Commentary: The last week of August is a good time to take off and get deep about your nonprofit

Use those seven days to take a breather and consider the false choice between taking care of ourselves and meeting our missions. Holding both requires new ways of leading.

Kathrin Ziegler - Getty

My calendar for the last week of August has big, empty blocks of time on it. Like the last week in December, that week tends to be a quiet one. Many people take it off, and increasingly offices are closing altogether to give their staff a little breathing room and time to prepare for the oncoming season. It is also a great time to get deep, thinking and planning work done in those uninterrupted chunks of time. I’ve had a few conversations recently with organizational leaders who feel like they have to choose which is more important – the time to rest, or the space to do deep work in that quiet week.

The choice seems more pointed than ever this August because I am reading and hearing so much about the challenge of non-profit leaders who feel torn between meeting the needs of their employees and meeting the missions they serve. Our collective exhaustion, the unrelenting scariness of the historical moment, the ever-growing awareness of systemic racism and its costs – all of these create the need for care of ourselves and each other. And at the same time the intense societal conditions we face – people living in poverty, the housing and health care crisis, the warming climate, our inadequate education system – point to the fact that there could be a cost to slowing the urgent work we are doing in order to tend to our workforce. And there are only so many hours in a day.

So what do we do? Either choice seems fraught – if we focus on critiquing and then changing our organizations and internal systems to support all staff, are we navel gazing or ‘eating our own’? If we keep working as hard as ever, are we replicating the kind of society that we want to change?  Are we allowing the government to shirk its duty by taking on that work? Do leaders have to choose which is more important – focusing on where we are and how it feels to be here – or focusing on where we want to go and the most expedient way to get there?

I think it’s a false choice, and one that divides us and keeps us trapped in a fight that solves neither problem. In a recent post, my colleagues at the Liberatory Leadership Partnership quote Mariame Kaba: “Our imagination of what a different world can be is limited because we are deeply entangled in the very systems we are organizing to change.” If we want something different out of this moment for ourselves as citizens, non-profit leaders, employees, activists, dreamers and doers, we have to do things differently.  And we have to hold both spaces – where we are and where we are going – in a different way than we have before. 

We have to make our organizations places where we can work hard with determination and joy, and where we can walk out the door and go home to care for ourselves and our families, and recharge for the next days and weeks and years. We must come up with new strategies, frameworks, and program designs to achieve our missions by listening to different “experts” and trying new ways of being. In other words, our organizations must prefigure our mission-related visions for the world: our food pantries should feel like a world where no one is hungry; our after-school programs should treat all kids like future leaders; our organizing groups should offer the kind of balanced life to their staff that they dream of for their members. 

Leading while holding both priorities is new for most of us – and we don’t have a lot of good models. We will screw it up – erring too far on the side of self-care, leaning too far on the side of grinding “production.” But if we can stay in conversation with each other – and if we can keep trying new ways of being, I think we can get somewhere new.

A sage for our times, adrienne maree brown, said, “We can’t get to a new destination without changing who and how we are. There are a million paths to the future.” The ways we have run our organizations in the past – the limited models of what a leader looks like, what ‘charity’ feels like, how we think about giving and taking – are not enough. Next week I am planning to take some time to breathe, but also some time for deep thinking that maps my work for this next season. How about you?

Lisa Pilar Cowan is vice president at the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation.

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