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The Fundamental Flaws in How We Finance the Nonprofit Sector

NFF SurveyToday the Nonprofit Finance Fund (NFF) released the results of their sixth annual State of the Nonprofit Sector survey and the data underlines a growing crisis in the financial sustainability of our nonprofit sector.

56% of nonprofit leader respondents reported that they were unable to meet demand for their services in 2013, this is the highest rate since the survey’s inception six years ago. And the scary part is that this inability to meet demand is not because of a temporary down period in the economy, but rather because of deeper dysfunctions in how we funnel money to the sector. As Antony Bugg-Levine, CEO of NFF put it, “The struggles nonprofits face are not the short-term result of an economic cycle, they are the results of fundamental flaws in the way we finance social good.”

The survey gathered responses from more than 5,000 leaders from U.S. nonprofits of all sizes, domain areas, and geographies.

The top challenge by far for nonprofit leaders, with 41% of them reporting it, is “achieving long-term financial stability.” And this is evidenced in several ways:

  • More than half of nonprofits (55%) have 3 months or less cash-on-hand.
  • 28% ended their 2013 fiscal year with a deficit.
  • Only 9% can have an open dialogue with funders about developing reserves for operating

These struggles with financial sustainability stem in large part from a lack of understanding among funders of the true costs of social change work. Roughly 53% of nonprofit respondents’ funders rarely or never fund the full costs of the programs they support. And for approximately 24% of respondents their government indirect cost rate (the amount government allows for indirect, or “overhead” expenses) declined over the last 5 years, while about 47% of respondents are subject to a government indirect rate of 9% or less. That is nearly impossible.

For the first time, the survey included questions about impact measurement, a growing interest among funders, ratings agencies and others in the sector. But these questions just further underline the financial Catch-22 in which nonprofit leaders find themselves. 70% of nonprofit leaders report that half to all of their funders want to see proof of the impact of their programs, but 71% of nonprofit leaders also report that funders rarely or never fund the costs of impact measurement.

At the end of the day, government and private funders are putting greater demands on nonprofits whose services are increasingly needed, all while funding is becoming more difficult to secure. It’s a vicious downward spiral.

More than ever this survey demonstrates a need for the nonprofit sector and those who fund it to take a hard look at how the social sector is financed. We are not sustainably financing the social change work we so desperately need. And if we don’t address that, the downward spiral will simply continue.

Here are some fundamental changes to the financing of the nonprofit sector that I’d like to see:

  • Government must move to a more reasonable indirect rate. No one can deliver an effective program with only 9% allocated to administration and other “overhead” costs.
  • Funders who want to see impact measures need to step up and fund the work and systems necessary to make it happen.
  • Nonprofit leaders and funders need to have more open and honest conversations about the hurdles standing in the way of the work.
  • Nonprofit leaders need help figuring out sustainable financial models.

In the six years of NFF’s comprehensive and unparalleled view into the world of nonprofit leaders the story is not getting better. Let’s hope this data serves as a wake up call for the social sector. We must collectively realize that if we really want social change we have to figure out how to finance it effectively and sustainably.

 

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How You Can Learn to Stop Worrying and Love Your Board

Dr._Strangelove“Honestly, some days I think I would be so much better off without a board,” said an exasperated executive director to me recently.

Wrangling a group of volunteers who have competing and often conflicting interests is an exhausting job. It’s no wonder that nonprofit leaders often want to throw up their hands and soldier on without the rag tag group that’s supposed to further, as opposed to impede, the work.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. An “engaged board” is not an oxymoron. It is actually attainable. But you don’t get there by cajoling, guilting, ignoring or dismissing your board.

You get there by marshaling this critical army to grow your resources, your community of supporters, your results. Because an engaged board raises more money, recruits and trains other engaged board members, connects your nonprofit to key people and organizations necessary to achieve the mission, puts your nonprofit above their self interest, and ultimately leads your organization to greater results and impact.

There are very clear steps you can take to build an engaged board:

  • Create a clear idea of the specific skills, experience and networks board members should possess
  • Continually focus the board on the big picture
  • Get them ALL to raise enough money
  • Help them embrace money as an effective tool
  • Make them understand and be able to articulate the impact of your nonprofit
  • Create a commitment among them to build the organization
  • Encourage them to ask hard questions
  • And more…

You can help them become the board of directors they were meant to be.

