Thursday, June 4, 2009

Concern for Leaders of Small and Mid-size NPOs in This Economy

How are leaders of small and mid-size nonprofits handling themselves, their people and fiscal problems? What are you facing as a small to mid-size nonprofit leader in this economy? Many executive directors and other leaders of small and mid-size nonprofit organizations are not finding much personal support for their work and needs resulting from America’s economic problems. I read many articles and see training events about how to increase funding in a bad economy. I read material about how to lay off staff and handle the human resources of the organization. There is material about finding new leaders for the future of nonprofits and baby boomers transferring into the third sector. But what do we see about how you are handling yourself? The life of a leader or executive director is a lonely job in the best of times. It does not improve in times of trouble. Here you will find a list and brief discussion of concerns you may be facing and some hints on handling them.

I am certainly not an expert or the last word in these matters, but the dialogue should be on the front page for you – and it is not there. This is my offering to you. Many of us care about what you are facing. Many of us, including me, have faced this one or more times in our NPO lives.

I believe the bottom line mission for most nonprofits is to comfort the disturbed and to disturb the comfortable. This is about comforting you, if you are among the disturbed.

There are three parts:
  • Issues
  • Hints to cope with the issues
  • Resources

See if any of these issues are real for you. See if the hints give you a start to handle the issues of leadership in bad times. Please feel free to add your thoughts on both the problems and the hints to confront them.


As the pressure of work increases for leadership and staff at small to mid-size nonprofit organizations it can exacerbate the personal problems we have always had. It can seem like an expanding downward spiral of unresolved, unsolvable issues, both old and new which can occur.

We carry our own life-baggage wherever we go. That baggage will surface more deeply when things go wrong. We have a tendency to repeat our errors. Now can be time to work on one of those pieces of luggage.

Stress at the workplace is something we all face from time to time. This is a deeper level of stress. What can be done to minimize it and its effects?

You may be finding it difficult to develop priorities in programming, funding, management, administration, filling in for former employees and personal time. There may be too much in your work plan. Cut it down to a size based on importance. Take a sheet of paper. Have one column for the most important and why and another column on least important and why.

Concentrate on the doable and the needed, not the hoped for.

So where did you find leadership training for these bad times: there is lack of training and skill development for problem-solving and reduction in funding and loss of employees. Few of us have experienced a downward spiral of funding, and loss of employees, closing of offices and reducing the numbers of customers who can be served. There has been no training offered to prepare you for this. That should not stop you. You will have to make hard decisions about money and people. You did not start the fire and you cannot put it out. You can bring your flames under control – in fact you have to.

Are staff members tense and not acting civilly with each other, with you and with customers?

Are you facing growing morale problems from staff about layoffs, salary and benefits, their fears and not enough office supplies and equipment? Expect that to happen. The employees who remain will feel guilty about having a job and others were let go. They will miss many of those who have left. They will hate picking up others’ files and working with the new customers. They will have difficulty prioritizing and decision making. Open communication wide. Look for a process that will give staff the opportunity to talk and to be heard. Your job may be simply to LISTEN. You may not be able to fix this one. In one instance they may find a breath of relief because at least someone weak has left.

Do you find you are not sleeping well, not eating well and have been losing weight?

Do you find you are not sleeping well, are eating too much junk food and gaining weight?

Have you increased the consumption of alcohol to calm you down? Or doubled the number of cigarettes you smoke?

Do you find yourself periodically avoiding staff by working at night and on the weekend? Is there a fear of facing them and complaints or guilt? You have to face your own sense of guilt. You did not cause the funding to decline. The hardest problem for a leader is not the act of making a bad decision in rough times. It is the failure to make a decision, even if it is difficult or bad. None of the decisions will be good but they will be necessary. Get back to the office on the regular clock.

The more you avoid staff the more you will lose touch. Share the facts and the implications of what is occurring to the organization and seek help to find answers.

