Recently, a colleague and I were catching up over coffee and swapping stories about our careers. As a previous leader of a non-profit (me) and a foundation (her), we both shared how we had no desire to run another organization anytime soon. Maybe never. We chuckled at the thought that we may suffer from some sort of post traumatic stress syndrome. But then we began to have a serious conversation about the reasons why we felt this way. What was it about our previous experiences that the thought of being a CEO or an Executive Director (E.D.) in the future, made us close our eyes, throw our heads back and let out the longest sigh? So, we began rattling off some of those reasons and it was amazing to hear the similarities. Here is what we discovered:
THE B.O.D.: When you are the E.D. or the CEO, your boss(es) are the Board of Directors. They hold you accountable. They are also supposed to be your allies and have your back when necessary. They don’t have to agree with you all of the time, (because they won’t) but are to trust you are making the right decisions. I would say 5-6 times out of 10, an organization has a board where everyone gets along, supports you 100%, gives you the leeway you need to be the decision maker, allows you to manage your staff, and completely understands their governance and fiduciary role. However, when you have a board or a few board members who do the opposite of all of the aforementioned, it can be a VERY challenging, tumultuous, toxic and often stressful experience.
Change of the funding and fundraising climate: It is getting harder and harder for non-profits to raise money for their work. There are more non-profits popping up each day, thus more competition. Over the last 15 or so years, foundations have begun to limit or eliminate the process of accepting unsolicited proposals. Many foundations invite groups to submit a proposal if there is a specific issue they want to fund or they hold an open submission process once or twice a year. In addition, very few, if any, want to fund capacity building which is where so many non-profits really need financial assistance. Rarely do non-profits have the funds for the internal areas where they are weak — board development, strategic planning, fund raising, professional development, marketing and communication and IT. As a result, they may have the program staff to implement that newly funded project, but they do not have the means to provide the staff with new skills. I could go on and on here, but I will stop for now. Look out for another post on the importance of capacity building grants.
Staffing or lack there of. When you work in a non-profit, let’s face it, there are times when you have to cut back on something in the budget. That’s the nature of the beast. That often means everyone, even the CEO or ED has about 3-5 additional jobs. Coming from a small non-profit, it was not unusual for me to answer the phone if my two staff persons were out to lunch. No big deal because work had to get done and I wasn’t too proud. But, there are key areas within an organization that really require the attention of one person or more. Unfortunately, the areas that are almost always cut or reduced significantly are fund development and marketing and communications. Which is crazy, because these areas are most CRITICALLY needed to ensure a non profit is strong and sustainable — raising money, building a brand, and relaying what you do. So what happens? Everyone, carrying all of the extra jobs get burned out and the quality of work begins to suffer. As the ED or CEO, you are more than likely carrying the most jobs or the heavy burden, so burning out tends to happen rapidly.
We shared a few other reasons like constant traveling, working every weekend, and the overall stress of being the boss. But the above were the big “3” that we discussed the most in our conversation and that we agreed tend to have the biggest impact on your role as a leader.
It was so refreshing to know that I was not alone in how I was feeling. I took comfort in knowing she understood where I was coming from. What I loved the most was that neither of us have given up entirely on the idea to do it again. We both gave 150% to our organizations, we wholeheartedly believed in our causes, and we are still committed to non-profits and foundations as a whole. It’s in our blood. But there comes a time when the stress, the unnecessary tug-of-war battles, and the feeling as if you are in this all alone; becomes too much to bear. We know that we are not alone in our experiences. We are working individually and collectively, to support other women in leadership positions at non-profits and foundations. We talked about how we wish there was a support group for us when we were in our positions. How wonderful would that have been? To sit around with other women and drink wine (because wine makes EVERYTHING better) to strategize, provide solutions and be a sounding board for each other? Oh how I would have probably had a lot less sleepless nights. And a whole lot less hair pulling and screaming in my hands in my car.
Unfortunately, too many non-profit organizations are losing good leaders as a result of many of the reasons mentioned in this post. But also because so many individuals are not clear on their role or they haven’t honed in on the critical skills needed to lead the organization. My colleague and I are hoping to put something together soon where women who live in the DMV (DC, MD and VA) can come together and support each other. For those outside of the DMV, I am hoping this blog will serve as a space where you can access outside of the box information and resources. If are you feeling like you are going down the road of extreme burnout or you just need an outlet where you are not alone on this journey, then keep checking this blog.
In the meantime, remember your vision, think positive thoughts, and meditate or take a nap (whatever relaxes you the most).