Standing Beside Alaska's Non-Profits

Staying Grounded in Uncertain Times

Last month I talked about CEOs who were considering imminent, or not too distant, departures from their jobs. This month I want to focus on those who are staying and need to remain grounded during these uncertain times. While many of our organizations have not yet felt the economic punch that is coming, most of us have experienced some level of anxiety about our overall ability to serve our communities in this economy. Not only is this to be expected, I would honestly be a little worried if all of you weren’t seriously considering the changes in our landscape that will affect us for the foreseeable future. I applaud those of you who have become involved and used your voice. This is the time to speak up for the good work and positive economic impact the nonprofit sector provides Alaska. Keep it up.

Uncertainty is a lot like change. You know about change. It happens all the time in our work – hopefully for the better for our clients, partners, and community – but not always.

Liz Medicine Crow, CEO of First Alaskans Institute, shared a powerful story about change with me one day that was passed down from her grandfather to her mother. She gave me permission to share it with you. The story compares change to picking up a long-ago fallen log that is lying on the beach. Prying up the heavy log reveals a whole universe of creatures that have made a life out of what was available to them – they felt safe and secure in their world. The act of lifting the log exposes them to sunlight and oxygen that was not expected. Each of the animals responds differently in the face of that change. Some freeze. Some quickly adapt. Some gather together, while others go it alone. And some just dive deeper into the dark environment that they know as comfort. Over time, the initial scatter normalizes. Some that went deep or froze start to rebuild. Those that adapted have long become comfortable with their new surroundings. Some died. Some left for something else in groups or on their own. All of these responses are normal and without judgment.

It’s interesting to understand what is happening in your own organization as big change occurs. For some of you, even with all this uncertainly, it could feel like change is completely in your control – you asked the hard questions and decided to change because it was clearly the right way to provide the best possible mission. For others, you might feel like this is out of your control because the financial resources or partner support is now simply not available to do mission the way you have done it before. Of course, no matter where you find yourself, how you react, or how you support your coworkers, peers, staff, and board is entirely in your control.

So how do we stay grounded in times of change and uncertainty? Sure, understanding that our reactions and actions are choices we make every day is a good place to start. Then what? Here are a few ideas to get the conversation started. Let me know what works for you.

  1. Connect with mission. This might sound funny to say to readers who work in the nonprofit sector, but if you aren’t in a direct service position, it’s possible that you don’t get to feel the impact of your work on a regular enough basis. There are two words I want to highlight in the last sentence – “feel” and “enough.” I think it is safe to say that we can all see the difference, but how often do you feel it and truly connect with it enough to sustain or renew your energy for the work? Is it every day that you need to serve a person in need, or teach class, or walk on a trail that your organization built, or engage with an artist or work of art? I figured out that almost every day I need some small way to stay energized. Maybe for you it is once a week or once a month, and the experience has to be big, not small. Do you know the answer for yourself? And if you do, what are you doing to ensure it happens? I promise, its power to renew your convictions, passions, interests, and ideas is a terrific grounding experience. How will you build this into your day?
  2. Support your team: How is your team feeling? Do you nurture a culture of checking in with each other? We work in team oriented environments. Our team may be paid staff, or volunteer staff, or some combination of the two – but we work in teams. And yet, how often do you ask people if they feel grounded in this new reality and what support they may need. We teach in our Catalyst for Nonprofit Excellence program that support works uniquely for each person. What I need is not the same as what someone else needs. For example, when we were preparing for the CEO transition at Foraker, and before I knew it would be me, many of the staff talked about what support looked like from the CEO. Many of the answers focused on the high value they placed on the CEO taking time every day to say hello and personally engage in a meaningful way. I loved this request and it is something on a very full day that I need to remind myself to do. I don’t get it right all the time, but I know that those moments play a large role in grounding us as a team. I also know there are other forms of support that work better for each of the people on our team and they aren’t just nice things to do, they are essential to us moving forward. Of course it isn’t just what I do, it’s what happens within the team. I love watching them support each other – flowers brought to a co-worker’s desk on a lunch break, breakroom banter about weekend adventures, brainstorming when someone has a work dilemma. Recognizing that each organization has its own culture, I encourage you to consciously and verbally connect with your team about how the economy and its impact on your work is affecting them.
  3. Support your peers. If ever a cliché were true, it’s this one – “it’s lonely at the top.” So let’s face it, if you are in a senior position, you have fewer options to verbally process issues, and you receive less unsolicited feedback, and unfortunately less formal evaluation. The national numbers are staggeringly low for CEO evaluation, despite the awareness that this is a “best practice” for our sector. Yet we are talking about staying grounded during change, and this is why we should seek peer support, which differs from team support and which propels the organization and the person forward. At Foraker we are very conscious of this need and we have created programs that emphasize peer support in general and CEO support specifically. We will only do more of this as we continue supporting the work of the sector. If you are curious about how this can work for you, I strongly encourage you to get in touch with us. If you already have this support, I hope you are making it a priority on your schedule.
  4. Celebrate small successes. What does success look like? What does fun look like for your organization? How do you combine the two? Clearly it is easier to celebrate short-term wins and smaller moments if your organization has clearly defined goals. Maybe you chart these goals in your strategic or annual plans, or in your budget, or in more tactical tools like a fundraising plan or project plan. Whichever is the case for you, find small moments to celebrate the small steps and it will help the future goals feel easier to achieve.

Some of us thrive on change, some love the unknown, and some like knowing with a degree of certainty what the future holds. We all will manage our economic challenges differently – as people and as organizations. If we work together we can help each other stay grounded so that we can continue to do our best work. I welcome more of your ideas on what keeps you grounded and how we can best support your work now and in the future.