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Apr 9, 2024
Posted Under: Leadership Development President's letter

Springtime in Alaska is the time that tests our convictions the most – the time when you can still ski, snowshoe, and snowmachine, and there are more moments to walk or ride on pavement, gravel, and hard ground – a time of hope and a bit of pleading for slightly more sunshine and slightly less gray as the daylight invites us to do more and hibernate less. This is truly the time of year that reminds me that I get to hold a lot of emotions, energy, and ideas all at once. It is also the time of year that my mindset matters.

Our work in the nonprofit sector also looks and feels like the weather – the highs and lows are palpable and most days ridiculous to juggle. The list of what confronts us as a sector is daunting on a good day – pandemic business recovery, delayed payments, workforce shortages, leadership transition, underfunding, cuts, and more. So, facing it with a “get to” not a “have to” mindset where the abundance outweighs the scarcity is what gets me through the days.

When I got into this work in my early 20s, there were a lot of conversations about how to approach the work, and specifically the recommendation was a mindset of “work-life balance.” As an early Gen Xer, I knew the rewards and perils of watching my mom and her mom and all the women who had come before me fight hard to “have it all” in work and life. To be sure, I was raised to believe that was possible and even expected of me.

I was in, but frankly, I bristled at the notion of “work-life balance” as a term, as a goal, as a mindset, or even as a reality. This became even more true for me when I became a parent almost two decades later. The notion of “balance” seemed like a magical place of haves and have-nots and mostly just provoked a feeling of failure for me. When I was working, I lamented not being with my girl and when I was with my girl, I was thinking of work – it felt “lose-lose” and so far away from “win-win.” I just kept thinking, “What is balance anyway, and who says?” Over time and through a lot of tears and deep work, I reframed it for myself as “work-life peace.”

My daily effort was “peace” with my choices, even when – or especially when – they didn’t make sense to someone else who thought I should be doing it differently. Each of us will find peace in an hour, a day, a week, a year, and what works for each of us is going to be different. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have expectations, responsibilities, policies, practices, and culture to live up to at work and home, but it does mean that we can recognize that we are all navigating in our own ways – some based on kids, some based on parents or other family members in our sphere of caring – some based on other responsibilities that have less to do with people and more to do with commitments we have made. We can also recognize that our ability to find peace will change over time and that means we will have new choices to make.

I say all this right now as a reminder to myself and to each of us that the work we do to reset our thinking and even the words we use to describe our days matter.

I also say all this right now because as a sector, of the many challenges in front of us, one of the biggest is that we are navigating unprecedented shifts in our workforce and our volunteer force. It seems no nonprofit is immune from workforce shortages at all levels of staffing. Our inability to compete in the marketplace based on our restrictive, slow-to-change and hard-to-raise funding streams hamper our ability to pivot to meet the demands of a workforce who so rightfully know they deserve better and are less compromising in their understanding of the constraints. This turnover in staff is then exacerbated by the trend predicted long ago that is now a reality – the exit of our nonprofit C-Suite leaders. It would be one thing if all this churn was only happening in our staff spaces, but it is equally true in our board and volunteer environments. This should be no surprise really, but it is. If the pandemic years invited us to ask how we truly want to spend our time and what matters most in our lives, then we as a collective body are not just going to change our work, we are going to change how we spend our free time too.

And yet our surprise means, for the most part, that we are unprepared and full of negative judgment which further permeates our spaces. Even with this mindset, or despite it, we CAN do many things to be prepared. Here are just a few:

  • If you are on the board: You can work with your team to write and live a Board Succession Plan to attend to the full cycle of board service (strategic recruitment – thoughtful engagement – graceful exit) or come to our board succession class coming up in May.
  • If you are the CEO: You and your team can write and adopt a CEO and Staff Succession Plan
  • If you are on staff: You and your CEO can work together to consider and engage all employees in talking about benefits you can offer in flexibility and meaningful work that are manageable in the budget
  • Everyone can raise their voice to advocate for prompt payment from the state I encourage you to do all those things AND there is something else…

Please do all these things in 2024. And, what if we all did one more thing together…

What if we collectively shifted our thinking and all that came after that, as I had to do long ago from “balance” to “peace,” and move from the deficit mindset of all the “quitting” that is happening to seeing it as “choosing.”

What if we face each staff, board, and volunteer departure in front of us by celebrating that those around us are making choices – indeed, they are not quitting but they are choosing to do what feels right for themselves, their family, the mission, and the community.

For me, shifting to a mindset of choice means the unfolding of many things. It means I am now in a place to celebrate the act of choice by each staff, board, and volunteer as an opportunity, not an obligation. That then allows me to see that the choice is first a personal one to serve one’s community; which then helps me see a choice for the existing board/staff members to create and sustain a meaningful and positive experience for new people who join; which then invites me to see that these choices are part of what makes the fabric of our communities and creates a space of respect for those who serve; and finally to understand that all these choices represent how we choose every day as a sector to hold space for civic engagement so that our democracy can truly thrive.

Sure, that is a lot to ask of a simple shift in mindset, especially when faced with a declining number of people on the team, but the alternative is to perpetuate an environment of stress and deep fatigue and to see every departure as a failure. The small but huge act of shifting our mindset from something easily portrayed and reinforced as negative to something that feels more abundant frees us all to do our best work with those who choose to show up.

So, to each of you showing up every day to this work and to those who are making different choices, I see you, I celebrate you, and we are continuing to be in support of you.