Are you trying to figure out how to overcome the reduction in grants/fundraising? Are you spinning your wheels just looking for money and getting nowhere? Are you looking at Federal Recovery funding that may not really fit your mission? You may not be able to find new grants.

It may be that you are so used to fixing problems that here is one you cannot fix. You may simply have to make the organization functional. Seeking grants is the most difficult part of a resource development plan. The board and you may have to face factors that cannot be easily solved. You may have to consider merger, shared services, co-locating, new associations or bankruptcy.

Do you believe that out there is a foundation that will fund your program? Let me be direct. There is not. The only exceptions are if someone close to your organization has a deep relationship with that foundation and can be persuasive or through a local or community foundation. Other than that, right, now none will fund you. But do not stop applying to the very few foundations that have a direct fit with your mission, goals, objectives and grant requirements. You can try to build relationships now for the future.

Is the organization having a difficult cash flow problem because the state or other funders are late sending payment for services?

Are you trying to keep the board involved? Are you attempting to prevent board members from leaving because of the problems facing the organization?

You find yourself uncertain of the future of funding and new transparency and accountability requirements. How can you change the administration of the organization to meet those new factors?

You have thought of seeking personal professional help but you fear using the organization’s employee assistance program or seeking that help. Are you concerned about showing personal weakness?

Do you have a fear of seeking counseling at the local level where you are known and you have no contacts elsewhere?

Are you experiencing an increased sense of dread, fault, depression, anxiety, anger and personal failure? How are they affecting you and those around you?

Do you find yourself working harder and long hours with little accomplished?

Do you have a growing poor sense of self-worth and self-esteem and an increased personal uncertainty about your abilities?

Do you find or have a sense that staff is having or showing less confidence in you and your leadership?

Are you finding it very difficult getting up in the morning and looking forward to going to work?

You love your job, but this new world is eroding that love. You feel this is not what you signed up for.

Are you finding it very difficult talking to family and friends about what is going on at work and your reactions to it?


Face the fact it is normal to be abnormal in a crisis. The times are insane but that does not mean you have to be. There is so much you cannot control or change. So spend some valuable time deciding on what you can control and change.

Go back to your core being. What brought you to this nonprofit world and this job? What were the attractive parts? What did you anticipate you would work on to improve the organization, its service and product and yourself? What did you want to work on to improve the organization and yourself? How did you want to grow on the job? Can you still do these things? How can you make them happen? It is a time for some self-reflection about why you are here. It is difficult but it is still the job you want. Let your core being – your soul - help you face today’s realities. Check in with you and look for what you are failing to see.

Exercise. Find a routine that fits you. (This is easy for me to say since I am the founder, owner and sole resident of the PSLS, the Principality of the Sedentary Life Style. However, in the past century when I did work exercise was an irregular part of my life.)

Look at your sense of trust in yourself and others. Have you allowed doubt in your abilities and the abilities of others creep in? Why? What happened? Begin working on your self-trust. You do have the abilities and the sense of mission, vision, values and passion to keep the organization performing. Trust that sense.

Make one small change in your schedule, your life. Always shower in the morning (or evening) at the same time. Take a lunch break away from the office at least three days a week. Make a commitment to have dinner with your family every night. Develop one new routine that allows you to think about that change and commitment.

What could you have controlled that would have changed or prevented things? Is there anything you really could have done? If not, then do not take on that guilt and sense of fault. It is not yours. Let it go. You do have to handle the results and adjust but not with guilt and fault. Guilt and fault finding will not solve a darn thing.

Go back to organizational basics. What are the mission, vision and values of the organization? Are you still on mission? How are you with your personal mission? Are you still on pace? Go back to the mission and see if there has been a drift and see what you can do about it. Are the board and staff still focused on the same mission? Plan the future on that mission.

Learning to cope with stress – we have all faced stress before and we handle it in different ways and rather well mostly. You can do that here also. Is it developing a routine you can depend on that relieves the stress? Is there someone you can talk to about the stressors? Perhaps only to listen to you, not to solve or fix them for you

Listen. Listen more intently, eye to eye, not eye to Twitter. Listen without interrupting. Listen at home and at the office. Take a tickle lock. Listen to others.

