Perhaps one of the worst things about this pandemic is that in practicing social distancing for days on end we begin to believe that we are alone. Zoom calls, emails and conversations with the same few people you are quarantining with can only get you so far. The silence, the physical distance from staff, board, funders, friends, colleagues creates the illusion that you are doing this work alone.
But the thing is that loneliness is just an illusion. If this pandemic offers anything positive perhaps it is forcing us to realize we are all connected. We all need each other. We cannot — simply cannot — go it alone.
And for nonprofit leaders, who are famously used to going it alone, perhaps this is a needed wake up call. As a nonprofit leader you are the victim of both subconscious messaging and quite blatant incentives that have taught you for years that the burden rests squarely on your shoulders. Competition among peers for limited funding; overworked staff; distracted board members; little, if any funding, for coaching, training, professional development, are just a few of the ways that you as a nonprofit leader have subtly, and not so subtly, been told that it is all up to you.
The ever-present ethos in the nonprofit world is to focus everything on the needs of those you serve, those for whom you are trying to make the world a bit better. There is such an overwhelming value placed on selflessness in the nonprofit sector.
But what a horrible way to live. And more critically, a completely ineffective way to create social change.
So perhaps this pandemic will help us all — but most especially nonprofit leaders — realize that you need, and are in fact worthy of, so much more. More support, more access to networks and wealth, more connection, more influence, more sharing of the social change burden.
Because you are, dear nonprofit leaders, worthy of so much more.
But if we continue to prop up the false idea that the needs of our nonprofit leaders — those warriors on the frontlines of creating a better world for all of us — are not important, not worthy of time or effort or money or solutions, we are dooming not only our nonprofit leaders, but also the solutions they offer.
Because when you are trying to meet someone else’s needs without first meeting your own needs, you are doing both yourself and those you are trying to help a huge disservice. You simply cannot help someone else effectively until your own needs — as a staff and board leader, as an organization builder, as a program developer, as a human being — are fully met.
And as a nonprofit leader, your list of needs is likely long, including things like: adequate rest and rejuvenation; enough staff, technology and systems to fully deliver your services; freedom from fear about paying the bills; time and space to think and plan; board members, funders, influencers advocating for support for your work, and on and on.
So the first step is to recognize the fact that as a nonprofit leader you need more, in fact you deserve much more. It’s time to break free from the tiresome and relentless nonprofit leader mantras of “It’s enough. I’ll get by. I’ll make it work. I’ll just do it myself.”
It’s time to find some space to sit quietly, take a deep breath, and ask yourself as a nonprofit leader what you truly need to do the work. Make a list. Then start asking those around you for help. Show the list to your board members, your funders, your staff, your friends and family. Open yourself to the help I know you desperately need, and to the help that I also know is eager to reach you.
And maybe in your courageous act of asking for help, you will not only find the help you need, but also be an inspiration to the rest of us.
Photo Credit: Neil Thomas