An engaged board understands and fully embraces their charge. They have extremely high standards, and they hold themselves, their fellow board members and their nonprofit to those standards. They are constantly pushing, striving, and building the nonprofit to whom they are devoting their service. An engaged board may be an anomaly, but it doesn’t have to be.

Nonprofit BoardIf you want to build an engaged board, the Build an Engaged Board Tool Bundle can help you get there. The Bundle includes:

  • The “Getting Your Board to Raise More Money” Webinar
  • The “10 Traits of a Groundbreaking Board” E-book
  • The “How to Create a Groundbreaking Board” Webinar

Here’s what some people who have already downloaded the board tools had to say about them:

“This was very concrete and actionable – gave specific suggestions regarding engaging board members. This was very useful. Well done.”

“This really opened my eyes to new possibilities – thank you so much!”

“This was one of the best and most helpful and informative webinars I’ve been on. It was exactly what I was looking for in terms of beginning to get our board energized and on track and I will use the slides to help me prepare for our upcoming board retreat.”

An ineffective board is not just a frustration for the executive director. Sadly it is a HUGE missed opportunity. Your board could be so much more. When you effectively engage your board of directors, you grow your resources and ability to create social change exponentially.

You can download the Build an Engaged Board Tool Bundle here.

Photo Credit: Dr. Strangelove

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: March 2014

reading catCould it be that the nonprofit sector is coming into its own? Increasing prominence in the economy coupled with a growing (we hope) recognition of the need for stronger organizations, the nonprofit sector may be hitting its stride. Add to that some interesting discussions about the effect of crowdfunding and a “revitalizing” Detroit and you have a pretty good month of reading in the world of social innovation.

Below are my 10 favorite reads from March. But add what I missed in the comments. And if you want to see more of what I’m reading, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google+.

You can also see my favorites from past months here.

  1. It appears that the nonprofit sector is beginning to take center stage in a new economy. The rise of the “sharing economy,” where products and services are shared by many rather than owned by one (think Netflix, Car2Go, HomeAway), apparently holds tremendous opportunity for the nonprofit sector. So says Jeremy Rifkin in the New York Times, “We are…entering a world partly beyond markets, where we are learning how to live together in an increasingly interdependent, collaborative, global commons.” Erin Morgan Gore (writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review) would agree.

  2. But at the same time, NPR describes a growing individualism in America and an emerging “Opt-Out Society.”

  3. And lest you forget why we do this social change work, Robert Samuelson, writing in the Washington Post, describes some “menacing mega-trends” facing America and our political system’s inability to keep up.

  4. We continue to be fascinated by the Millennial generation and this infographic very nicely puts to rest some myths about them.

  5. Writing in the Huffington Post, Ashley Woods questions whether the recent focus on revitalizing Detroit is helping or hurting long-time residents.

  6. Crowdfunding is increasingly gaining interest, but can it actually increase money flowing to social change? A new infographic by Craig Newmark, founder of Craig’s List, describes some recent crowdfunding results for nonprofits. And Beth Kanter digs deeper into the data.

  7. The CEO of The California Endowment, Dr. Robert Ross makes a compelling argument for why foundations need to move beyond funding new solutions and instead get into the advocacy and community organizing game: “Philanthropy has to recognize that community power, voice, and advocacy are, to use a football analogy, the blocking and tackling of winning social change.”

  8. Are funders beginning to understand the need to invest in nonprofit capacity building? Some recent research by The Center for Effective Philanthropy shows that, not surprisingly, nonprofit leaders think funders don’t understand their need for help with sustainability. But some new data from Grantmakers for Effective Organizations finds that funder appetite for capacity building might be growing.  And Rodney Christopher from the F.B. Heron Foundation makes the case for support of capacity building, “Failing to pay attention to nonprofits as enterprises will undermine impact over time.”

  9. But Kate Barr from the Nonprofits Assistance Fund places a big part of the burden of overcoming the nonprofit overhead myth squarely on the shoulders of nonprofit leaders themselves.

