceberg and sank. I don’t need to tell you the story. We’ve all seen the movie.

What you may not know is that even after a hundred years, the Titanic has some powerful lessons for us on commitment, leadership, and the perils of technology and perception that can doom your nonprofit to an untimely end.

Nothing determines your fate more than what you think of yourself. In both the blockbuster Titanic Movie and in the documentaries that came after it, much is made of the class differences of the passengers on the ship. The newly minted ship was a microcosm of the strict class culture that existed at the turn of the twentieth century. First class passengers got dibs on the ship’s few lifeboats, which meant more second and third class passengers went down with the ship. For instance, 54% of third-class women passengers died compared to only 3% of first-class women.

There’s been a lot of research on this that has tried to sift out the easy answers that the Titanic crew favored first-class passengers and locked third-class passengers below deck. However, some scholars have speculated that many second and third class passengers died because they viewed the few life boats on the ship as the rich man’s escape hatch… That they were simply not deserving of rescue – or at least not until after first class passengers got all the seats they needed.

Many small nonprofits feel equally out-classed by their well-heeled competitors and forget that elbows and hands are good for something besides resting your chin on. Ask yourself: Is your nonprofit stuck below deck because you’re waiting for your betters to give you your turn? Take a lesson from Titanic’s Jack Dawson and don’t take “no” or “wait your turn” for an answer.

Leadership comes from above and below. While much credit and discussion center around the brave actions of those crew members lowering life boats and calming passengers on the top deck, the engineering team in the bowels of the ship were the ones who kept the ship afloat for as long as possible. They stoked the coal-fueled engines to keep the power on and manned the pumps to the very end, although they must have known they faced certain death.

The Titanic’s entire senior engineering team perished in the disaster.

While the threats to your nonprofit don’t match Titanic’s, I bet you too have a lot of talent below deck that isn’t being tapped. The good news is you don’t have to wait for a crisis to let them show their mettle. Give them a chance and you’ll be surprised how competent, committed and downright heroic they can be.

Technology is just a tool. People sink or save the day. Despite having the best and latest technology in the world, Titanic still ended up 12,000 feet beneath the waves. The ship had an “unsinkable” hull, a cutting edge wireless communication system and even a sophisticated fire detection system. Heck, the ship printed its own daily newspaper.

Still, it was human actions that ultimately saved or cost lives. The communication crew on board used wireless telegraphy to summon boats to Titanic’s aid. But they initially transmitted the wrong coordinates. The lifeboats were like the rest of the Titanic: state of the art. But the captain cancelled the lifeboat drill at the start of the voyage, and when disaster struck, the crew launched the boats half-full.

Nonprofits can never forget the leading role people play in success or failure. You can immerse yourself in the latest technology tools, but if you don’t invest and reinvest in your staff and volunteers you might be the next one yelling “Iceberg, straight ahead!”

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