Two balls, in the air, at all times. Keep your eye on them both.
One ball is the impact progress social change ball, the reason you’re there and likely the reason your staff, volunteers, and donors are all there, too. You’re trying to solve a serious social issue. You’re creating programs and services that tackle that issue. Are they working? Are they having the greatest impact for every dollar and person hour spent? That’s the impact ball.
Everyone expects you’ll drop the impact ball. You won’t be able to solve the problem. You won’t be able to afford to solve the problem. You won’t be able to deliver programs that work. You’ll get tired of juggling that ball and just want … to …. rest.
You won’t. You won’t drop that ball. It’s the reason you get up in the morning. It’s your muse. It’s hard, impossible work - but you’re up for it.
The other ball is the one that no one talks about. It’s the organization, the operations, the day to day practice of managing a group of people trying to harness resources for impact. Most people who dive into charity work aren’t prepared for this. “I don’t remember the last time I had a conversation about our actual issues,” is a refrain I have heard from many executive directors, usually just before someone utters the words “burnout” and then “resignation”.
In the years leading up to burnout, you’ll hear the phrases “I just need to get through this [insert organizational challenge here]” or “As soon as [challenge] is over, we’ll finally be able to [project idea].” That transition from fixation on organization challenge to impact challenge is seen as the ultimate sign of progress.
If there’s one piece of advice I wish someone had given me years ago, it’s this: “Expect your organization to change, but don’t expect progress.”
It sounds gloomy, but it’s not. It’s really not. Heading to work every day hoping that all organizational challenges will magically go away and you’ll just “work on the issues” 24/7 is what causes burnout. It’s a fantasy, and when it doesn’t come true, you won’t know how to cope. I’ve seen it. The organizational stuff doesn’t go away. It feels like no progress is being made. And leaders give up.
Instead, we should just accept reality. The organization ball never goes away. It’s always there. You can never set it down. One set of issues will constantly replace another.
Think about it: Overworked because you’re the only staff member? No problem, raise some funds and hire more staff. But then you have training and HR and communications challenges that never existed before. Having a hard time having an impact because no one knows who you are? No problem, get a public profile. Then cope with people’s expectations for your time and your brand and access. Feeling too small to have an impact? No problem, get big. Then figure out how to remain true to the original mission and passion that made you effective in your early days. It. Never. Ends.
The organization ball is omnipresent. Your goal isn’t to make it go away. And it’s a problem in the charity world that there’s very little discussion, very little training, and - frankly - a lot of disdain for this aspect of the work.
Organizational challenges don’t mean you’re doing something wrong or you’ve failed in some way. They don't mean your time isn't well-spent. They aren’t a distraction from the “real” work.
They’re an inherent part of working with other people to try to do something. And the bigger and more important that “something” is, the more people (staff, volunteers, donors) you’re gonna need on your team. Those challenges mean you’re not alone on your mission. So rather than hoping they “go away” so things will get “better”, I thank my lucky stars I have organizational challenges and people to tackle them with me.
And that’s the ultimate irony. The thing that feels the least like progress - hopping from one set of issues to the next without rest - is actually the best sign of progress. You’re still there. You’re still growing. People are still joining in. If all that went away, then what kind of impact could you really have?