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3 Social-Impact Lessons from Past Presidents

Amy Bergen

Three presidents (Lincoln, Johnson, FDR) with illustrations

Many of us strive to be good role models in our careers, but few of our jobs come with the public spotlight of the United States presidency. The president’s views on social justice can influence the beliefs of an entire nation.

As Joe Biden and Kamala Harris step into their elected roles as president and vice president, they’ll make decisions that shape the country. Biden is already planning major criminal justice reform, among other initiatives—but a president’s true social impact might not become clear until decades after they’ve left office.

Many of our former presidents have complicated legacies—and they didn’t always work towards social justice. Yet our former heads of state have often put useful leadership skills into action. Here are three of the most useful presidential practices that nonprofit professionals and organizations can adapt and use today.

1. Abraham Lincoln: Adapting mindset to new issues

These days Lincoln is remembered as the progressive Civil War leader who signed the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation ending slavery for Black Americans. Early in his presidency, though, Lincoln wasn’t so sure about giving Black Americans equal rights as citizens—he thought freed slaves should return to their countries of origin instead.

When Black soldiers fought for the Union army during the Civil War, they weren’t paid as much as white soldiers. Many were subject to cruel treatment their white comrades didn’t face, including recapture and re-enslavement by Confederate troops.

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who had previously recruited free Black men to enlist in the Union army, was so enraged by this inequality he paid Lincoln a personal visit in Washington. Douglass argued Black people deserved full citizenship, including equal wages and protection on the battlefield. Though Lincoln didn’t act on Douglass’s recommendations then, he listened to Douglass’s concerns and promised to sign future commissions protecting Black soldiers.

Douglass noticed Lincoln’s willingness to learn and have uncomfortable conversations, and Lincoln’s own views on equal citizenship changed when he saw the dedication of Black soldiers to the Union cause.

After Lincoln’s death in 1865 Douglass gave a eulogy that acknowledged this transformation. While Lincoln was once determined "to protect, defend, and perpetuate slavery in the states where it existed," Douglass said, eventually Lincoln used his power to end slavery across the country, in part because of the influence of advocates like Douglass.

The lesson: We’re likely to face challenges to our own views and internalized prejudices as we work for social justice— and as members of marginalized communities point out problems others might not notice. 

You may have encountered the phrase "Normalize changing your opinion when presented with new information." This kind of humility—along with willingness to change your actions—is a crucial leadership skill.

2. Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR): Working through illness and disability

Roosevelt’s active legal and political career ground to a temporary halt in 1921 when he was diagnosed with polio at age 37. The paralyzing disease attacked his body’s nervous system and had no cure at the time. Despite extensive physical therapy, Roosevelt never regained the ability to walk.

Determined to return to politics, Roosevelt locked steel braces onto his legs and aggressively campaigned to be governor of New York in 1928—a successful warm-up for winning the presidency in 1932. Since most buildings weren’t wheelchair-accessible, he adapted a dining room chair by replacing the legs with wheels.

His disability was public knowledge, and opponents criticized Roosevelt as unfit for the demanding job of president; but for many struggling Americans during the Great Depression, Roosevelt became a model of strength in adversity. Labor secretary Frances Perkins thought dealing with polio made Roosevelt less arrogant, more thoughtful, and ultimately a better leader.

Polio also influenced Roosevelt’s public activism. He established the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, a fund to cure the disease, in 1937. The foundation was publicly known as the March of Dimes (since cash-strapped Americans could afford a small dime donation). Roosevelt’s efforts and funding paved the way for the first polio vaccine, which became available to the public 10 years after the President’s death.

The lesson: Social-impact workers with chronic illness and disability face different limitations than our peers, and people may underestimate how much we can accomplish.

Even if you haven’t attached wheels to a dining chair, you’ve probably come up with other innovations to get the job done. So why not talk those up to employers? If you’re comfortable with disclosure, disability can become a powerful part of your personal story and advocacy. Check out the organization Chronically Capable, which recruits job seekers with disability and chronic illness and matches them with flexible employers.

3. Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ): Supporting the arts and humanities

Part of the president’s job is to allocate federal funding to important causes, including essential fields like science and medicine. But for some executives, the arts and humanities are just as essential to a thriving, diverse United States.

Presidents Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, both robust arts supporters, began the push for federal funding of cultural programs. Their successor Johnson officially signed off on the National Endowment for the Arts (NEH) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEA) in 1965.

Part of Johnson’s ambitious "Great Society" program, the NEA and NEH funded national theater, opera, and ballet companies, a national film institute, and works by American composers. The endowments included grants for artists to practice in schools and universities. The goal was to make art public and accessible to everyone, not restricted to the wealthy.

Johnson praised art as a uniting cultural force, believing the arts and humanities show us "our common hopes may be more enduring than our conflicting hostilities." His administration gave more financial support to artists than any previous administration, and the NEA and NEH are still around today.

The lesson: If you work in the humanities or the arts, you may feel it’s hard to demonstrate how your work contributes to social progress—especially compared to direct service programs and health initiatives, where results seem more tangible. At the same time you probably can’t imagine a life without the arts in it.

Now might be the time to reconnect with your original mission and vision, remembering what sparked your career interest in the first place. Plenty of nonprofit professionals have combined art and social progress in their careers, becoming role models for future generations.

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What national leaders do you admire, and what lessons have they taught you? What are your hopes for the Biden/Harris administration? Share your thoughts with us on Facebook.


Illustration by Marian Blair.

Amy Bergen

Amy Bergen is a writer based in Portland, Maine. She has experience in the social impact space in Baltimore, Maryland, the educational museum sphere in Columbus, Ohio, and the literary world of New York City.

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