12/16/2014 01:55 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Nine Ways to Sustain the Non-Profit ED


In the wonderful wake of being named a winner of the prestigious New York Community Trust Non-Profit Excellence Award presented by the Non-Profit Coordinating Committee, I have had the opportunity to reflect on the running of an organization. The areas "of excellence" used as criteria for the award span across board engagement, finance, fundraising, and sustainability of the organization.

But what I've been thinking about is sustainability of the Executive Director. I imagine this question applies to folks in all sorts of industries and with diverse backgrounds, but I'm going to focus in on those who are leading non-profits. Granted, a narrow audience, but I hope some of it is helpful to the group.

In my experience, running a non-profit is exhilarating, heart breaking, stressful, uplifting, exhausting, and life affirming. Sometimes all in the same day. You are tight on resources; whether the resources are time, money, staff or all of the above. There is never enough of something. There are many people to answer to (funders, staff, volunteers, program officers, board members, your auditor). So much is at stake: a budget, programs, people's livelihoods, and of course, most importantly, those your mission serves.

1) Have a "Growth Mindset"
I just finished Carol Dweck's new book, "Mindset-The New Psychology of Success" and found some key take-aways. The premise of the book is that we are all prone to either a "fixed" or "growth" mindset and, you guessed it, a "growth mindet" leads us all to better outcomes. The idea is that we set our own limitations for ourselves, and for others, by believing that we don't have room for growth, improvement, and learning in areas that don't come naturally or easily for us. According to Dweck, we need to shift that mindset and embrace an openness to growth and improvement. What does this look like in light of running a non-profit? The next time you catch yourself saying or thinking, "I'm just not good at that" or "She'll never get better at that" take a minute to shift your thinking. Perhaps you're not "good at" something now or maybe someone on your staff isn't excelling at something now, but with time and effort and a "tackling" of whatever this thing is, there is an opportunity to improve. Don't self-limit what you're capable of just because it doesn't come easily to you. Don't run the other way. Run towards it instead. You might be pleasantly surprised.

2) Get Stuff Done
Between Tweets, Facebook, emails, texts, G-chat, cell phone, work phone, meetings, and unexpected stuff that inevitably comes up (we all know what these things are!) do you find that it's dinner time and you haven't actually gotten anything done? You've met with people and responded to people, but you haven't gotten any of your own work or thinking done. Right? At Row New York, we use the term "Get Stuff Done" or GSD for short. I put two hours a day of GSD in my calendar every single day. Inevitably things come up and I infringe on that time, but I try very hard to "protect it" and usually do.

3) Thicken Your Skin
The first rejection letter I got from a foundation made me cry. The first meeting I had with a program officer also left me in tears on sixth avenue. A certain program partner made me furious and I was filled with anger for days. People used to disappoint me when they didn't respond to a request for support, but I've learned the value in letting it go. It wasn't long before I realized that, to be successful and to be sustainable, I needed to stop taking things so hard and/or so personally. This goes back to the introduction of this blog post. Remember the highs and lows? Don't let the lows drag you down.

4) Laugh at how Ridiculous it all is
The pure volume of what needs to be done in a day can be dizzying. Just the other day, I was trying to get the kids off to school when I heard from someone on our staff that one of the boathouses we operate out of was beginning to sink (yes, you read that right), I got a text that a man in the building where our offices are was harassing women on our staff in the hallway, my inbox was already filled with requests and questions from funders and board members, and most importantly, my eight year old had begged me to complete a maze that he had spent the past 40 minutes creating. So there I was, pencil in hand, trying to make my way through the land mines and biting crocodiles. The dog put her paws on my waist to say, "Remember me? Are we going out?" and I just had to laugh. The amount of "needs" coming from all directions was comical. In these moments, I try to recognize that my life is chaotic, but it is full, and I am lucky.

5) Stay Close to the Mission
The larger Row New York has grown, the less time I get to spend doing what I love doing most, which is being with our kids on the water. This is no good as I am buoyed by Row New York's participants. Beginning about a year ago, I began making a concerted effort to be at practice at least one afternoon a week. They don't need me there. Our staff is phenomenal and all runs quite well without me. But I need me there. To stay inspired, to know the kids, to remember why I'm raising money and building awareness, I need my own dose of what we do. So, no matter how busy you are, carve out the time. And site visits with funders don't count. You need to be with the people you serve as yourself, not as part of a visit where your attention has to be shared with whoever you are hosting.

6) Stop checking email after 9PM
Yes, you read that right. If you're working anyway, fine, but once you've logged off for the night, don't go back. Why? Little good can come from checking your email at night. Good news will be waiting there for you in the morning. Bad news will just keep you up all night worrying or angry or both. If it's an emergency, let you staff know they should text you.

7) Remember what "bad news" really looks like
Not getting a grant, a partnership going wrong, a boat being dropped by 14 year olds, this is stuff that is not good, but perspective is key. Years ago, I was grumbling to my good friend Caroline Kim Oh, who was then the president of iMentor, about something going wrong at Row New York. She said, "As long as the kids are okay, nothing is that bad." Bad news comes in the form of things we can't fix or recover from. All parents reading this know what I mean by that.

8) Let the non-profit grow up
My friend Adam Green, the ED of Rocking the Boat, and I were emailing this fall about the challenge of juggling a non-profit and small children (for him, a new baby). It can be shocking for an ED, especially a founder/Ed, when that baby comes into your life. The non-profit is no longer "your baby" and that means the need for an adjustment. Priorities shift. Perspective changes. Your time has to be shared. Don't see that as a bad thing. The human child forces the non-profit to grow up and allows for other senior staff to become better leaders. And you're a parent. We should all be so lucky to have so many things we actually care about in our lives.

9) Your staff will sustain you
You have to get this part right. Surround yourself with staff who make your life easier, your job more rewarding, your days funnier, and who are good at their jobs and work their tails off. They will sustain you. This is my best example.