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Sep 12, 2021
Posted Under: President's letter

Is it ever enough? This is the question that drives me, haunts me, inspires me, and motivates me more than any other question in these times. I feel it most acutely as I watch and read and learn about what is happening around the world and in our own country and in my community. I feel it as we enter into this next phase of the pandemic and acknowledge that this is not a temporary way of life like many of us thought in 2020, but a way of being that is likely to be measured in years not months.

What can I do? How can I contribute? Where will it matter? Is any of that enough?

I feel these questions bubbling up for me about my own actions, and I feel it for our organization. I also know I am not alone with my questions. I see it in the faces of so many people across the Zoom screens, and I hear it in the voices of nonprofit board members and staff as they contemplate their next personal or organizational step. It looks like a wide-eyed and closed-mouth plea for confirmation or celebration or even encouragement that the step they are about to take is enough. Frankly, their faces say that one more step would suck all the air and all the joy and all the energy out of any reason to do the work at all. It is in these moments that I think we are collectively finding the balance of “just enough” to sustain ourselves and our teams.

It isn’t hard to guess why intense feelings of simultaneous urgency and exhaustion accompany the “enough” question. This personal and leadership question is part of a larger reckoning we are seeing across the country. News headlines and researched reports tell us that staff, volunteers, and donors are asking every day what is worth my time, money, and energy? As a nation, we saw this deep adjustment happen in the aftermath of 9/11. When faced with the uncertainty of life, it seemed we wanted every moment we had to matter. As a result, we changed jobs, we moved, and we adjusted where and how and how much we donated and volunteered our time and treasure, and we adapted to a new way of life. We were a nation forever changed. As we honor the still unimaginable loss and awe-inspiring heroism of that day 20 years ago, I am struck by how in very, very different ways we are grappling again with the reckoning that comes from the uncertainty of our lives.

For example, this past week NPR reported that 40% of Americans will change jobs this year. I don’t know how that will translate into our sector or in your community, but I can see this shifting in the requests we are getting at Foraker and in so many more quiet conversations about people’s need to reprioritize what is core for them. We also know that as a result of safety protocols and personal fears, the seismic shifts in volunteerism are still unmeasured but deeply felt. Report after report tells us that charitable giving is also shifting as many foundations find or refocus their equity lenses and corporations downsize their philanthropy to adjust to a COVID economy. At the same time, individuals seek more meaningful ways to be transformational rather than transactional with their money. Layered over all this is the promise of federal relief dollars that could be game-changers when it comes to broadband access, safe drinking water, food security, childcare access, and so much more.

The challenge with all this shifting and moving is that it is hard to find the spot where we center ourselves – where we feel that the ground underneath us is steady enough to take the next steps to seize the opportunities in front of us. The irony of this moment – the moment of asking is it enough – is that this is the time when we have to be at our very best, to have all the people we need on our teams, to work with all the people on other teams across nonprofits, tribes, local governments, and business to make the highest and best use of these dollars at the very same time our teams are shifting, our funding changing, and our trust waning.

It can just feel like so much all at once. And so, we breathe and we ask ourselves, what is enough?

While I cannot begin to know how you will answer this question for yourself, I can share how I see myself and others navigating this space. I hope these ideas will spark an idea for you or just bring you comfort in solidarity. None of these ways of being are new, but in the context of the question, they might just quiet the spin cycle of your thoughts.

Finding the balance of enough in leading our work

  1. Ask: Is it urgent or important? If you are a list maker, I am guessing you have prioritized it with urgent tasks first followed by those that feel important but lack a deadline or the sense that we are bottlenecking someone else’s flow. I rely heavily on this categorization, but in these times – yikes – it is getting harder on some days to tell the difference when each decision and task feels urgent. We have heard this called “decision fatigue” – that idea that even simple decisions and tasks seem to have become life-or-death choices and the sheer volume of decisions has escalated beyond reason. This is just not something we can sustain. I find that my lists are now not sources of satisfaction with items checked, but instead, they feel drained of the promise of completion. Maybe this is you, too? So I have been reminding myself of this wonderful lesson I learned in our Catalyst program “Do it. Dump it. Delegate it. Delete it.” This way of organizing provides momentum out of that space of feeling stuck and overwhelmed because it puts the control in the hands of each list maker and helps us get back to feeling like each decision is not somehow ALL of the decisions.

