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6 Social-Impact Lessons from Past Presidents

Amy Bergen profile image

Amy Bergen

An illustration of three former US presidents (Lincoln, Johnson, FDR) with doodles on a dark blue background.

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, but the impact of their actions might not become clear until decades after they’ve left office.

Many of our former presidents have complicated legacies, yet they have often put useful leadership skills into action. Here are six useful presidential practices that nonprofit professionals and organizations can adapt and use today.

1. Abraham Lincoln: Changing your mindset to do what is right

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 the future of an integrated society—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 that he paid Lincoln a personal visit in Washington. Douglass argued that Black people deserved full citizenship, including equal wages and protection on the battlefield. Though Lincoln didn’t act on Douglass’s recommendations then, the president listened to his concerns and promised to sign future commissions protecting Black soldiers.

Douglass noticed Lincoln’s willingness to learn and have uncomfortable conversations. These conversations—which the president had with several Black men throughout the war—ultimately influenced Lincoln’s political beliefs and mindset. In April 1865, Lincoln delivered a speech that called for educated Black men, and those who had served as soldiers in the Civil War, to be given the right to vote.

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: Recognize when your beliefs are wrong, and take action to correct them. 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 would be able to 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.

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." 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.

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, or remember 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.

4. Teddy Roosevelt: Using passion to drive action 

Considered the "conservationist president," Roosevelt’s upbringing and personal interest in nature influenced his environmental actions. In many of his writings, Roosevelt documented his concern for the loss of animal species and habitats:

“We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.”

As president, Roosevelt allowed his passion for the environment to take action on conservation efforts. He created the United States Forest Service (USFS) and established legislation to protect 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, 4 national game preserves, and 5 national parks.

The lesson: You likely became involved in social-impact work because of your passion for a particular issue area or love for a specific community. Even when the day-to-day tasks seem impossible, allow your passion to drive you toward building the world you want to see.

5. Jimmy Carter: Continuing advocacy outside of the office

Despite serving four years as the 39th president of the United States, Jimmy Carter may be better remembered in history for his tireless advocacy that extends past his tenure as president. 

In 1982, Jimmy Carter and his wife, former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, established the Carter Center at Emory University, with the goal of enhancing human rights and alleviating human suffering. Some of Carter’s work led to the end of a nuclear weapons program in North Korea, a peaceful transfer of government in Haiti, and a temporary ceasefire between Bosnian Serbs and Muslims during the Bosnian War.

In 2002, Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development.”

Even today, the Carters fulfill their annual commitment to Habitat for Humanity by volunteering to build houses for people around the world.

The lesson: You, too, can enact change outside of the work you do at the office. Whether you extend your passion for social impact through volunteer efforts, or try to make a difference in just one person’s life every day, let your joy for helping others touch all aspects of your life.

6. John F. Kennedy (JFK): Centering communities within social impact 

JFK’s passion for community-oriented action continues to inspire people across the globe. His presidency was particularly marked by improvements to community-based care through the Community Mental Health Act of 1963. This piece of legislation initiated a standard for mental health care to engage community centers to assist people with mental illness and developmental disabilities. By reframing the mindset of how mental health is addressed in the community, Kennedy knew that mental health awareness would shift to a more empathetic and understanding form of care.

In addition, Kennedy’s dedication to building up communities directly influenced the creation of global and domestic service programs. As a proponent of multicultural engagement, Kennedy’s vision for Americans included working across borders to fight poverty through community projects. To this end, he established the Peace Corps, which has grown from 900 people in 1961 to 4,000 volunteers sent to more than 140 countries each year.

Inspired by his desire for a domestic counterpart to the Peace Corps, Kennedy also launched the Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) program, through which American citizens could volunteer in housing, education, food security, and other mission areas across the country.

The lesson: To say that JFK valued the power of community is an understatement. Whether your own work involves direct service or community-oriented action, know that change starts at home and builds outwards. Keep this in mind when you’re planning your next social-impact project so that you know to value the insight and leadership of your community.


What national leaders do you admire, and what lessons have they taught you? Share your thoughts with us on Facebook.

Amy Bergen profile image

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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