Review how decisions are made in the organization. Review the strategies being used. Can they be tweaked to be better under the current problems?

Maintain civility within staff and within the board. Show your leadership in the way you all talk to each other.

I am not a fan of the statement “Do more with less”. The current crisis is about doing more with even more less. That is unrealistic. You, the board and staff have to look at what you have been doing and determine what the best process is to reduce the work to a meaningful and reasonable level. With less resources and more demand for services, you cannot meet it. The fact of the matter is you have never had enough resources to serve everyone in need. So you made choices about who received service. That decision has to be made again in keeping with grant requirements and talent and availability of staff.

What are you doing to adapt to change? We have constant change in our lives. There is a corporate culture of change in every nonprofit that we do not face and do not encourage as a status for staff. Now is an opportunity to look at change and how it can be positive, not always negative, and can be part of the culture. People do not like to be changed but they can accept reasonable changes.

This is not the time for leadership-is-correct thinking. It may take improvisation through a group development plan and activities.

Should there be an open review of the goals and objectives and activities of the organization with staff and the board? What should or could be changed to relieve stress and become workable? You do not have to fix everything. You do have to make the work functional and reasonable, however.

This is a real opportunity for developing a business plan for the organization for the next 3-5 years. What would you and the board do differently if most of the funding were restored? How will the organization face its future for its customers? Planning can help. This is a real opportunity to consider restructuring the organization. Including customers in that planning is a necessity. Your planning may help you see what the future can look like and it may lead you to make honestly some hard decisions such as bankruptcy, merger, co-location, carry on or other options.

Facing adversity – leaders like to talk about how they like taking on challenges and adversity. You are a leader. Here is a real opportunity to show your leadership in new ways. Go back to your leadership styles, your abilities, and your weaknesses and mend them to this new dynamic in your life and the life of the organization.

Communicate, don’t isolate – do not withhold information from the board and staff. It may need some sense of timing, but board and staff need to know what is really going on. You will also want to work on overcoming the tendencies for rumors.

Be receptive to others’ ideas.

Consider talking with a few other NPO leaders in your community about what they are facing and how they are coping. There may be a way to start a group healing process with a pro bono counselor as facilitator.

Prepare a succession plan with the board. It does not matter if you are thinking about leaving. It does matter that you help provide a positive look at the future for the board in the leadership of the organization.

Perhaps it is time for you to move along. You have done all you can. You will work to leave the organization in the best possible light to find new leadership.

Perhaps it is time for the organization to fold its tent and close down. There are state and IRS legal processes to follow in that event. Work with the board and an attorney to do this properly.

If needed seek out personal professional help. This is not an admission of fault or guilt or neurosis. It is an admission that perhaps you need additional reinforcement to handle your life and the job, to look at alternatives within yourself. Most leaders fear this decision that others will find out. If your organization has an employee assistance plan, you may find that too open. You may be saying to yourself this is a small community and everyone will find out. I say, baloney, They are excuses. Talk to your personal medical provider about options. How long has it been since you had a full physical examination? Seek assistance from a job counselor, psychologist and/or psychiatrist or spiritual advisor. Once you take that first step you will wonder why you feared it. You may find that talking about your issues, adopting breathing exercises and/or medication help you stay focused and clear headed.

There are many of us concerned about how you are doing. It is my hope that you find at least one thing here that will help you. Please be open with me. If I am missing the target for you please add your thoughts.

Thank you for what you are doing.


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The eighth international conference on occupational stress and health. “Work, Stress, and Health 2009: Global Concerns and Approaches” will be held at the Caribe Hilton Hotel, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on November 5-8, 2009, with Preconference Workshops on November 5. This conference is convened by the American Psychological Association, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the Society for Occupational Health Psychology.

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