After being in this sector for over a decade, I can say that nonprofit professionals are some of the most awesome people on earth. We are smart, talented, dedicated, passionate, caring, humble, witty, cool, and hilarious. Also, we are really good-looking and are great dressers. Let’s see someone from the corporate sector rock that $6.99 button-down shirt from Ross, Dress for Less (originally $13.99).
But we are burning out, you guys. Our natural good looks are obscured by stress-induced wrinkles, grey hair, and maybe one eye that twitches uncontrollably during staff meetings. The work never stops; our organizations are understaffed, and people’s lives depend on our actions and decisions. We work in the evenings, on the weekends, and skip vacations. And when we’re on vacation, we check our emails because we know if we ignore them they will start multiplying like hipsters.
It is a brutal cycle that leads to many of us leaving the sector to make jewelry that is then sold at farmers’ markets. This is a terrible, terrible tragedy, despite the fact that the world needs more necklaces made out of beach glass and soda can tabs.
There are plenty of articles about self-care with lots of tips. Some that are useful — “Say no to crap more often” — and some that border on ridiculous — like “Exercise regularly.”
But these tips only deal with the symptoms of burnout. The causes are much more profound, and are deeply ingrained in the psychology of the nonprofit warrior. We have unconscious beliefs that are undermining our very health and sanity. These include:
- The Martyr Complex: We in nonprofits must suffer, for how can we be comfortable when the people we help are suffering so much?
- The Myth of Indispensability: Our organization, nay, the world, shall collapse if we personally are not there, constantly keeping watch. (Damn you, Smokey the Bear, for setting the precedent with your high-pressure mantra of “only YOU can prevent forest fires.”)
- The Drive for Perfection: We must constantly sharpen our skills and do things better, because the work is complex and mistakes have serious consequences.
I want to address the drive toward perfection. All of us are dealing with the ruthless forces of inequity and injustice, and they are tough and bitter enemies. It’s easy for me to feel overwhelmed because there is so much to do at my new job, and I can’t learn or do things fast enough.
Every day, there is a workshop or a webinar that we should attend or an article that we should read. At a conference, I experience anxiety over which workshops I should attend, since they usually all seem like stuff I should know: how to build a better board, do mailing campaigns better, effective strategies for coaching your team, what to do if your financial reports suck, strategic thinking versus strategic planning, planned giving, the fad of crowdfunding, how to harness synergy to effectively shift the paradigm for collective impact, etc.
I’m average at some stuff
At some point, though, we need to tell ourselves, “Dude, I am average at some stuff, and it’s OK.” We all have our strengths and weaknesses. And yet we try to hide our weaknesses as if they were shameful secrets. Who among us has not trained ourselves to answer that age-old job interview question, “What are your strengths and weaknesses” by turning our negatives into positives? “My weakness is that I work too much, and also the quality of my work is so high that it oftentimes causes coworkers to be jealous, which sometimes leads to office-wide rioting.”
It is natural that all of us are good at some things, are average at some things, and suck at some things. And that’s OK. I met an amazing ED — legendary, really — and recently found out that he types with two fingers. He manages to get stuff done and is highly respected. Mediocrity has gotten a really bad rap.
But the word “mediocre” comes from Latin medius meaning “middle” and ocris meaning “stony mountain.” So mediocre means to be at mid-level on a mountain. With so many mountains to climb, why can’t we just stand at mid-level at a couple of them and not feel like garbage?
So, today, let us embrace the things at which we are average. Today, let us rejoice in our own imperfections. Let us name and proclaim without shame the things we are not great at:
Hi, my name is Vu, and I pretty much suck at social media. I have mediocre time management skills and will waste entire hours reading Google News right in the middle of doing other tasks. I don’t spend enough time with my board. My desk is a mess. I lose receipts frequently. I hoard post-its. I eat too much junk food for lunch. I am average at technological stuff. Sometimes I don’t comb my hair. I am not all that good with individual donor cultivation. I am average at asking for money. I pick at my face when I’m nervous or bored. I can be impatient, sarcastic, and bossy under pressure.
