Alice Marie Johnson’s advice for nonprofit leaders

“Focusing on darkness literally paralyzes you,” she said. “Stop focusing on what happened in the past. We've had some turbulent times, but it's time to move forward. And the only way that we can move forward as a country is together.”


Before receiving a presidential pardon, Alice Marie Johnson was incarcerated nearly 22 years for a nonviolent drug offense. Now that she’s free, she is working hard to ensure that other people in similar situations have a second chance. Work like hers isn’t easy, but nonprofit leaders who are working for change and reconciliation can learn from her experience. 


A strong foundation is key – which means the work you do has to come from a foundation of integrity. When a person or organization comes from a place of integrity, they can assess situations realistically and determine the best possible outcome – to achieve their goals and stay true to their principles. That could mean changing approaches, having difficult conversations, saying no to things that aren’t aligned with your mission. Leaders also have to be careful not to rush decisions. By taking a deep breath and coming back to a problem with a renewed approach, it’s possible to see that a problem wasn’t as big as it was initially thought to be – or come up with a new approach to solving it. 

Nonprofit leaders should be prepared for areas of disagreement, because they are sure to exist. What’s important is to be surrounded by people who understand the vision and want to change the world in the same ways. To do that – and to heal communities – it’s key to find common ground. “It can just be one thing,” Alice said. “You can’t force someone to have the same passion about something. Maybe it’s not the No. 1 thing that they’re concerned about. Maybe it’s the fourth thing on the list of things you care about that brings you together, but the main thing is that you’re coming together on something.”

Learn what it is that inspired Alice’s work


Then, it’s time to focus on setting reasonable goals and celebrating the victories. “Sometimes things are not going to work out,” she said. “I had to learn how to celebrate the victories and not focus on what didn’t happen.” Setting reasonable goals also means not feeling personally guilty when something doesn’t work out as hoped and to learn from with wins and failures, big and small. She encourages others to celebrate every victory “and keep moving, keep walking, just keep being fluid. Don’t stop, go to the next thing.”

We all love achieving big goals, but it’s important to remember that every single small victory gets you closer to them. They mean a difference has been made, a situation is better today than it was yesterday. So, while dreaming big is important, so is acknowledging and celebrating the milestones along the way. 

Success might mean overcoming certain stigmas – something with which Alice is very familiar from working with the formerly incarcerated – and being formerly incarcerated herself. By working with the faith community and educating family members on what to expect, she’s helping people find their “freedom legs.” It takes time to show the community who you are, and it’s changemakers’ job to prepare communities to give them that chance. 



Finally, it’s important for nonprofit leaders to remember to take care of themselves while taking care of their communities – which can mean being ready to take the advice they give to others. “I can motivate others to do things and keep them pumped up and keep them going,” Alice explained. “And then, sometimes I’ll give out to the point that I feel like I’m empty as a leader.” This work can’t be done on empty, so Alice Marie Johnson reminds leaders to refuel themselves too – before they burn out. 

This is where Heal America can be a powerful resource. We work with a network of leaders like Ms. Alice who know what other non-profit leaders are going through and that can be leaned on when experiencing burnout. Having others around you can also be a critical resource for advice. In any business, when you’re the lead, it’s sometimes hard to ask for help but having a trusted community of other leaders and professionals with shared experiences and knowledge to fall back on helps leaders find the wisdom and tools they need to carry on.