Perspectives, Part 3: Balance and Boundaries

At the end of my last article I shared that my third and final post in this Perspectives series would be on Balance and Boundaries. I stated that the post would be published “next week.” That was nearly two months ago. Quite frankly, I have struggled with this post. Why? Because I personally wrestle with maintaining balance and boundaries.

As a professional in the nonprofit world, I often deal with situations that challenge my ability to maintain equilibrium in my professional life and the space necessary to avoid situations that could be detrimental to my success. Here are just a few examples:

Taking “No” Personally – Fundraisers hear the word “no” a lot. Sometimes it’s because we are soliciting an individual or institution that has not been effectively cultivated. Sometimes it’s because a donor’s personal or business situation has changed. Sometimes it’s because of a misunderstanding that has caused frustration or disillusionment on the part of our donor. In any event, it is easy to take that word personally. I can recall numerous situations where I returned to my office feeling utterly defeated after my ask was turned down by a donor or prospect. I felt like it was a rejection of me, personally, and I felt that I had let my organization down. It became easy to start second guessing myself.

I learned along the way that a “no” to my ask was not about me, and my pity-party did nothing to improve my understanding of the situation, or my potential opportunities with donors. Instead of feeling dejected, I learned to thank donors for their honesty, and to ask them to share the reason for their decision. In doing so, I learned much more about our donors, what motivated them, what conditions might be affecting their ability to give, and what I could do to better prepare them – and myself – in the future. If it was clear that someone would not be a candidate for a future ask, I graciously let them go. In the process. I had to learn that the “Ask” is not about me, and it’s not about closing the deal to meet organizational goals. It’s about connecting the right people to the organization’s mission in the right way, at the right time.

Getting Too Involved – Nonprofit work is about dedication to mission. For most of us, it is far more than a job. We often join an organization because the mission touches an area of our personal life. That passion serves us well, but it can also put us in a place where the lines between our job and our personal lives get blurred. That situation becomes even more critical if you are, by nature, a workaholic. The advantage to a high level of passion is that we stop thinking of our nonprofit work as our vocation. The danger is that we stop thinking of our nonprofit work as our vocation. It’s a difficult balance, isn’t it? To be effective, we have to love what we do; but if we are not cautious about our level of involvement we can easily over-commit, and potentially upset other areas of our life and relationships.

I discovered two keys that worked for me: First, I made myself accountable to someone I trusted to tell me if I was getting “too involved” in my work and neglecting other relationships. In my case it’s my wife. I have occasionally made myself accountable to a co-worker or boss as well, depending on those relationships, to let me know if I appeared too emotionally connected to my work. Second, I set aside time to take care of me, and scheduled that on my calendar. That “me” time includes such things as exercise, relaxation, spiritual refreshing, and hobbies. That may sound like a lot of “me” time, but it really doesn’t take up that much time, and I’m often surprised by how much better – how much more balanced – I feel, and how much more effectively I work.

If I Don’t Do It, It Won’t Get Done – Do you ever find yourself thinking that you are the only one who can get all of the work done? If you work in a small nonprofit office, that may actually be true. Nonetheless, you can’t do it all. Nobody can. Because the work is never really finished. There will always be more to do, and if you don’t let some of it go you will burn out. If I am honest with myself, most of the times when I have held on too tightly it has been because of pride: “No one will do as good a job with it as I will.”

Well, I’m calling hooey on that way of thinking (yes, I just used “hooey” in a sentence). In many settings it is possible to delegate to other staff, and often they are better at some tasks than you are. In fact, you will serve yourself and your organization well if you hire people who are better at things than you are and release them to do what they do well. Even if you work in a small, one person shop, you can enlist the help of volunteers to take on some tasks. You should also evaluate the things you are spending time on to determine if some things can and should be let go, perhaps put on the back burner until you have the bandwidth to take on more effectively.

There’s certainly more that I could share on this topic, but suffice it to say that balance and boundaries are necessary for maintaining health – in your nonprofit mission and in your life.

And those are my perspectives.

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