My Nonprofit Leadership Lessons in Failure & Uncertainty
Yesterday, I had an inspired conversation with one of our VolunteerPro community members about nonprofit change management. Although we are at different stages in our careers, our perspectives were very much in alignment.
Since taking on her job as a leader of volunteers, she has become a student of managing change at her nonprofit and has become quite successful at bringing about some significant transformations.
We agreed that a key strategy for bringing about change, even in the midst of resistance, was to simply take action. As I like call it “to fake it until you make it.” In other words, to not wait for the go ahead from someone else and not wait until you were entirely sure of the outcome.
In the end, you simply (as I heard in a recent Stu McClaren workshop) “succeed or learn.”
Failure isn’t the worst thing that can happen.
In fact, there are a lot of benefits of failure. You learn valuable nonprofit leadership lessons. You learn what NOT to do next time. You get stronger.
There really is very little upside to taking no action. You learn nothing and you certainly don’t grow your organization by playing it safe.
In today’s uncertainty “safety” has lots of meaning in terms of the existential crisis we face with the Coronavirus pandemic. Certainly, the health and safety of your team is of the utmost importance and should be part of your due diligence.
But playing it safe as far as your nonprofit volunteer strategy goes likely won’t help you keep a dedicated team of volunteers waiting in the wings to join you at some point in the uncertain future.
Not engaging in the kind of nonprofit change management needed to pivot toward a new future where technology is embraced and an everyday part of our communications (whether during a crisis or without one), can be what truly sidelines your cause.
Not embracing new and innovative ways to engage volunteers across the spectrum of opportunities and in every corner of your nonprofit is not going to help you survive both good times and bad.
Not viewing your supporter networks — of both donors and volunteers — as a continuum of stakeholders that are, each and every one, absolute essential elements to your success can have deep impacts on your sustainability in times of uncertainty.
In short, the “we’ve always done it this way” approach can no longer offer any safety and security.
We must have the courage to embrace change during this massive time of disruption and bring our co-workers along with us.
Hard Nonprofit Leadership Lessons in Change Management
I know a little bit about the illusion of safety and security and the advantage of persistence even through rocky, uncertain, and downright uncomfortable times.
Nearly two decades ago, after a futile struggle to get a nonprofit consulting business off the ground, I decided it was best for my pocketbook and my sanity to get back into the 9-5 grind.
So, I dutifully scanned the want ads, talked to friends, and ultimately took a job at a smaller state agency. Decent salary, good benefits, great for my mortgage. Since I was still able to sustain some level of independence by working from home, I was content with my new situation.
Life had clearly taken a turn for the better.
The year before, I had left a leadership position in a large regional nonprofit. I had left under duress, to say the least. After successfully launching a large-scale youth program from the ground up, I was still struggling to find a common ground with my boss, who simply couldn’t find a way to support my ideas.
For one, I was pushing to diversify funding beyond our federal seed money that, in my mind, had a short shelf life. I was simply pushing the envelope too far. And I was getting squeezed from above and below. By the end of it all I was sick, tired, beat up, and very, very grumpy.
Enter round two, a sparkly new job at a new, fresh agency.
Through the interview process with my future boss and colleagues, I saw a bright light at the end of my tunnel. It seemed to be an innovation-friendly environment. I could grow, test new ideas, and make a big difference. All good.
A few weeks into my job, my boss handed me a tiny little tome, Orbiting the Giant Hairball. “Read it, you’ll need it,” she said mysteriously. I took a closer look, the subtitle read: “A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace.”
Hmmmm, I thought. Where’s the hairball?
It was a quick read, and fun. The author, Gordon Mackenzie, had started out in the corporate behemoth that is Hallmark Cards as a graphic artist and had risen over the years to become an in-house leadership guru of sorts. All this, while maintaining his sense of fun and creativity. The book was anything but corporate, filled with quirky little doodles and lots of self-effacing reflection.
He compared Hallmark, and other corporations, to a giant hairball. The hairball, was a giant tangled, hot mess of learned behavior. The way we do things around here. It is bureaucracy personified; and by its very nature, doesn’t allow much space for creativity and original thinking. If you let it, its gravitational pull will suck you in, just like the death star.
Our job, if we chose to accept it, would be to learn to work around it and with it.
In Mackenzie’s view, it is all about balance, finding just the right orbit to benefit and draw strength from the organization’s resources to keep your momentum going. You must learn to fly, just as the earth travels around the sun, being pulled toward the inferno and then taking advantage of its force as you swing out toward the universe to continue on your circular trajectory.
Without the hairball, you would be lost in space; without you, the hairball would be a giant black star, sucking everything into its mass without anything to show for it.
Mackenize urged readers to connect with their own true selves, and to find their creative genius. Then to work with established norms, but not be bound by them.
It was an inspiration, and I felt validated to be sure. In an earlier life, I had attended and graduated from a prestigious art school. I knew plenty about creativity, and had no problem with right-brain thinking.
But as life wore on, things got harder.
I was promoted twice, left my happy home for the the suit-filled office, and ultimately replaced my boss, the one who had so prophetically handed me that survival manual way back when.
Having spent over a decade at the agency, she knew what I was up against. She could see how the pull of the hairball would challenge and frustrate me, and she wanted to see me master that orbit with grace and ease. And I’ll always be grateful for that.
In the end, however, this little book didn’t save me from crashing and burning. As much as we all enjoy a tidy ending, I did not master the art of the orbit, thus changing my life for the better.
After six years, I threw in the towel amidst a storm cloud of employee discontent and agency indifference. The bureaucracy had steadily resisted the kinds of monumental changes I wanted to bring about. The status quo of silos, interdepartmental rivalries, and the stone-cold loneliness of unsupported leadership had beaten me to a pulp.
I left dejected and felt like an utter failure. But things always have a way of working out.
From the book, I learned something even more valuable than how to negotiate a bureaucracy. I learned to fully inhabit my true and authentic self. To live exactly the way I was intended to, with joy.
For me, a rebel since childhood, this meant finding an environment where I could make an impact and change the world in a concrete way. At the same time, I needed to have the freedom to learn, grow, create, push the envelope, and slay those sacred cows without punishment or retaliation.
It meant I needed to stop trying to force the round peg into the square hole and find my niche elsewhere.
And I found it.
Things Have a Way of Working Out
Ten years ago, I gave my consulting business another try and have never looked back.
I’ve found an inspired fellowship with clients, many of whom struggle to orbit giant hairballs of their own.
About five years ago, I took another chance. In order to scale my expertise, I needed to explore the world outside my comfort zone again. I needed to learn to embrace technology and digital learning.
Not an easy transition, but I did it anyway.
I brought on a small team and we built a digital learning hub.
Collectively, we knew absolutely nothing about running a digital business. But I was determined and knew (from many past experiences!) that we would survive and even thrive if we continued to orbit that hairball with just the right balance.
I understand completely their struggles and triumphs because I’ve been in their shoes many times.
And as I share my experiences and give advice, we all grow together and find our own orbits.
I truly believe that humans are tough creatures. Whatever adversity life hurtles our direction, we can survive.
But, in order to truly thrive, we must be willing to take chances and bet on ourselves and our organizations. We must make (sometimes radical) changes to how we see and engage our supporters.
And, together we can change the world.