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Executive Directors

Preventing Social Change Burnout

Perhaps it is the nature of trying to solve the intractable, but social change leaders are heading for burnout. I see it more often lately. A nonprofit leader  gives me a dazed look, rubs her temples with exhaustion, throws her hands up in the air, seriously considers just giving up.

The exhausting, endless hamster wheel nonprofit leaders live on is just not sustainable. At some point they will give out.

But the leaders who are driving social change are the very people we need to persevere. Because if they give up, where does that leave those who so desperately need the solutions they are providing?

Here are some things social change leaders can do to overcome burnout:

  • Get Brutally Honest. With your donors, with your board members. Stop telling people what they want to hear and start being honest about the limits of your time, your staff’s capacity, your program’s scope. And stop chasing rabbit holes for your board or donors. You know what the reality is, so stop hiding it.

  • Stop Fundraising. The thing that burns executive directors out more than anything is the endless, dysfunctional fundraising cycle. But if you could switch to a more effective strategy for bringing money in the door, and start to engage others (board members, donors, volunteers) to help, you would have a much smaller burden on your shoulders.

  • Raise Capacity Capital. Executive directors are tasked with way too much. Most nonprofit staffers are doing the jobs of 2 or 3 people. That’s fine for awhile, but not long term. The only way out of that vicious cycle is to raise some money to hire key staff, or buy effective technology. That’s capacity capital.

  • Get Inspired. Social change can be very inspiring. When you hit a wall, read about other leaders and the hurdles they faced, visit your own program and see the change that is happening every day, ask your staff and board why they are involved, ask donors why they give.

  • Forgive Yourself. One thing I absolutely love about social change leaders is their undying commitment to the cause. So many of them have a deep calling for the work they do. But that can also have a dark side. They can become so passionate that they think taking a day off would be to let down the cause. They sometimes picture themselves as Superman and deny their human need for rest and regeneration. But the only way to create lasting change is to make it sustainable. You need to know when to say when.

  • Get Some Help. You may be born to lead change, but a true leader knows how to engage others. You cannot do it all. Recruit and retain a staff to whom you can confidently delegate. Recruit a board that steps up to take key pieces off your plate. Ask your donors to tap into their networks to do some fundraising for you. This is not a one person show, rather you need to view yourself as a cheerleader, organizer, and leader of a vast army of people who are making social change happen.

When you feel your eyes glaze over, your head start to spin, a yearning for the family you haven’t seen in weeks, it’s time to take a step back. You are engaged in a marathon, not a sprint, and you can’t burnout after the first 5 miles. Long-term change takes time. Pace yourself.

Photo Credit: gb_packards

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Can You Really Wave Goodbye to Fundraising Forever?

There’s a new, or perhaps it is very old, idea kicking around the blogosphere that is probably a dream of many nonprofit leaders. The idea, put forward by Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group (AIDG) founder Peter Haas, is that there could be a company to which nonprofits completely outsource fundraising. Although the idea is intriguing, its underlying assumption that money and mission can, and should be, separated is a potentially destructive one.

Peter proposes a new business idea that takes the burden of fundraising off the backs of nonprofit Executive Directors. A fundraising contractor would solicit donations and take a 10% cut of the revenue:

This is an industry that is waiting for its day…There are incredibly talented development people with strong contacts who raise hundreds of millions of dollars for big organizations…who could do a lot of good in the world by going solo and helping smaller organizations…There need to be more contractors and less consultants in this field, people who will treat it as their job to do the work and the heavy lifting of the fund raising task instead of just offering advice.

Peter’s post set off a string of mostly positive comments and a response blog post by blogger Nathaniel Whittemore, who thinks it’s a “pretty fascinating idea.”¬† Nathaniel’s post similarly drew comments, which were largely positive.

I completely agree that we need innovation in how nonprofits fund their impact (read my series on Financing not Fundraising), but I don’t think Peter’s justified frustration has developed a valid idea. First, there are legal and ethical challenges, for example the Association of Fundraising Professionals, the largest association of fundraisers in America, calls fundraiser commissions unethical because they inject personal financial gain into a charitable transaction, and the IRS frowns on parts of charitable donations benefiting individuals.

But in any innovation there are hurdles to overcome, so these issues are not what really bothers me. Where Peter’s idea gets dangerous is in his underlying assumption that fundraising can somehow be separated from mission, as he argues:

If the mission of the NGO is the service to the community, and fund raising is truly something administrative (as most donors like to classify it in costs analysis), then it should be something an NGO can easily subcontract. NGOs subcontract back end services all the time, book keeping, accounting, payroll. I don’t hire somebody to tell me how to reach into my heart and find my inner book keeper, I hire a book keeper. Why not fund raising?

But, fundraising is NOT simply an administrative aside that can be tossed to someone else. The money that supports a nonprofit is integral to, not distinct from, the organization’s impact. Unlike a for-profit company that has one customer group, a nonprofit has two: 1) those who benefit from their services and 2) those who fund those services. To separate an organization from one of their customer groups is unthinkable. Not many successful for-profit companies outsource their sales function. Indeed, the most successful companies are those who integrate feedback that their sales team gathers as they meet with current and potential customers (the marketplace). So too should a nonprofit integrate ideas and feedback it gets from its second customer group: its funders.

Ah, I can hear the screaming now. In some nonprofit circles it is close to blasphemy to consider that those with the money should be able to influence a nonprofit program.

But funders (love them or hate them) provide a very necessary input to an organization’s theory of change. An organization can have a phenomenal solution, but if that organization is not able to articulate and demonstrate why a community as a whole should care and how that solution provides a positive return on investment, the solution is pointless.

Nonprofits cannot outsource the absolutely critical function of understanding, building relationships with, and gathering feedback from funders. To separate financing from impact would be to wave goodbye to half your business model and the customers who support it.

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Tuesday, June 15th, 2010 Financing, Fundraising, Nonprofits 9 Comments


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