Posts Tagged career path

Now Is Not Then

This week, I find myself poised to be named Acting Director at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. It’s a temporary solution to support another staff member who will be on leave. We’re hoping this distribution of leadership will jump start our intended move to a staff collective this year.

I feel deeply honored to be asked to step up in this way. And deeply in awe of everything that has unfolded over the past two years, since I decided to move to the Bay Area to be more connected day to day with socially engaged Buddhists. I’m in an even more strategic position to fulfill my dream of trying out new models of governance in a Buddhist organization.

But it’s not all easy. I’ve been sitting with a lot of dread in my chest and throat, a sense of fear and trepidation about what I am getting myself into.

A certain amount of this is normal. There’s a lot of work to be done, and I’m not sure that I’ll be able to get it all done in a 40 hour work week. There are a lot of unanswered questions about how much others will be able to step up to help. I may be shouldering a lot in the next few weeks.

But a large part of this is not about now.

1. What does this remind me of?

So much of this is unprocessed anger and fear from my past experience with nonprofits. Some of it is directed outward at nonprofits that continue to work people until they burn out, unwilling to make the hard decisions that would make our work more sustainable. Some of it is directed toward me too – can I trust myself to really take care of myself this time?

2. How is now not then?

Now – I have a huge set of practices that I didn’t even have a clue about when I was last an executive director. Meditation, compassion, equanimity, lovingkindness. When I learned those practices, I was blown away. “If only I had known about these when I was a director, my experience would have been completely different!” Now I get to learn just how different they might be.

Now – I work in an environment that supports me in using these practices. Even ASKS me to incorporate these practices throughout my work.

Now – I also have a whole set of practices for interacting with my stuff. Talking with monsters and walls, learning the patterns with Shiva Nata, emergency calming techniques, how to enter and exit consciously. And a million other helpful things that I had never even heard about, much less practiced for the past year or more.

Now – I know going in the problems of burnout, overwork, and how nonprofits struggle to make hard decisions. I can enter as I wish to be in it. Which probably means doing less, more slowly, but more deeply. There will be more practice of saying no to say yes.

3. What qualities do I want to bring to this encounter?

Courage. Love. Sovereignty. Possibility.

Presence. Laughter. Sustainability. Fierceness.

4. What do I want?

To midwife the organization into its next iteration. To stay open to not knowing what that actually looks like or how much of this process is mine to do.

To find my practices of self care so solid, so natural, that I stop telling the story that “I can not be trusted to take care of myself.”

5. What do we have in common?

(I’m reading this as “what do I have in common with this role of Acting Director”). Ten things:

  1. We meditate
  2. We use other self-reflective practices to bring our best selves to work
  3. We open our hearts with practices of compassion, loving kindness, joy & equanimity
  4. We’re interested in non-hierarchial leadership models
  5. We need to get more rooted after a period of transition
  6. We need to not get so rooted that we can’t still be transplanted as things continue to transition
  7. We need to ask for help from others as a way to be less hierarchical
  8. We are both terrified and hopeful about the future of the organization
  9. We are walking forward into a dark forest full of unknowns, slowly feeling our way
  10. We are resting in a larger field of interconnected, supportive people.

6. And how will this experience help me in the future?

I will certainly be learning a lot more about my practices of self care. Even if they completely fall apart, I’ll have new information about how to retool my self care tools to be more effective the next time.

I also am getting another set of lessons about nonprofit management. Even if things completely fall apart, I’ll have new information about what works and doesn’t work when trying to shore up a nonprofit.

7. Without having to appreciate this situation, what might be useful about it?

I don’t love that I’m feeling so much dread about taking on this role. I wish I could be unabashedly enthusiastic about it.

But having to process this old dread is really forcing me to think about how critical my self-care is going to be in this, and how important it’s going to be for me to start saying no to many upcoming things. I’m wanting to carve out lots of time for self care and reflection. And I wouldn’t be quite so intentional about this if it didn’t feel quite so dire.

8. What might help this encounter be less agonizing more harmonious?

I could ask Slightly Future Me who knows more about how we are aligned with this role of Acting Director in cool and amazing unanticipated ways.

I could refresh my memory of some good Emergency Calming Techniques, so they are easy to access when I am in a panic.

I could make a bag of slips specific to self care, and pull one out every day plus every time I find myself in a panic.


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Pinch Me

Someone pinch me – I think I’ve magically landed my dream job!

Wanted: A nonprofit leadership position in the San Francisco Bay Area. An organization interested in trying out new models of leadership and governance, building on the power of shared leadership rather than the traditional board-ED-staff hierarchy.

