Confessions of a Recovering Nonprofit Executive

One of the most challenging jobs I know of is held by people who work in nonprofits — they are as passionate about their work as they are stressed trying to accomplish much with limited resources. I explored this topic recently with a former nonprofit leader, Debrah Cummins, who is now Vice President of Development for Northstar Team Development. What she told me about her experience was worthy of sharing to affirm what others in the nonprofit might be dealing with and to enlighten those considering working in the field.

First, a little background. Prior to joining the North Star team, Deb proudly served as the Executive Director for Habitat for Humanity of the Lehigh Valley and worked for an internationally known diversity and inclusion firm in the areas of leadership development and new business sales and marketing. As a small business owner, Deb has also traveled nationally to develop leadership curriculum for emerging leaders and deliver keynote speeches and programs to various organizations. She earned her undergraduate degree in Social Work from Muhlenberg College and Master’s degree in Human Organization Science from Villanova University.

Here are the highlights of my conversation with Deb.

On taking pride in being busy:

“There are tons of articles written about the notion that being busy means that you are important. What  I realized about this Busy Badge of Courage is that it is more pronounced in the non-profit world and that it seems to be a fairly acceptable excuse for being late and missing deadlines.

I found the Busy Bee Syndrome to be pervasive in the non-profit world.  When surrounded by a team of non-profit leaders it is almost expected that you will complain about being exhausted and stressed … or so it seems. It is rare to have a group of non-profit leaders in the room and hear them say “I am great! I am working on work life balance and establishing good boundaries for myself and my team.”

I realized the second I left this environment that this really is a cultural phenomenon. And I get it … limited resources create a scarcity mentality. A shift in this mindset is a gift to your colleagues and your staff and most importantly your self.”

On wearing multiple hats:

“I think it is just a given that if you work for a small to mid-size non-profit that you will do it all. I actually don’t think this is such a bad thing because you really have the opportunity to learn a variety of skill sets. I started out as the Development professional in my organization. And the Board was happy with my work.  When I was promoted to Executive Director, I was still the Development Director, and the Board was still happy with my work and we didn’t hire anyone immediately.

I learned how to become the communications specialist and personally took on all of our social media, etc. I found that I rarely gave up doing anything but just learned to do more.

Although this did add to feeling of being stretched thin, I encourage others in the non-profit space to roll with this. Try new skills. Understand all aspects of the organization. Raise your hand for new challenges. You will be supporting your organization and will be learning the skills that are needed in preparation for your new role.”

On feeling guilty that you aren’t doing enough:

“I am genetically predisposed to guilt. If you work for an organization where you are truly passionate about the mission, you never do feel that you are doing enough. Ever. You are not raising enough money or spending enough time with volunteers or knowing your families because at the end of the day you are running a business.

I once attended a conference where the speaker talked about ending homelessness in the way we need to eliminate disease. This is an overwhelming concept as a non-profit leader if you are a believer in what you do. For me, the bottom line is that everyone truly does deserve a decent place to live. Knowing that this is not happening in your community can feel heartbreaking and can drive you to be almost obsessed with making a difference. Continue to be a difference-maker in your corner of the world and know that you are part of vast web of problem solvers.”

On not celebrating enough: 

“I see myself as the queen of positive affirmation, but what I learned when I took a leadership development assessment this summer is that I am not particularly great at work celebrations. I lead by MBWA – Managing By Wandering Around – and I thank people regularly for their work. What I needed to pay more attention to was finding more reasons to stop and celebrate.

In my non-profit life we were on a perpetual sprint … tackling one problem and then hurdling to the next challenge. At one time we rang a bell when we were  awarded a grant. I don’t know why this stopped but I wish I had done a better job in building in more celebrations for smaller victories. These celebrations don’t need to be grandiose or formal but I think all of us would do well in an environment when more significant milestones and successes are recognized.”

Special thanks to Deb Cummins for allowing me to share her experience and insights in this post.


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