I have wanted to discuss this topic for a long time, but I have struggled with how best to go about it. I have not known a nonprofit support organization to tackle this topic in a realistic way, yet it is especially important for new staff, especially those in development. I do think some acknowledgement by leaders in our sector would be helpful, as would developing some “mindset” training into our industry’s regular regimen of educational conferences.
When I obtained my first nonprofit position, I bonded with the organization, its image and mission totally. To my mind, we were inseparably linked. The two did not exist apart from one another! I was young, learning at a fast pace, and I absolutely loved the organization. It felt like a perfect fit.
Four years later, two supervisory changes and a decline in our local economic climate meant I had become frustrated. I started looking for a new position. Eventually I moved on (and up) with my career. But mentally, this was a tough change. My entire self worth was bonded to the nonprofit; once I departed, I felt adrift. I had also gotten to know many of the leading donors and volunteers as well. They felt like family. But I had to learn how to separate myself from that environment and those closely associated with it, and to “let go.”
Now, it is true that some of those same philanthropists are friends and professional colleagues today, more than twenty five years later. But the pain of leaving my first nonprofit family and friends was hard. But something important happened. I underwent a crucial mental change.
- I acknowledged I had to move on for my own reasons;
- I realized those donors still loved the nonprofit I was leaving (even though I no longer did);
- I acknowledged that I should respect that loyalty (how could they get along without me?); and
- I looked ahead, recognizing that it was entirely possible I would interact with my former nonprofit donors in future jobs.
Those realizations marked a significant change in attitude and helped me succeed in my future positions. The moment this shift occurred, it became possible for me to be friends with many of the philanthropists with whom I worked over the years in the sense we became comfortable talking about philanthropy more broadly, we shared general advice and personal life experiences. Mutual respect had been established. “Letting go” was a mature step forward that I needed to take.
Which is to say, nonprofit development professionals are not the sole spokespersons for the organizations with which they work. Directors, program officers, curators and even groundskeepers have their own relationships. Regrettably, I have experienced intense jealousy by other staff members when they see how comfortable I am with donors. Some have attempted to get rid of me entirely, feeling there is too much competition! But in truth, I have mentally separated myself in such a way that I fully understand the nonprofit with which I am currently working will go on long after I am gone. If I can make appropriate connections to benefit the project at hand, I definitely will. But I do not “own” any donor. The decision to become involved and to donate is entirely theirs.
Some staff can see you as a threat to their own (self) appointed position as, “the best friend of the donor.” I have discovered this with executive directors and department heads, for example. But I urge you, regardless and for your own well being, separate yourself from the organization mentally. You have your own life and are a person of value without or without the nonprofit.
Represent your organization in an absolutely first class fashion 24-7, even when you are not working. But also, step out of the picture if you become uncomfortable. I have discovered donors and volunteers (and the nonprofit organization) will appreciate you more if you follow this advice, and you will earn their trust for a lifetime.
Notes and Thoughts
- Nonprofit work can inspire a stronger emotional attachment psychologically than corporate work, at least in my experience. This is especially true with those new to the nonprofit sector and in my case, with younger, inexperienced staff members. The organization’s leadership should be mindful of this dimension of their work and be sensitive to it. Today, employees change jobs fairly frequently and if you can part ways in a civil fashion, giving the less experienced staff a positive boost as they march out the door, everyone will be better off. That can be a tough assignment, but I believe it is a worthy one.
- The Donor Relations Guru has posted a thoughtful article I enjoyed, “Team Player or Individual Contributor?” (April, 2017). I admit, I like the point of view conveyed. “They say in fundraising there’s an 80/20 rule, that 80% of the money comes from 20% of the donors. I have my own 80/20 rule for working and implementation and its one that may strike home for you too. 80 percent of the work gets done by 20 percent of the employees.” I have been hired a few times to do work the staff either tried to do and failed, or refused to do at all. I have also been hired to achieve “the impossible,” only to have other staff take my laurels when I am done with my work. I sometimes say in my mind, “if you could have done the job without me, why didn’t you?” I often wonder why these kinds of employees retain their jobs, but they always seem to.
- Founder’s Syndrome is something I have encountered occasionally in my work over the years. Here is an article by Jeff Jowdy for NonProfitPRO (2013), “9 Ways for Nonprofits to Overcome ‘Founder’s Syndrome’.” Founder’s Syndrome is a bit more dangerous phenomenon than youthful attachment to an organization. “Founder’s Syndrome can be particularly devastating to fundraising. If a founder is not open to increased accountability as an organization grows, donors will become increasingly suspicious and may eventually flee.” This is where my personal “rub” has occurred in the past, when an Executive Director becomes threatened and unnecessarily jealous of my contacts and fundraising success. I have learned to step back, and if a resolution cannot be reached – despite my being the primary tie to the donors – I have removed myself from the situation. And a few times, the donors have gotten upset with me. But truly, I had no choice.
- You might enjoy reading Oliver Burkeman for The Guardian, “Beware the Gravitational Pull of Mediocrity” (2015). Sometimes when people strive for excellence, organizational strife can result. Innovators can be viewed as dangerous! And sometimes, the one achieving excellence can be seen as a threat, and they may ultimately be pushed out. I have also seen mediocre employees remain on staff at nonprofit organizations, and for decades. They are neither terrible at their jobs, nor excellent. Go figure. Personally, I think mediocrity is an underappreciated survival skill.
- Jennifer Verdolin Ph.D. wrote for Psychology Today, “Is It Only Natural for Us to Be Jealous?” (2014). “We humans not only have the tendency to become jealous over imagined threats, we also don’t often seem to take into account the ‘cost’ of certain behaviors.” I think educational programming for development professionals on dealing with jealousy would be an excellent idea.