Opinion: Nonprofit leaders, like everyone else, are scared and tired during these difficult times

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Opinion: Nonprofit leaders, like everyone else, are scared and tired during these difficult times

Organizations should come up with ways for everyone involved, including leadership, to take go a little slower and allow for some much-needed grace.
February 26, 2022

I have had the word ‘grace’ rattling around my brain a lot these days. It’s not a word I have particularly attended to in the past – I am not especially graceful, and I trend more on the side of impatience than of grace. But these days, when all of us are so, so, so tired and scared, I am craving grace – for myself and others.

Many of our non-profit organizations have had policies and practices in place for when a staff member had a personal crisis – we have family and medical leave, sick time and bereavement leave, as benefits. Colleagues send cards, we take on the responsibilities for a staff member who can’t do their work for a short period of time. But what do our organizations do when all of us are in crisis? When all of us – to different degrees – are suffering from pandemic, climate chaos, fraying democracy, systemic inequity and racism – on top of all of the normal stressors of our lives. Who among us knows how to lead, manage, work, or even stay awake through times like these? And of course our work has not gotten any less critical – we cannot abandon our missions to take care of ourselves – we have to find new ways to do both at once.

I keep looking around and thinking “where are the grown-ups?” – a laughable question coming from a gray-haired, 53-year-old, but one others may have too. What I really want to know is where are the people who can tell us how to do this? Who knows the truth? Who can take care of us? I suspect that the answer is – we are all we have. So how can we individually, organizationally, and systemically extend grace to each other, take care of each other through these dark times, while we keep doing our jobs and taking care of our families and breathing in and out?

I have no answers of course, but I think talking about it together may help. I wonder whether one step is to think about what we are asking of each other and why. Are we asking for the things we actually need to serve our mission, or are we asking for the things we are used to asking for? Do we need to meet weekly? Do we really need that information in written form, or would a conversation serve? Do we actually need that particular piece of information at all to do our jobs? How are we supporting our staff? How are we interacting with our boards – are we inviting them to work with us, side-by-side or are we just keeping them informed because that’s how boards have always been managed?

I work for a foundation, and I know these kinds of questions are hard to ask of us. Grantees may wonder why their proposals need to be in 12-point font, fit into 10 paragraphs and respond to different sets of outcomes for different funding sources. They may wonder, why 6 month reports? Why can I use this money for stipends but not health insurance? Why is 12 months the amount of time I have to produce results? These are all valid questions, and I invite funders to rethink how we practice. What could we do, ask for, and offer instead that would allow us to meet our missions but provide more grace to our grantee partners?

I don’t think that fewer staff meetings or grant reports are the secret to survival. But they may help us lead our work days with a little more breathing room – and the rethinking of our practices may show the care and respect for each other that we all need to get through. Author Annie Dillard wrote in her book, “The Writing Life,” that “How we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour and that one is what we are doing.”

Our nonprofits can teach each other about the new strategies we are imagining and practicing to make our hours and days easier, and our work more sustainable.

Lisa Pilar Cowan
is the vice president of the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation and in this capacity she helps with strategy, development and oversight of foundation programs and grantmaking. Lisa has been working with community-based organizations for the last 25 years, first as a community health educator and program director at several youth-serving agencies, then as a senior consultant at Community Resource Exchange. Lisa was the co-founder of College Access: Research and Action, where she continues to act as an advisor. Most recently, Lisa was the principal consultant at Hummingbird Consulting from 2013-2016.
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