  10. Albert Ruesga, head of the Greater New Orleans Foundation and contributor to the White Courtesy Telephone blog, very thoughtfully breaks down how to understand philanthropy’s relationship to social change. Well worth the read.

Photo Credit: Alfred Hermida

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Leave Your Charity at the Door

charityI hate the word “charity.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m not big on semantics. But “charity” is more than a word, it’s a destructive mindset that keeps the work of social change sidelined and impoverished.

“Charity” harkens back to the beginnings of philanthropy, which was largely the purview of women and as such was viewed as tangential to and less valuable than the more important “business” of the male-dominated world.

As social problems mount, we must shift from the “charity” of our predecessors to an understanding of social change as part of everything we do.

And here’s why:

Charity Lives Beside the Economy, Social Change is Baked into the Economy
While charity was just an afterthought of the real work of the world, social change is rapidly becoming an integral part of the economy. The number of nonprofits grew 50 times faster than for-profits in the last 10 years and nonprofit revenues grew at double the rate of GDP growth in the same period. And its not just the size and resources of nonprofits that contribute to an emerging social change economy, the Millennial generation actually thinks about social change as part of every aspect of, not separate from, their work and life. The work of social change is ubiquitous.

Charity Addresses Symptoms, Social Change Addresses Systems
Charity is about remedying the immediate and direct symptoms of a larger problem. It is about feeding the poor, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked. But as very real structural challenges grow (like the widening income gap) we can no longer just stick a finger in the dike. We must come up with approaches that solve the underlying issues causing those problems.

Charity Requires Spare Pennies, Social Change Requires Significant Investment
Charity existed on the largesse of the profiteers of the last centuries. Once they made their millions, they sloughed off a portion of the excess to the charities who cleaned up the messes they made. But you can’t do much with the dregs. Because social change is about changing larger systems it takes real, significant investment of resources.

Charity Employs Volunteers, Social Change Employs Experts
Charity was always the purview of the wives who didn’t work. As volunteers they devoted their time to helping the needy. But as our social problems become increasingly complex and entrenched, we must employ experts – not volunteers – who through education, knowledge and experience know exactly how to approach the problem and how to solve it. And we must pay them what it takes to keep them working on those solutions.

Charity Apologizes, Social Change Demands
When you are voluntarily acting on behalf of a charity and asking others also to act voluntarily on behalf of the charity, you are often apologizing for the interruption to their “real work.” But social change is very necessary work, and social changemakers must demand the investment, mindshare, time and effort required. There is absolutely no space for apology.

Sometimes words and the baggage of the past really matter. When we stop thinking of the work of social change as “charity” we start demanding and creating real investment, real attention, and real change.

Photo Credit: Library of Congress

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Emerging From the Nonprofit Starvation Tunnel

TunnelNonprofits are always starving for resources. It’s a concept so ubiquitous that it’s almost a truism. But it doesn’t have to be.

For those nonprofit leaders brave enough, capacity capital can be the key to emerging from the continuous nonprofit starvation cycle.

Next month I will be speaking at the Securing the Future Conference in Cincinnati about capacity capital. Beyond looking forward to meeting a new group of nonprofit leaders, board members and donors, I’m particularly excited about introducing them to what I think has the potential to be a transformative concept for the nonprofit sector.

The topic of my speech is “The Power of Capacity Capital,” and in it I will convince the audience that you no longer have to run a nonprofit to the bone, continually starving the organization of the staffing, infrastructure, and systems that you need to effectively deliver social change.

Capacity capital is the money that so many nonprofits need, but most find so hard to raise. It is money for infrastructure and organization building. It is a one-time investment of significant money that can fund a program evaluation, a new data gathering system, revenue-generating staff, leadership coaching, and the many other things nonprofits require in order to be effective leaders of social change.

If you want to move your organization out of the starvation cycle, you have to learn how to raise capacity capital.

For those of you who won’t be at the Securing the Future Conference, but want to learn more about capacity capital – whether it’s right for your nonprofit and how to go about raising it – you can download my on-demand webinar, Raising Capacity Capital.

capacity webinarThe 60-minute Raising Capacity Capital on-demand webinar will show you how to:

  • Talk about the importance of capacity capital to your donors and board
  • Create a budget for the capacity dollars you need
  • Develop a campaign goal
  • Break the goal into donor ask amounts
  • Identify prospective donors
  • Give your board a role in the campaign
  • Gain the confidence to start asking for the money you really need

Like all of the Social Velocity on-demand webinars, you can watch this webinar whenever and however many times you would like.