And let us acknowledge the things that all of us in the field are average at and let us accept them:
- Accept that we may not always be able to keep up with emails
- Accept that there’s way more stuff than we can possibly do on any given day
- Accept that there are things we could certainly have done better
- Accept that there are many relationships that we just can’t tend to as much as they deserve
- Accept that we screw up from time-to-time
We can take vacations and try hot yoga (see “The Downward-Facing Budget and other Nonprofit Yoga Positions”), but until we accept imperfections in ourselves and in others, we will continue to burn out. And that is not good for our sector and for the people we serve. It takes courage and humility to accept our own mediocrity. To accept that we’re mediocre at some things does not mean we are mediocre as a person.
Remember, we nonprofit professionals are making the world better. That means we’re unicorns. We’re rare. I wrote this mantra below for all of us to start and end our day with. Share it with your stressed-out nonprofit friends.
The Nonprofit Unicorn’s Mantra
“I am a nonprofit unicorn.
I try each day to make the world better.
I am good at some stuff, and I suck at some stuff, and that’s OK.
There’s way more crap than I can possibly do on any given day.
On some days I am more productive than on other days, and that’s OK.
I know sometimes there are things that I certainly could have done better.
I know that I can’t make everyone happy or spend as much time as I could on everyone.
I know there’s a bunch of crap I don’t know.
Sometimes I make mistakes, and that’s OK.
I will try my best to learn and to improve, but I’ll also give myself a break.
I will be as thoughtful and understanding with myself as I am with my clients and with my coworkers.
I am an awesome and sexy nonprofit unicorn.”
Vu Le is executive director of the Rainier Valley Corps, a start-up nonprofit with the mission of cultivating leaders to develop the capacity of ethnic-led nonprofits and create space for communities to collaborate to effect systemic change. He is the former executive director of the Vietnamese Friendship Association in Seattle; you can more of Vu’s work at NonprofitwithBalls.com.
Gretchen Kuhlman says
Thank you so much for this incredibly honest, real, insightful and hilarious look at the non-profit world. I have had every one of these thoughts since I joined this amazing and yet exhausting organization (Youth Mentoring in Los Angeles) 7 months ago. I appreciate the candor and I can honestly say this helped me know that I really am doing my best, even when I think I’m woefully behind on learning how to be an effective administrator within our realm. Thank you again for this amazing view of the work that we do!!
this is exactly what I needed right now. 🙂
Excellent article! Thanks for sharing these ubiquitous feelings!
I am re-reading this at a time when I needed it even more than the first time!!
As I began reading this article I thought “Why am I reading this – I have so much to do!” Well, it made me smile and that was worth the time. Thank you.
No Point of Vu until April?!! How am I going to survive?! Luckily, Vu’s blog nonprofitwith balls.com posts every Monday!
Thank you. While I should have been reviewing my IRS Form 990 I went to subscribe to Vu’s blog.
YES! I am currently tearing through my very messy desk to look for receipts. I can organize people, I really struggle with paperwork.
p.s. I used to have that unicorn poster on a spiral bound notebook in high school.
Oh my goodness – this is against everything I believe in…
Thank you, Vu. I so admire your honesty, and I can't thank you enough for putting this message out into the world. Your bold honesty really inspires me. As someone who felt very burned out after a string of nonprofit jobs, took a hard look at my health and wellbeing as a result, and switched gears to become a health coach (and now going back to school for further nutrition science education), I relate to a lot of what you said from my previous career.
But it's also a fantastically effective reminder of what I need to be aware of and how I need to tailor and meet people where they are at when I'm in the position of helping people who are in this place, on the brink of burnout at best. Like you said, tips like "exercise regularly" are meaningless when you're really overwhelmed and feel totally unequipped to manage, spiraling in the unconscious beliefs you spelled out. I think my direct experiences with burnout and the drive for perfection in particular make me a more compassionate and empathetic coach to others, even though it was painful to experience and find my way out of/still finding my way out of!! Thanks again for writing and sharing this.
Funny warm and wise as usual! Where can I get the t-shirt?
Fantabulous! Love Vu’s articles in the Blue Avocado. And I always get a smile on my face when I see my Nonprofit With Balls email has arrived. Thanks for the rainbows and light!
Love this 🙂 Thank you!