While somewhat obvious, let’s look a little deeper at the instructions. “Do it” can be used for the quick wins that offer us an energy pick-up to fuel the harder items on the list. “Dump it” is an opportunity to say this thing I thought was important actually causes more work or chaos for others and it is right to let it go. “Delegate it” sounds great but remember to have grace with your team. Delegate isn’t an “I don’t want to do it” moment, it is a moment to acknowledge that others on the team (staff, board, volunteers) might be a more appropriate lead on the item or might actually love to do the thing you don’t want to do or don’t have time to do. Delegating is about acknowledging the strength of others and being accountable to others in your requests for support. “Delete it” is different from dumping it with the same result. The act of deleting an item from the list is to acknowledge that either it has been there forever and there is not enough energy from the team (including you) to move it forward or that because of all the other work it now no longer has the importance that it had when it got on the list in the first place. Let it go and feel the relief.

  1. Ask: Is it useful or interesting? Sometimes leadership is understanding that you will always have all the balls in the air and the secret of success is knowing which ones are glass. I was reflecting on this when a colleague shared with me that they feel overwhelmed by the number of requests for information they are getting from their team members. I asked, are the requests for information useful to move the mission forward, or are they just interesting pieces of information to know. Understanding the difference can mean everything for our next steps that either keep us focused or pull on our teams, distracting us from the work in front of us and ultimately keeping us overwhelmed. There are certainly times when exploring an interesting option is fruitful, but equally true is remembering that it requires time, space, and group decisions on how and when to do that work. The next time you find yourself being pulled by another person’s request, thoughtfully and with grace work together to assess if is it useful to moving us forward or simply interesting – the next step is in that answer.
  2. Put it in a drawer. All those ideas. All the things you think need to get done to move the mission forward. Write them all down. Get them out of your head where they spin at night and give them a home. Then look at it. Sort it if you want, or not. If you typed it, print it so you can have it – so you can feel it is real. Open your desk drawer and find it a place of honor. Close the drawer. Make a deal with yourself to only look at it again in a month and then again the next month after that. Perhaps this sounds counter-intuitive, but there is a release that occurs in your brain. You may feel the calm of knowing you don’t have to hold onto every idea so tightly and the effect of actually giving enough time and space for those ideas to flourish. The act of releasing it from your head and onto the paper creates the space to get it done. Truly, try it. You might just be amazed at the result.
  3. Use your planning tools. There are a number of tools in the nonprofit toolbox that could be incredibly grounding right now like a clear and simple strategic plan that grounds you in your values and purpose and sets some guideposts for success over the long term, or a theory of change that articulates the ultimate “whys” of your work in a way that grounds you in the bigger reasons for your efforts, or even your annual budget, which is seemingly just a set of numbers but actually is truly your values allocated into line items. These tools create a space for us to put our feet together at the start and step forward in the direction we need to go, knowing that each step moves us closer to a common set of results for the people and world we serve. It may feel hard to plan right now, but for those who are doing it, I see relief for the time to think bigger than the here and now and for exerting some control in a time that feels less controllable. Going slow to go fast isn’t a new idea, but now, in what feels like the spin cycle, the relief that comes from seeing that the work of the whole team is connected even as our efforts to be together are thwarted is priceless. As the ground shifts and uncertainty is our only certainty, these tools provide a place where we can meet as a team.
  4. Gather the team to connect. In all the doing, the time I see that is most well spent in our team, and so many others, is the space to gather – albeit online – to simply connect with each other as humans. The agenda is to laugh, share, and tell stories, and to ask about each other as people while we learn and listen. These might be your most expensive meetings by budgeting standards or by some measure of outputs the least yielding in immediate results, but they are worth every moment and every penny if we are measuring trust, communication, and possibility. I see this in the meetings in my own team and those we are asked to facilitate. In this world that lacks so much trust in our fellow humans and where casual workplace connections are limited, these offerings of time and space to connect are enough.

Did these ideas spark for you? While I focused on your work, I also want to keep acknowledging that many of these ideas could also translate into your personal journey. This idea of enough is not just about work – it is about our whole selves. Sure, there are other lists of ways of being that could provide personal grounding right now. Those might include taking an extended break – not just a few days but a few weeks or months, or even taking the leap and applying for a Rasmuson Sabbatical (the deadline is fast approaching). Or it might look like making an extra donation or giving just a little bit more to a nonprofit that is working on issues that matter to you in the hopes that it will balance the anger, frustration, and anxiety of what is happening in the world. Or maybe it looks like making space every day to breathe in the coolness of the coming fall air, or to walk or run or hike, or sit in the rain or sun for a little bit longer. For each of us, the answer is likely not just one thing but the thing that works in the moment. It is likely not just something we can do once or twice, but an opportunity to say and feel that whatever we choose in our work and our personal life is just enough.