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Writing and Consulting for Social Causes
Nonprofit Therapy

Nonprofit Therapy

I was emailing with a friend/work colleague yesterday with whom I hadn’t spoken in quite a while. She asked me, “How are you? How is life as a writer?”

I told her about some of my clients and how I’m stretching in some new ways and affirming my value in others. I wrote that I wanted to start blogging because I’ve learned so much and have so much to say. Then my fingers sort of took over as I typed, “I swear, I’m so much smarter after one year of working with 10 nonprofits than I was after 10 years at one nonprofit.

I stepped back and read what I wrote and thought, “YES! THIS!”

I’ve learned so much since launching my consulting practice in late 2016. One of my biggest takeaways, which I started to learn toward the end of my run as a nonprofit CEO, is that nonprofits and their leaders have much to learn from each other but little bandwidth or occasion to do so. The sector is so focused on the “what” and “how” of programmatic work that the discussions of how we run and sustain our organizations and share what we’re learning are minimal at best.

I was a nonprofit CEO for just over three years. I came in as an internal promotion during a financial crisis (which was preceded by another financial crisis) as a skilled subject matter expert with great project management and implementation experience. I knew virtually nothing about running a nonprofit, and frankly, had very little time to do anything other than figure out how to keep the lights on at first. I reached breaking points early and often, but knew I had to stick it out for the sake of the organization.

Mainly, I felt really alone. I went from being on the outside of the organization’s senior leadership team to running the organization in a matter of months. My peers were now my subordinates. My Board Chair lived on the other coast. I only had one local Board member. My part-time CFO was a few states away. It was tough.

I scoured the web for insight on all my new roles and responsibilities, trying to get smart on accounting, HR and board engagement. I worked and worked and worked and did, ultimately, get a bit of a foothold through sheer willpower and determination. The Board hired an executive coach for me, an organizational psychologist who helped me focus on my strengths (of which I was sure at that point I had none) and track my progress over time. It was enormously helpful.

Does this story sound at all familiar? I know now that I’m not alone in this experience, but I sure felt it at the time. Imposter Syndrome is real, and I believe many nonprofit leaders struggle with it.

One of the best things that happened during my relatively short tenure as a CEO was this afterthought of a program for EDs in my field. As part of their twice annual grantee meetings, our funder, the New York Life Foundation, set aside two hours of each meeting for a closed-door ED-only session. We were all eager to take the “what happens at NY Life, stays at NY Life” pledge, and we used our time to dig in on our common, seemingly intractable issues. Everything from board engagement (always #1), to the rising costs of health insurance and strategies for staff compensation and retention.

That first meeting was as good as 10 therapy sessions for me. Just knowing that others, (especially those who seemed on the outside to have it all figured out), had the same struggles as me was incredibly comforting. We all had the same issues. All of us. Some local nonprofits, some regional, some national. All different sizes and missions.

I continue to have that experience as a consultant. I see the same capacity issues, same confidence issues and same questions across many of my clients. I’ve soothed my own feelings of failure from not making it as a career nonprofit leader by realizing the value of my extra hands, head and heart to my clients. I get to be the one to tell them, “You’re not alone!” while sharing what I’ve learned and seen from others.

I write all of this to say: I’m really happy to be a consultant. I feel so fortunate to be able to cross-pollinate good ideas and support excellent nonprofit leaders to achieve their visions. I’ve realized in this first year that my favorite projects give me the chance to challenge thinking, weigh in on strategy and be part of my client’s team. While I love writing things for my clients, I care tremendously about the conditions in which those written products are received and used to further a mission. I also care a lot about making life better for nonprofit leaders, and I hope by writing about my experiences as I go, I can find more opportunities to do so.




This Post Has 2 Comments
  1. Sarah, This is awesome! I saw the link on Linked In and just had to read. Glad I did. As you can see from the timing of my comment (1:50 in the morning), I was doing my online search for expertise as a newly minted Exec Director myself! So this was a perfect takeaway before closing the computer for the night. When I took a job as an ED at a non-profit, I knew going into the job that the organization had some challenges. A former colleague of mine told me when I left my last job – “Your first year will be hell.” Haha, sounds like that is a trend. The learning curve is steep, and some of your ideas for bringing people together is not only comforting, but instrumental to shared success. Thank you for sharing!

    1. David- thank you for being my first commenter! You were definitely up late, even by nonprofit standards. I’m so glad you took comfort in the post. And, you can always reach out to me with those nagging ED questions/fears.

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