You really don’t have to continue to live in starvation mode. There is a path toward a stronger, more effective nonprofit organization. Capacity capital can help you get there.

Photo Credit: panthera-lee

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Leading a High Performing Nonprofit: An Interview with Pat Lawler

In today’s SPat Lawlerocial Velocity interview I’m talking with Pat Lawler. Pat is the CEO of Youth Villages, a national nonprofit dedicated to helping emotionally and behaviorally troubled children and their families live successfully. Youth Villages is often heralded as a model for high performing nonprofit organizations. In 2006, Lawler was recognized as one of “America’s Best Leaders” by U.S. News & World Report.

You can read past interviews in the Social Innovation Interview Series here.

Nell: In 34 years of your tenure at Youth Villages you’ve grown the organization from serving 25 youth to now serving 22,000 families. Very few nonprofits are able to grow to that level, let alone sustain it. What are the factors that make nonprofit growth attainable and what holds more nonprofits back from achieving it?

Pat: First, an organization must have a clear mission and defined values. When we started Youth Villages, we knew who we were. We didn’t just want to respond to RFPs; we wanted to do what was best for kids. No more of the status quo, instead we used our expertise and created best practices. We built our leadership team and our culture around a clear mission and set of values. Our culture is a big part of who we are and what we’ve done over the years. We’ve also been willing to change directions. We’re willing to do different things based on the needs of kids and families. At one time, we only provided residential treatment services, but now residential services comprise only about 35 percent of our work. Don’t anticipate the future, create it.

As an organization, we were also careful not to grow too fast. We were constantly assessing what was best and reevaluating. We also implemented a feedback system to learn what was working and what was not so we could improve our outcomes.

It’s easy for nonprofits, especially those focused on social services, to make decisions with our hearts instead of our heads, but we must still maintain a strong focus on the business aspect of our work. After we got through our first 12-13 years, when we were just trying to survive as an organization, we began thinking about strengthening our financial reserves because we were responsible for more children and families, as well as our staff and their families. So we really started trying to build a stronger financial foundation that would help us successfully transition through turbulent times.

Nell: Often when a nonprofit becomes very large finding on-going sustainable funding sources can be difficult. The majority of your funding comes from state contracts. Is government the ultimate answer to long-term funding for large nonprofits? Or are there other ways?

Pat: It depends, but in general, I think it’s important for organizations to have a diverse set of funders to achieve maximum stability. Having at least three or four funding sources and a relative balance among those sources is a good way to go. If government is a major funding source, you want to make sure that’s diversified among different programs, geographies, etc. and not all one contract.

Nell: Youth Villages is also unusual in that you have a robust performance management system and are considered one of the leading nonprofits in the country in that arena. Why did you make the decision many years back to invest in performance management and what do you think the return on that investment has been?

Pat: Youth Villages’ goal has always been to provide the best services for children and families. That’s one of the reasons why we started collecting data, using measurement, benchmarking and total quality improvement. It was all about getting better outcomes for kids. We didn’t realize how valuable our data could be until the mid-‘90s when some of our state funding was at risk. Using our data, we were able to convince the state to spend money for in-home services and develop a continuum of care — because we had really good data to show them what worked and how much more cost-effective it was. Throughout the years, we started trying to convince other states and funders. A few were pretty enthusiastic about our data and outcomes. When the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation met with us nine years ago, they were very interested in our data and outcomes, and that was the first indication that the private sector was becoming interested in doing what works.

Even today, we’re asking ourselves where is the best place to put our resources, and more often, we’re finding it’s better to serve a larger number of children through community-based services rather than in a residential setting. You can make such a greater impact in the community serving a large number of youth, rather than serving a small number with the greatest needs. We’re trying to do both. But we’re asking ourselves what’s the biggest return on our investment so we can have the greatest impact on our community?

