I have found a refreshing liberation since leaving the role of Executive Director of a community nonprofit in the Fall of 2008. As the primary face of the organization, there was little, if any, public distinction between my personal opinions and professional positions related to my work. Regardless of how I would distinguish “which hat” I’m wearing, the community viewed me and the organization as one and the same. Lenders, donors, and program partners reinforced that message over the years, explaining the risks they took with my organization based on my personal integrity and persistence. While that flatters the ego, it also limits personal expression.
So when it is time to leave the organization, many questions arose. People want to know what happened, imagining some sordid tale of conflict. For me, it was burnout manifested in severe health problems that required life-saving surgery, lifelong medications, and adapting to a new normal. My body told me it was time to let go of an organization I helped create in 1992 and make room for others with more energy and new ideas. Even after the surgery, it took me a year to let go and move on.
Now that nine months have passed, I can see more clearly (and I expect that clarity to sharpen into the future) how widespread the issue of leadership fatigue is in the nonprofit sector.
Most of us entered the nonprofit sector because a particular social or health issue sparked a passion within. We enjoy creating new strategies to tackle the tough problems that the free market cannot address (or sometimes creates, as seen in the foreclosure and financial crises affecting the global economy). We are accustomed to working in an under-resourced environment. We tend to view ourselves as under-dogs, doing the difficult work that others dare not even attempt. In truth, most people are not fully aware of the extent of the needs and challenges in their own communities as they go from work to the ball field to the grocery store and back home. We “nonprofit types” are comfortable occupying the space outside the conventional norm; an outside looking in perspective.
Yet I’ve noticed a significant change in the last 5-6 years: it has gotten more difficult than usual for nonprofits to make ends meet. Contracts and grants have been cut while operating costs continue to rise (i.e., health insurance, liability and property insurance, energy costs, audit and compliance). These operational limitations occur simultaneously with an increase in demand for services.
The mission work which draws us in can be overshadowed by the barriers (insufficient funding, counterproductive regulation, etc.) that prevent real progress. It’s no wonder that thousands of nonprofit leaders are retiring or shifting careers to prepare for their own retirement futures.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. I’ll share some thoughts on this soon…