You’re on a mission. When running a nonprofit feels more like running a business.
I founded a nonprofit because I was passionate about helping solve a crisis - but now it just feels like I’m stuck running a business.
Discouraged Executive Director
You are a subject-matter expert. You can do these programs in your sleep.
Honestly, this is one of the most inspiring parts of my job! I get to teach and coach you, who are an absolute industry-expert, how to grow your nonprofit to support your mission. I’m lucky enough to be the student at times - learning about a problem in the world and how you are solving it! As fun as it is for me to be able to come alongside and support you as you grow your organization, this is often a stress point for many Executive Directors.
You want to be able to dedicate time and energy to your mission - the reason you jumped into Nonprofit in the first place. I work with many nonprofit leaders who have transitioned from other professions because they wanted to use their expertise to solve a problem. You are the teachers, doctors, social workers, technology-experts, therapists, engineers, pastors, lawyers, etc., that I come in contact with every day!
But, as your organization has grown, it’s surprised you how little time you are actually spending using your professional training. Increasingly, that time has been replaced by things you either have never done or simply don’t really love doing! I’m talking about donor presentations, social media, appeals, accounting, government filings, or grant submittals.
Through my one-on-one counsel services, I often have the privilege of sitting in my client’s interview process when they are trying to hire their first non-founding staff member (typically a development director). Very often we are interviewing folks, like me, who left corporate to enter the world of nonprofit.
In these interviews, I always ask why they want to work for a nonprofit. I often get answers like “I want my work to have more meaning” or “I’m tired of the cut-throat corporate pace and want something more fulfilling every day.”
Sometimes I’m asked to be bad-cop - and I understand the role. I bluntly remind the candidate that this position is not in the trenches - this is a non-program job. You will not be administering medicine, digging a well, tutoring children, or rocking babies. However, you will be responsible for the behind-the-scenes work that allows those wonderful things to happen. At this point in the conversation, their response is everything. If they get this (and have rock star qualifications) they will go to the second round of interviews. You need your staff to understand their role to ensure role-creep doesn’t take over your organization and cause chaos.
Maybe this example triggers something in you too? If so, perhaps a little friendly reminder (bad cop here - but smiling and cheering you on!) is needed.
You are running a business. Choose to embrace it.
There are two approaches I often work on with my clients who feel like they are stuck in the weeds of their nonprofit: get in a rhythm and be self-reflective. Every day.
I don’t know about you - but if I have a task I really dread doing I tend to make it a bigger issue than it really is. In my mind, this task is going to end me and will take the entire day, but in reality, it only takes two hours.
Get your day, week, and month in a rhythm. Admit you must do the tasks you don’t love and schedule them. Put every single one of your operational or administrative tasks on your calendar. Thank you notes every Tuesday morning. Gift processing every Friday and Monday morning. Prospecting every Monday afternoon.
Then, plan time for the mission-critical work you are really great at and want to do! Book it in your calendar. Every Wednesday you are going to be in the clinic working alongside the therapists. Fridays you join the tutors for their sessions. Absolutely carve out the time to do what you love, but this will only work if you are disciplined the other days of the week.
Secondly, be self-reflective. Are there any tasks that you truly despise and pull you down into the weeds? Maybe you just don’t know where to start - but it’s hanging over your head every single day.
One statement I hear again and again is, “I hate asking people for money.”
I get it. I’ve been in your shoes. Most people who start my 90-day Fundraising Bootcamp say this to me! But, once they have the tools, resources, training then they don’t hate it as much. Some even like it!
So, take ownership over the areas you don’t love to do - realize it’s potentially an area you need more training. It’s good to self-reflect on your strengths and weaknesses. How else will you improve? On the flip side, there may be parts of your business that are taking too much time (again, good growing pains here), and it’s time for you to create space in your budget for a new staff member, technology, or tool for next year. Only you, the leader, will know the right answer here.
You are running a business - and that business is changing lives.
Every month I tackle one of the most common statements or questions I hear from leaders of Nonprofits. If you are reading this and share a similar concern or issue, I hope the advice was constructive and gave you a little inspiration today.