Nell: Funders and nonprofits themselves are often reluctant to invest in nonprofit leadership development. How do we solve this need and how did you grow your leadership skills over the course of your career? What role do you think funders should or could play in leadership development for the sector?

Pat: I read a lot, and I’ve been very fortunate throughout my career to have worked with great boards of directors and mentors to shape my leadership skills. At Youth Villages, we have an outstanding leadership team filled with better leaders than I am. Together, we make a strong team. Any of us independently might not be as good. I know I wouldn’t be at all. At all levels of this organization, we have very bright people and that is what makes the difference here.

If I had to start over at the beginning, rather than asking foundations for money for programs and services, I would have asked for funds to put toward business planning, professional coaches, leadership development and communications to help with the things I didn’t know about. I’d have asked for money to help build a stronger organization, while at the same time maybe a little money for programs and services. I believe it’s a waste of money for governments, foundations or anyone to spend money on an organization that doesn’t have the necessary skills, organizational structure, leadership and business planning to achieve the goals of their program. It just makes no sense.

From the time an organization is created, I think they have to ask the questions: Do we have the right people in place? Do we have the right business plan and strategy to execute? Do we have the support of the community and board of directors? I firmly believe every foundation should put a significant portion of their funding toward strengthening the organization versus funding some programs and services. If you don’t have the right people in place to execute the strategy then it’s not going to happen. It’s also important for foundations to give organizations time. It takes time for leaders to develop, they get better as they encounter and overcome problems, and it’s important to stick with those organizations for extended periods of time.

Photo Credit: Youth Villages

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: February 2014

readingFebruary witnessed some dissatisfaction with the current state of funding for social change, but also some trailblazers playing with new financial vehicles. I always wonder whether true change to money for social good will come with the next generation. Do Millennials hold the key to fundamental shifts in how we finance social change efforts? We shall see.

Below is my list of the 10 best reads in the world of social innovation in February. But, as usual, please add what I missed in the comments. If you’d like to see an expanded list, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google+.

You can also find the list of past months’ 10 Great Reads here.

  1. As we work toward social change, its important to embrace the gray areas. Writing in the New York Times Simon Critchley takes us back to the 1970s BBC documentary series “The Ascent of Man” to make a point about the importance of uncertainty in our search for solutions. As he puts it, “Insisting on certainty…leads ineluctably to arrogance and dogma based on ignorance.” And Fay Twersky seems to agree when it comes to strategic philanthropy, arguing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review that “we need to challenge the certainty creeping into [philanthropy].”

  2. And speaking of changing philanthropy yet another study of Millennial philanthropists claims that this new generation of donors will be quite different than their predecessors. As Phil DeMuth writing in Forbes puts it, these new donors “are no longer interested in providing an annuity to some tax-deductible charity organization.” They want to see results, and they want to get in and get out.

  3. But Lucy Bernholz is frustrated by the pace of change, at least in how little the financial vehicles philanthropists use are changing. She argues that in this year’s list of the top 50 philanthropists  “the financial vehicles for philanthropy…look not unlike [those] in 1954 or 1914.”

  4. Tris Lumley from New Philanthropy Capital voices frustration as well, but with the general state of nonprofit finance. He puts forward a new model for the social sector that removes the “funder-centricity” of the “anti-social sector.”  Because, as he argues, “the result of this funder-centricity at its worst is that the social sector exists not for those it’s supposed to help, but in fact for those who work in it, volunteer in it, and give money to it.”

  5. There are some bright spots, at least in the United Kingdom. The country leads the way in the social impact bond trend.  Emma Tomkinson provides a map of social impact bond activity in the UK versus the rest of the world and the UK Centre for Social Impact Bonds provides a great site of resources on the new tool.

  6. And even here at home there are some trend setters, particularly the F.B. Heron Foundation, led by the visionary Clara Miller who also founded and led the trailblazing Nonprofit Finance Fund for 25 years. Clara has announced the F.B. Heron Foundation will account for the mission return of 100% of its assets. Unheard of and definitely interesting to watch.

  7. There is a constant tension in the nonprofit sector between funding new ideas and funding the growth of proven ideas.  Writing in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Alex Neuhoff, Laura Burkhauser, and Bradley Seeman fall squarely on the side of growing proven solutions, arguing that in order to reach a higher performing nonprofit sector we must “follow the “recipes” that earned proven programs their stellar ratings.”

