Sustaining Your Career So You and Your Nonprofit Can Thrive

By Fredia Woolf

Fredia Woolf
Nonprofit leaders constantly wear multiple hats and often struggle to make do with limited finances, but need to see the bigger picture beyond the details, problems, and drama of each day, and deliberately shift themselves to a more calm, strategic, and productive state.

“Look 5 Ways” is a practical strategic planning tool that I devised to help organizations create a pathway to the future, but you can apply it to yourself, to help you to sustain your career.

Look In
In a recent workshop with nonprofit executive directors, I asked them to identify the biggest challenges they were facing: what got in the way of their smoothly and seamlessly accomplishing their mission?

Approximately half of their list related to their own self-perceptions and self-management: “I don’t know how to ask for help”. “I’m a perfectionist”, “I need to learn how to say no”, “I don’t admit I can’t do everything”, “I don’t prioritize in my personal or work life”, “I don’t have efficient work processes”, “I get distracted by things like email, and don’t do the important things”.

When you look in, you clarify your values, identify your strengths and areas for development, and deepen your self-awareness. Once you are able to recognize some patterns and habits you have developed over time, you can ask yourself the following questions:
  • What mindset, beliefs and assumptions lead to my behaving in this way? You may gain insights that help you make some needed shifts.
  • Is this habit or choice helpful? If so, keep going with it; if not, consider trying another approach.
Look Out
We all have multiple stakeholders competing for our time, energy, and attention. It is useful to draw a map of each stakeholder group—including yourself! —and identify your role and responsibilities with respect to each. Some questions you can ask yourself are:
  • What impact am I having on them? What impact are they having on me?
  • Am I spending the appropriate amount of time on or with each? Who needs more/less?
  • What is my “ask” of each of them?
  • What could I start/stop doing with respect to each of them?
By gaining clarity on these questions and being willing to set firm boundaries, many of the externally driven challenges cited by my workshop participants would disappear, such as: “There are too many expectations, requests, and demands on me”, “I never put 'me’ first”, “Everyone wants things yesterday”, “I have so many balls to juggle, I feel I’m in a circus”, “Others hijack my priorities”.

Look Forward
By taking some time out of the mad paddling through the rapids to go and sit for a few minutes on a metaphorical island, you gain much needed perspective. You can see the big picture and reconnect with your vision and purpose. I would recommend that you set a couple of sacrosanct times on your calendar each week for strategic thinking time, to enable you to focus on strategic priorities and help you chart your future course as well as refresh and renew your thinking.

Look at Gaps
This can be an intellectually challenging and uncomfortable exercise, but, if you pursue it with honesty and diligence, can be quite enlightening. Take a good, hard look at the gaps and disconnects that are probably at the root of your sense of overwhelm or stress. Some examples to get you going are the gaps between:
  • What you are hoping to achieve vs. what you are actually accomplishing
  • Your mission and goals vs. time and resources available
  • Your intentions vs. your impact
  • Your understanding of roles and responsibilities vs. your staff or board’s.
The first step in any change process, if you want to see different results, is to gain awareness, and then pay attention and act. Once you have identified the most significant or glaring gaps, you will be able to take the steps needed to close them, and get closer to your desired outcomes.

Look at Results
These are a few pointers that can help you move from awareness to better outcomes.
  • Focus on a very small number of strategic or personal priorities and commit to action
  • Repeat those actions consistently ”“ whether you stop or start doing something, just keep at it over time, until you start to see the positive results
  • Set up some kind of accountability structure—a buddy, a group, a coach—to help you sustain the small changes that can have transformative results for your career, your sanity, and your organization.
Fredia Woolf, principal of Woolf Consulting, helps nonprofit leaders and boards operate at a higher level of effectiveness through group facilitation and individual coaching. You can reach her at or 617-842-0245. Copyright © Fredia Woolf.
July 2013