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  • Otto Reinisch

Isolation, Loneliness, and a Leader's Greatest Challenge

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

Four years before the launch of Facebook in 2004, Robert Putnam revealed in Bowling Alone a disturbing trend toward less human connection, or an “erosion of social capital”. This was alarming to nonprofit leaders for whom social capital – or, authentic human relationship – was the currency they used to earn the trust and cooperation of constituents.

So, how have we fared since then? Not well.

Today, the loss of authentic human connection has become the epidemic of loneliness exposed – not caused – by COVID-19 and ‘social distancing’. Despite being more connected than ever through Instagram, Zoom, FaceTime, WhatsApp, Twitter, and countless other ‘apps’, social media has left us feeling empty, unfulfilled, and yearning for the intimacy of human connection technology can’t provide.

· 40% of Americans feel their social relationships are not meaningful,

· 20% of Americans feel lonely or isolated,

· 43% of seniors feel lonely on a regular basis,1

· 63% believe relationships were more meaningful before social media,

· 91% would rather have one real friend than 100 online friends, and

· 60% wish they could return to a time before social media.2

For a new generation of nonprofit leaders, this can be good news...and its greatest challenge. It's a clarion call to reclaim the relational work of leadership where social capital is gained through meaningful relationships developed in-person, over time, and around shared values.

As we come to realize and accept social media's limitations, this becomes an opportunity for us to create new ways to use technology – especially, social media – for good across the nonprofit sector; for reinforcing and supporting authentic face-to-face interaction, instead of replacing it.

This won't be easy. Social media is powerfully addictive. The answers only will come from experiments...from failures...and from our resolve to harness the power of technology in new ways that draw us closer together instead of pushing us apart.

Meeting this challenge will take commitment to what's real and meaningful in our lives, never forsaking what is authentic for online 'likes', clicks, or online 'friends'.

Through it all, until we arrive at our 'new normal, let's spend time getting to know and jealously guarding our authentic relationships, our values, our hopes, dreams, fears, and unique talents. This is what make us distinctly human....and leaders of integrity.

The world is suffering from an epidemic of loneliness. If we cannot rebuild strong, authentic social connections, we will continue to splinter apart — in the workplace and in society. Instead of coming together to take on the great challenges before us, we will retreat to our corners, angry, sick, and alone. We must take action now to build the connections that are the foundation of strong companies and strong communities — and that ensure greater health and well-being for all of us.” - Murthy, Vivek., September, 2017. Work and the Loneliness Epidemic. Harvard Business Review

In closing, please let me hear from you. How can technology/social media encourage and support you in the relational work of leadership? How is 'social distancing' affecting your relationship with constituents? Do you have a new appreciation for what is authentic and meaningful? Log in at the bottom of this page to leave a comment.

Be strong. Keep up the good work. Keep the faith.


1. Official web site of the U.S. Health Resources & Services administration; https://www.hrsa.gov/enews/past-issues/2019/january-17/loneliness-epidemic

2. Hewlett-Packard, 2019., https://press.ext.hp.com/us/en/press-kits/2019/have-we-lost-touch-with-whats-real.html

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