In my work coaching nonprofit executive directors, I have noticed one distinct theme that runs through the majority of their lives regardless of their location, their tax status or their organization’s size. Are you ready? Here it is…(drumroll please)…the absence of healthy personal and professional boundaries.
Recently I read a powerful quote by an Executive Director in an article by CharityVillage. After many stressful, exhausting years as an ED she said “Why am I working so hard to save the world when on a personal level I’m struggling so much? It didn’t make any sense.” She said it, I’m agreeing with her. It doesn’t make sense.
To follow up the article I asked a client of mine about his work philosophy and whether he agrees with the work 24/7 game plan all in the name of serving your cause. His response? A resounding “no”. Having both worked like crazy-people during different phases of our lives, we spent some time commiserating about the early years where we had each respectively laid it all on the line for our cause only to realize later that we had missed our lives in the process.
Why do allow our schedules to stay so jam-packed all the time? Why do we feel compelled to say “yes” to everyone and be “nice” all the time? Why do we attach more value the the needs of our team and our clients than we do to our own needs? If you’re an ED stuck in this loop and not sure how to get out of it, I’m going to step in and be the bad-cop and say that your unconditional availability to your organization is not a sign of dedication, it is a sign of your inability to set and maintain personal boundaries.
It was 7:00 am on a Saturday morning. I was just coming off night #4 of almost no sleep, had a cold and feeling lousy. After being awake for literally 2 minutes, my husband asks me whether or not I could drive our kids to their grandmas house in 15 minutes because he had to leave for work early and they were taking the kids out for the day. I assessed the situation – all three kids were still asleep, I wasn’t dressed and there was not enough gas in my car to get them there. I began to feel a melt-down coming on…
Trying to be helpful, my hubby handed me some cash for gas (and a coffee) and tried to help me get everyone ready to go. Anyone with kids knows that dressing three tired children is asking for trouble. Within minutes my 5 year old starts crying because he’s hungry, my seven year old didn’t like the socks I picked and my 4 year old couldn’t find her coat. It’s 7:10 and I’m already in tears yelling at my kids for dawdling and resenting my husband for not giving me more notice about this early-morning chore. Aaaahh!!!
Fifteen minutes later, I had dropped them off and sitting in the line at the drive-through for coffee wearing yesterday’s clothes trying not to start crying before I had a chance to order my drink. I’m not sure if it was the lack of sleep, the sore throat, or hunger from not having time for breakfast but I felt a self-pity storm coming. Why was my husband so inconsiderate?? Why me?? Doesn’t he appreciate all the things I do around the house that he would give me even more to do?? I was a mess.
One high-carb high-sugar donut and one coffee later I started hearing the nagging voice in the back of my brain asking me if I was really going to let my whole day spiral down because of a thirty minute messy morning. It was only 8:00 after all, was I really going to allow myself to be in a bad mood all day because of something this stupid? The kids were fine by the time we got to grandmas, couldn’t I be too? I hated what I was hearing but knew I had to change my attitude and fast.
Annahid Dashtgard spent many years as a young leader in the nonprofit sector. She worked hard, she was committed, she was inspired. She was exhausted.
“For all the talk of community, I found very little personal support,” she recalls of that time. Work demands were unrealistic, finances were tight and the leader felt increasingly lonely, asking herself, “Why am I working so hard to save the world when on a personal level I’m struggling so much? It didn’t make any sense.” Seeing people around her in the same boat was no consolation. Upon hitting burnout — a common affliction of those in this sector — Dashtgard figured it a good time to cut her losses and get out…
As Dashtgard explains, social mission-driven issues are emotionally loaded to begin with. Add to that reality the fact that people are generally hired on the basis of their knowledge and skillset with no regard for their emotional capacity or self-awareness. It’s a perfect setup for triggers to go off at every turn. “People are literally walking around emotionally crippled,” she explains. That could easily lead to loss of productivity and spill into one’s interpersonal relationships too.
Since burnout not only impacts people’s lives but significantly affects organizational effectiveness, addressing its causes before it hits hard seems a worthy investment. The reality is, any sector can struggle with the challenges of the ‘overworked’ – and they do. But nonprofits seem to be affected disproportionately. Why is that? And what new ideas are people coming up with to counter it?
Click here to read the full article “Reversing the potential for burnout: Strategies to stay healthy and happy at work” at CharityVillage.
I got an interesting email from an ED blog reader last week asking me for advice about how to effectively lead his organization while newly working from home without constantly getting distracted. As a home-schooling mom of three (ages 7, 6 and 4) who has always worked from home, I could totally relate. After sharing with him that a healthy loathing of housework is necessary (avoiding laundry helps me stay focused on my work lol!), there are seven simple things he can do to get himself started on the right foot. .
- Designate part of your home to be your office. This one is critical for two reasons! One: if you have kids, you need a child-free zone where they can’t touch your stuff. Two: You need to physically be able to “go somewhere” so that you can go to close the door and focus on your work. So that I could have my own office at home, I bunked two of my kids in the same room and personally took over that vacant space. A laptop and a kitchen table is not an office. Do whatever you can to get yourself a room – with a locking door – that can become your private work space.
- Get on a schedule. Even though you’re working from home, you’re still going to work every day. A typical day might look like this:
- 6:30-8:30: get kids ready and drive them to school
- 9:00-12:00: work shift one – big project stuff
- 12:00-12:30: lunch break
- 12:30-2:00: work shift two – small project stuff
- 2:00-2:30: go for a walk
- 3:00: pick up kids from school
- 3:30 – 6:30: family time/dinner/chores
- 7:30-9:00: loose-end tidy-up time/check email
A few months ago, a colleague recommended I pick up a copy of the popular book The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. This book challenges “startup founders to build and run their companies in a new way, maximizing customer value while minimizing wasted effort.” Having run my own business for the past decade, I immediately connected with the wisdom shared by the author regarding how organizations from any sector can achieve higher results while simultaneously investing less time, effort and money.
As I thought back over my career, I noticed for the first time that many of the mistakes I had made over and over would have been totally preventable had I been using these Lean principles. I hopped on Google and began investigating this philosophy in more depth and stumbled upon a website called “Lean Impact – Lean Startup for Social Good.” Since I run a for-profit business that serves the nonprofit sector, I was intrigued by how the site describes how this work-smart approach could benefit the social sector in the following ways:
- Figuring out what creates real impact and discarding what doesn’t
- Operating with fewer wasted resources
- Leveraging forward-thinking technologies to achieve our goals
- Gathering continual feedback from our community
- Creating a culture that sees failure as learning that brings us closer to a solution
- Eliminating mission creep influenced by funding.
What an amazing list of benefits a Lean strategy could have! When I discovered the Lean Startup Conference was coming up in San Francisco, I excitedly booked my ticket and headed there ready to learn more. Having just returned, I’d like to share with you my biggest take-away from the event as it helped me view effective social change in a whole new way…
Click here to read my full CausePlanet guest post.