I have often discussed (along with many others) how nonprofit leaders are (annoyingly) told to behave more like business leaders. But there are many ways in which business leaders could emulate nonprofit leaders. The biggest one is empathy.
My guess is that the vast majority of nonprofit leaders are highly empathetic. Typically people start or agree to lead a social change organization because they have a visceral reaction to the pain or injustice that someone else faces. Whether you lead an environmental organization, a journalism nonprofit, a homeless shelter, or some other entity bent on making the world a better place, I bet that you are compelled to do the work because you feel the pain of those you are trying to benefit.
Where that can go wrong, however, is when you feel others’ or the world’s pain so acutely that it becomes overwhelming and you start protecting yourself by hiding your tremendous gifts from the world. So often in the social change sector I see nonprofit and philanthropic leaders apologizing for who and how they are — worn down by the empathy they feel, or embarrassed by it, or striving to deny or ignore it.
The truth is that your empathy, that driving force that sometimes feels so hard and so heavy to bear, is actually your greatest strength. In fact, I believe that empathy is your superpower.
Your ability to feel the wrongness of a situation or the pain of another living being (person, animal or planet) is something that the world needs much more of right now. We have grown too accustomed to fighting against each other, or leaving too many behind, or hurting the planet we share. We need more people, like you, who feel such compassion for their fellow beings that they are driven to bring us together, when we are feeling so torn apart.
So instead of being overwhelmed by the empathy you feel, become an empathy warrior. Here are some ideas on how to do that:
Speak From Your Empathy
When you feel hindered on the path toward reaching the social change you seek, speak up from your empathetic worldview. If someone (board, funders, others) is encouraging you to play it safe when you know that you and your organization must be bold, tap into the empathy you feel for those you serve. Feel into the empathy that drives you to do the work you do. Remind yourself (and others) why you must succeed. That empathy can propel you and your organization past the fear or other obstacles standing in the way.
Empathize With Those in Your Way
But you also want to empathize with those who might be in the way of the social change you seek. Whether they are policymakers or regulators or funders, allies or enemies, you will get so much farther if you realize we are all in this together, even those who drive us crazy. As an empathetic person you have the (pretty cool) ability to get a clear sense of what another person is feeling. By moving beyond your own frustration and instead exploring what might be causing those in your way to throw up roadblocks, you can figure out how to overcome those hurdles. When you use empathy to disarm and connect you will be infinitely more powerful at achieving your goals.
Turn That Empathy on Yourself
Have you ever tried turning that powerful empathy on yourself? This is where the real magic happens. You are working so hard, trying to push a boulder up an endless hill with not nearly enough support or funding or people, while the world feels like it is falling apart around you. I get it. But you need to empathize with your plight as well. I’m not talking about venting, because research shows that complaining just makes things worse. I mean showing yourself true compassion. You are doing such important and valuable work, even if that value is not recognized enough. So use your empathetic superpower on yourself and watch your energy and drive start to soar.
Nonprofit leaders, your empathy is not something to be hidden or shunned or dismissed. It holds tremendous power, if only you choose to harness it.
Photo Credit: TK Hammonds