Nonprofit leaders are, as a rule, a pretty compassionate bunch. By definition, someone who has decided to start or lead a nonprofit probably has a greater ability than the average person to see pain and feel compelled to relieve it. Whether it’s a desire to ease the suffering of homeless populations, or help kids access the same opportunities as their peers, or elevate the work of talented artists, people who have decided to spend their working hours making someone else’s life somehow better are pretty compassionate.
But lately I’ve begun to wonder if that compassion goes far enough.
Because to truly be successful and make change you have to find compassion for more than just those you serve. In fact, there are many more people for which nonprofit leaders may need to develop compassion.
Compassion for Board Members
Believe me, I know how frustrating board members can be. They can be distracted, distracting, self-involved, meddlesome, or simply in the way. You need them to step up to the plate, but they often just don’t get it or won’t do it. But what if they actually really want to help, but are just scared of doing it wrong, or have too much on their plate, or just don’t know how to take the first step? Could you see their ineffectiveness not as malicious, but rather as an expression of the human imperfection we all have?
Compassion for Funders
Even more difficult, but so incredibly important, is compassion for funders. I know how frustrating funders can be, I write about it all the time. If funders would just step up, make bigger bets, get out of the way, this social change work would be so much easier, right? But what if that foundation program officer is as scared as you are? What if she has a board and a boss breathing down her neck, or she doesn’t have much experience in social change work, or she’s afraid of screwing up, or she just doesn’t know how to step up?
Compassion for Yourself
And here is the big one — self compassion. I have come to realize that when we lack self compassion we are not fully tapping into our power and effectiveness. I wonder if the martyr complex from which many nonprofit leaders suffer is really just a symptom of a lack of self compassion. If you can feel true compassion for yourself as an exhausted, tireless, passionate, but humanly flawed nonprofit leader, you can be so much more powerful.
I’ve struggled with this myself as a diehard perfectionist. I recently decided that my own inner critic needed to take a backseat, so I started doing a daily loving-kindness practice, which is a simple way to build compassion. If you’re not familiar with it, the loving-kindness practice is a Buddhist tradition, although there is nothing inherently religious about it. It is simply the act of wishing happiness and health first to yourself, then to someone you love, then to an acquaintance, then to someone with whom you may struggle, and finally to the entire world. It takes minimal effort, but the impact is transformative.
Because here’s the thing. When you let compassion grow, for yourself, for those you work with, for those you need help from, suddenly you realize that it’s not “me versus them”, but it is instead all of us in this together. We all stumble, we all get scared, we all lose our way, we all sometimes struggle to find the next step.
When you develop true compassion for your board members you can approach them with equality and figure out how to work more effectively together. If you have real compassion for your funders, you can break through the fear (yours and theirs) and find common ground. When you have compassion for yourself, you suddenly find the energy to continue this hard, hard work of social change.
By recognizing the humanity and imperfection in those you love, those who challenge you, and especially in yourself, you can become so much more powerful. And truly powerful social change leaders is exactly what the world needs more of right now.
Photo Credit: Matt Collamer