  8. There was much for Millennial changemakers to chew on this month. First, there is a growing drumbeat questioning the relevance and value of college. Does the higher education model really work anymore? It’s a fascinating question to contemplate. And Naomi Schaefer Riley does so in the “College Tuition Bubble.

  9. I’ve been on a real Steven Pressfield (author of The War of Art) kick lately. His worldview is that each individual was put on earth to create some specific greater good, but Resistance constantly fights to keep us from achieving it. If you need inspiration to overcome Resistance, read his post “How Resistance Proves the Existence of God.” Love it.

  10. And for those who are pursuing a life of social change despite the lure of a more traditional path, look to Thoreau for inspiration. For as Maureen Corrigan explains in her NPR review of a new biography of the man, “Thoreau’s youth seemed aimless to himself and others because there were no available roadmaps for what he was drawn to be…If Thoreau had committed to a professional career right after Harvard, his parents might have rested easier, but the world would have been poorer.”

Photo Credit: beggs

 

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7 Rules for Brilliant Nonprofit Leaders

CompassI came across a great article the other day, Rules for Brilliant Women, and as a female entrepreneur I found it really inspiring and affirming. But I realized nonprofit leaders need a similar list. Because just as women often sell themselves short, so too do nonprofit leaders. In fact, there are some interesting parallels between the place of women and the place of nonprofits in society, but that’s a post for another day.

So in the hopes of inspiring nonprofit leaders to claim their rightful place as true heralds of social change, here are 7 rules for brilliant nonprofit leaders:

  1. Find and Keep Your True North
    As a nonprofit leader you probably receive advice all day, every day. From board members, to donors, to staff members, to colleagues, to bloggers and consultants (ha!), everyone has an opinion about how you should do your job. So close your eyes, take a deep breath, and find your true north. Don’t do what you think you “should” do, or what someone else tells you to do. Follow what you know deep down is the right path.

  2. Remember the Dream
    The daily grind can wear a nonprofit leader to the bone. It is often an exhausting, thankless job. But you have to remember what got you here in the first place. And I bet that was some huge vision for how the world could be a very different place. Don’t lose sight of your overarching goal. And don’t lose heart that you may never get there. It’s the big honking dream that propels great leaders forward.

  3. Admit When You Don’t Know
    Leaders don’t have to know it all. And in fact the best leaders are those who recognize their weaknesses and figure out how to address them. The first step is openly admitting when you don’t know (to your board, your donors, your staff). Only then will you find the freedom and power to scale that wall.

  4. Ask for What You Really Need
    And once you freely admit what you lack, you must ask for it. Whether you need more staff, better technology, greater knowledge – demand it. Create a detailed list of what will make you more effective as a leader, put a price to those items, and then make the pitch to your board, to funders, to anyone who can help you get what you need.

  5. Don’t Wait for Permission
    How many times do nonprofit leaders wait for their board chair, or a big donor, or a government official to allow them to do something? True leaders find permission internally and then show those around them why their path was the right one. I get that there are times when forging ahead without consent would be politically unwise, but those times are less often than many nonprofit leaders think. Don’t shut yourself and your staff down because you fear making someone else mad.

  6. Stop Being So Nice
    The thing I love most about nonprofit leaders is that, for the most part, they are truly good, decent people. They are trying to make the world a better place, so by definition they are considerate of others. But sometimes you can take being nice too far. Being nice to the donor who leads your nonprofit the wrong way, or the staff member who can’t cut it may work for that individual relationship, but is detrimental to the larger organization and ultimately your mission.

  7. Hit Pause on Saving the World Once in Awhile
    I don’t care how fast-paced and “always on” our world becomes, we always need time and space to breathe, reflect, regenerate. Because you are in the business of improving lives, as a nonprofit leader you are particularly prone to the martyr syndrome of equating taking a break with fewer lives saved. But you will actually be more productive if you regularly focus on things outside the realm of saving the world.

Oh nonprofit leaders, I love you so. You are brilliant, beautiful human beings doing truly amazing things. Own it.

Photo Credit: Shyamal

 

 

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