The first part of this lesson - You will let people down - I’ve got down pat. The second part - “But that’s OK” - I’m still working on.
For the most part, people who build careers in the nonprofit sector are motivated by the belief that they are helping people. That means we are the least likely people in the whole wide world to say, “I’m sorry, I can’t help you” when someone calls. If we do turn someone away, we feel like jerks for hours or days each and every time. That feeling of guilt compounds over time.
If you’re lucky, your organization grows. More people know who you are. More people come to you for help. More people are turned away. You are coming closer and closer to effectively fulfilling your mission, and yet you feel worse and worse because of all of the people you can’t help.
And that’s just the start.
Even in the areas you do work, you are going to let people down. Sometimes two great opportunities come along at the exact same moment, and you can’t possibly pull off both. So you do the mature thing and let someone down. Or, you attempt the crazy thing and try to pull them off at the same time - basically prolonging the inevitable.
In business, there seems to be more comfort with the idea that “you can’t make all the people happy all the time”. There is respect for the idea of a clear brand that defines a corporate identity and stays true to it.
In the nonprofit world, we seem too comfortable letting others tell us who we should be, letting ourselves be pulled in a million different directions, and feeling altogether too guilty when we turn people away. We label these virtues, boasting of our flexibility, adaptability, compassion, and empathy.
For the sake of our mission, a little more focus is probably a good thing. For the sake of our personal sanity, we should concerns ourselves less with what we aren’t doing and more with what we are doing.