Nonprofit Leaders:  Find the Balance

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on February 12th, 2016 in Thoughts & Commentary

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David Miliband, President of the International Rescue Committee, was recently interviewed on NPR‘s Morning Edition by co-host, David Greene. Miliband was asked if he was worried about his employees on the ground in Syria.  As we would all expect, he responded, “I’m very worried, always, ….”

Considering the heart wrenching stories coming out of Syria, this NPR headline is more than troubling:  “the world has become a bit dull to news from Syria.” But truthfully, it wasn’t Miliband’s comments on the consequences of Russian bombings or even the statement about always being worried about the safety of his employees that has me referencing this story.  It was his comment that the employees in Syria, all native Syrians, feel “an extraordinary sense of mission.”  It was that comment that had me repeating “an extraordinary sense of mission” all the way to my office so that I could remember to write this blog.

More than 15 years ago, I left full-time engagement in something for which I felt “an extraordinary sense of mission:”  teaching.  Since then, I have continued to teach—at the undergraduate, graduate and professional development level—but never again as full-time faculty.  There is no question to me that teaching is my number one professional love, and if decades of feedback and awards are to be believed, I’m not half bad at it.  So, why do you walk away from that which you love and are seemingly good at doing?  Because too much crap interferes with your ability to do that which you love, dimming the sparkle and excitement of that love.

Sadly, I’m seeing this phenomenon happening continually with executive directors, regardless of age.  But, without an equally compelling opportunity in front of them, which I was fortunate to get just at the time where my tolerance had been maxed, these executive directors remain in their positions.  And that makes this situation even sadder—and dangerous.

My conversations with too many executive directors these days almost always involves their sharing their feelings of deep exhaustion, enormous frustration, unbelievable degrees of angst, and more.  Gone is an expression of that extraordinary sense of mission that compelled them to become executive directors in the first place.  Don’t get me wrong:  they can bring out the speech, say all the right things, make you believe in their love of mission because they do truly love the mission.  They’ve just lost the excitement.

The excitement, the passion, the glint in the eye, all come back when they can talk about a rare opportunity to serve a client or in some other way connect directly with the mission, such as hanging an exhibit, clearing a trail or teaching a class.  But too many executive directors have lost the ability—and I don’t want to suggest for even a minute that it is all of their own doing—if they ever had it—to find the balance between working in the mission and working on the mission.  This is a caution that I give all executive directors, but especially new ones (as we all know it is easier to start out correctly than try to change habits once ensconced):  learn this all important balance.  Whenever I say this, whether to an audience of one or an audience of multiples, the heads always shake in agreement, the facial expressions all make the same comment:  “yes, this is important to do; i must heed this advice.”  Yet, many shake their heads and frame their faces while knowing they will never take the message to heart and make it their way of doing.  And this is, as I said earlier, both sad and harmful.

While there are people who start out their career in the nonprofit sector with the goal of becoming an executive director, most start out in their nonprofit careers wanting to do the mission work, to help, to change, to make things better.  And, still, to this day, too many people end up as executive director—even when they intentionally apply for that position—more by default than design.  It was the next rung on the ladder; current leadership was so poor it was unbearable to work for that boss; her/his great ideas weren’t being listened to, and the only way to change that was to become the boss.

But I have met very few executive directors who became who chased that position because they wanted to escape working in the mission.  Yet, too many end up having to leave working in the mission in order to do the work on the mission.  The complexities of reporting, of relationship building, of changing funder priorities, of the demand for impact data, of shrinking and shifting dollars, of managing a board of director—and this list can just go on and on—leaves absolutely no time for anything but this work, and certainly no time for working in the mission.

When you don’t have time to work in the mission—and keep in mind I’m advocating a balance of time—you may as well cease being an executive director.  Part of the ability to be an effective leader is a current understanding of how it is to deliver on those mission promises, knowing the realities staff, clients, partners, the community face in the context of the organization’s mission.

It does no leader any good to know what it was like five or ten years ago—or even last year.  A leader cannot be a good advocate for employees without understanding the realities in which they are currently operating; s/he can’t determine which and what partnerships to enter into without having experienced firsthand the actualities of the partners’ behavior; s/he cannot tell the impassioned anecdotes to accompany the cold, hard facts if the stories are all second hand.  S/he cannot maintain her/his extraordinary sense of mission if surrounded only by budgets, proposals, alternative organizational configurations, and the like, while constantly dealing with the pressure of figuring out how payroll will be made this month or trying, yet again, to galvanize the board to step up and engage, be that auxiliary brain trust, do its strategic thinking and fundraising, and this list, too, goes on and on.  But just so we are clear:  s/he cannot be a great leader if s/he isn’t doing all of the above, as well.  It is all about balance, something too many executive directors have lost and aren’t finding the ways—what to drop, what to delegate, what to remove from the plate altogether—to get (back) to that state of balance.

Board members, here is my plea:  if you are, as you should be, passionate about the mission of the organization of the board on which you sit, sit your executive director down and ask to have an honest, conversation about the conditions of their working life.  Heck, if necessary, sign a notarized promise of no retaliation regardless of what the executive director says if that is what is necessary to have this forthright talk.  Don’t stop that conversation until you fully understand what is keeping her/him up at night, what consumes their time, what is getting left undone, what does the organization need, etc. and don’t end that conversation until you have the outlines of a solid plan for address the issues and realigning the work of the executive director.  You owe it to your clients.

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.