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Investing in the most important work on the planet…

For the past two months I’ve been meeting with a group of professional coaches who are or are interested in coaching leaders in the social sector. One of the main topics of discussion is the fact that most CBOs (community benefit organizations) don’t invest in themselves or their own leaders. Money for professional development is limited at best, and many executive directors and board members believe that funds should always go to programs first.

What message does this send to the people who’ve chosen to spend the bulk of their time and energy working toward the mission of this organization? Is their development less important than the organization’s clients?

Can you imagine if Costco or Starbucks had this attitude? They would never be able to retain the talent that makes them successful, that gives them a competitive advantage.

Foundations and corporations are often reluctant to fund leadership coaching or other professional development efforts in the CBOs they support. If it doesn’t contribute to the “bottom line” of meeting the mission, it may seem irrelevant.

There’s a major fallacy in this line of thinking, however. Without the people who do the work, the leaders who make a difference, there are no programs, there is no mission impact.

There is a profound and I would argue essential connection between the hearts and minds of the people doing the work and the effectiveness of CBOs themselves. And we ignore this connection at our peril. Its time to put our money where our mouths are.

If we are doing the most important work on the planet, we need the very best care and feeding available. Like a top athlete who eats only the freshest, most nutritious food before a game, we deserve to care for our hearts and minds so we can do our best work, even if it’s for the good of our clients. Maybe especially so.

The difference between Heaven & Hell

Over the weekend, I (mostly) recovered from another bout of overwhelm. Sometimes I feel like a ping-pong ball, bouncing from too-much to not-enough. Whether its work, social engagements, or connecting with family, feast or famine seems to be the rule. Can you relate?

Faced with the prospect of another very busy week, as I wrote in my journal on Saturday, I found myself wondering “what makes it worth it?” What makes keeping my “skin in the game” worthwhile, through the overwhelm? The answer, I think, is each other.

I remembered a parable about the difference between Heaven and Hell. In both Heaven and Hell, people sit around a huge table laden with the most delicious food and drink imaginable. In both places, no-one has elbows. In Hell, people sit at the table, weak with hunger, unable to eat because they can’t bring food their mouths. In Heaven, people feed each other, reaching across the table with their long arms.

Then last night I had the good fortune to be attend the lovely Janet Boguch’s birthday party. She treated her friends to a yoga class, during which the instructor read a Rumi poem. The essence of the poem was that reeds and rushes, by themselves, can get blown away by the wind. But woven together can make a lovely basket that can keep food dry and even shelter a baby.

So this week, if (really, when) I find myself feeling like that ping pong ball again, I’ll remember – I’m one reed among many, woven into a fine basket. I’ll visualize putting my tired little ping pong ball in that basket. Sometimes mixing metaphors is a good thing. 🙂

Your greatest asset: the power to inspire

I’ve been talking to colleagues lately about the “trance of scarcity” we sometimes see in the social sector. You know, when you’re at an event and people start complaining about there not being enough money, time, political capital, and on and on until you wonder why they go to work in the morning.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t lack sympathy for the constraints nonprofits face. In fact, I probably would get a lot less work were it not for the challenges of fundraising, attracting and retaining skilled staff, staying focused on mission, etc. And when your mission is to solve a seemingly intractable problem like homelessness or global warming or child abuse, its tough not to get pessimistic.

In Good to Great and the Social Sectors, Jim Collins says that one of the greatest resources in the social sector is the ability to offer people a sense of meaning and connection. When we lament about what there’s not enough of, we’re not just bumming ourselves out – we’re depriving potential donors, volunteers and other supporters of the opportunity to join us in making a difference.

So, I would posit that not only is it a heck of a lot more fun, as a leader with a mission its actually your responsibility to stay inspired and inspiring.

Some quick tips to get your perspective back:

  • Focus on three things you are grateful for. Picture a volunteer, co-worker or donor you really appreciate, for example, and really let yourself feel how gratitude can expand your sense of what’s possible.
  • Take a break! A real break – go away for the weekend, or better yet two or three weeks to somewhere beautiful with lots of trees, water and/or mountains. Shouldn’t be too hard in the pacific NW, and doesn’t have to be expensive either.
  • Ask a friend or colleague to remind you of what you have accomplished. I bet there’s a long list, and that you’ve achieved these feats despite the same odds that now have you trembling in that scarcity trance.

Feel better? I thought you would. And I bet you’ll find it a lot easier to tackle that enormous to-do list now, too!