Organization must be committed to building a more inclusive version of itself. And it can’t be scared of me trying out mindfulness practice, a balance of the brahmaviharas, an analysis of the Three Rootssuffering, impermanence, and non-self – in the work we do. – From my journals, September 11, 2010


Buster Benson asks, “What’s one strong belief you possess that isn’t shared by your closest friends or family?”

I believe that Buddhist teachings on mindfulness and lovingkindness hold the keys to transforming our world to be peaceful and just. – From this blog, June 3, 2011

Enter the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, a community of primarily dharma practitioners established to support socially engaged efforts of visionaries of compassionate social justice and dharma-based organizations for social change. A community people working right at this intersection of Buddhist practice and social action.

I started today as the Operations Manager, and will be supporting BPF for at least the next few months as they (we!) sort out the next version of the organization. I’m super excited to be part of this transformation, and am already brimming with enthusiasm about supporting this work.

I’m also excited to see how this blog can be useful in processing the transitions and transformations as they come to pass. It’s exciting to have a real live organization with whom to think through some of my big questions – how can care of the self be connected with caring for the world? How does changing organizational structure change what an organization can accomplish? What do Buddhist teachings on mindfulness and compassion have to teach us about creating a more just and peaceful world? How does an organization include a diversity of voices, and grow stronger when those voices conflict?


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The Post-It Question

Now that I’m settling in to San Francisco living, I am pondering one of life’s too-big questions: What am I here to do? What should I do here?

I have this belief that there’s a life out there where I get to only do those things I love. If I have to do a bit of crappy work, it’s clearly in service to a larger purpose that I’m dearly committed to. That there’s a magic job in which life will magically be filled with ease and rainbows and kittens frolicking in the sunlight.

But even people who do what they love sometimes have to swallow a frog. And even people who are great at asking for what they want – they don’t always get what they want.

It feels like I’m expecting some magic pill to swoop in and deliver a life of ease. It is so hard to break this mindset, as it’s pounded in to me daily by advertising that the way to make my life better is to buy something. Take something. Drink something. Buy something else that will make you sexy and irresistible. Just keep buying and you will eventually feel better.

So if the perfection of a job does not exist somewhere out there*- how do I evaluate what kind of job would fulfill me? Would make me feel of use, like I was contributing to making this world better?

That which each can do best, none but his Maker can teach him. Where is the master who could have taught Shakespeare? Where is the master who could have instructed Franklin, or Washington, or Bacon, or Newton? . . . Shakespeare will never be made by the study of Shakespeare. Do that which is assigned you, and you cannot hope too much or dare too much. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Jenny Blake’s Post-It Question has been my favorite prompt so far. I have been daily looking at my post-it note where it is still pasted on the edge of my monitor: “How can I get paid to help people get past what’s blocking them?”

It’s been challenging for me to see how many people come to me for help to get past their blocks – friends, family, acquaintances – people realize that I’m good at this, so I become their go-to coach. And it’s hard for me to really complain about this being a challenge because I LOVE doing this. I love to hear their story – messy, emotional, confused – and tease out what’s important. To find the most emotional point where this person is being triggered, to make sure that part is heard and respected, and to start to brainstorm possible solutions.

I’d love to do this work all of the time. This is the challenge – right now, none of my work is directly about helping people get past what’s blocking them. And I’m always recommended to be a therapist – yet I’m not that interested in individualized solutions to feel like I could do that all day, every day. I’m curious to find ways to apply this in groups. Like I love group dynamics and thinking about how groups can get past their blocks. And I’m curious if I can better describe my process for getting past the blocks – so that it’s easier to train people to find their own solutions more quickly and easily than picking up the phone to call me.

*The Buddhist in me wants to remind myself that perfection is much more about what’s happening on the inside than the outside.


I’m participating in the #trust30 challenge to reflect on quotes and writing prompts from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self Reliance. I hope to develop more trust in my writing, more self reliance that what I write is worthwhile, even if just to me.


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An Appropriate Response to Impermanence

This is the second installment in the Appropriate Response series, a dharma-centric model for how wisdom, compassion, and courage guide our appropriate responses to the challenges of nonprofit management.

Also in the series:

An Appropriate Response: An Introduction


Responding to Impermanence

winter is an etching, spring a watercolor, summer an oil painting and autumn a mosaic of them all

Creative Commons License photo credit: jenny downing

We know that nothing is truly stable. In business, a strategy that is successful this year will go out of favor the next. The “right” way to fundraise with one person is the “wrong” way with another. The buildings we build today will need repair tomorrow.

On a May day in 2005, I woke up and went to work, thinking it was a day like any other. My first year teaching sexual assault prevention programs in schools was wrapping up, and I was looking forward to a summer where I could review my “pros and grows” – where I had succeeded and where I could improve in the upcoming year.

Liane met me at the door. As the Executive Director of Sexual Assault Services Organization (SASO) for the past four years, Liane had made a strong impression on me about how to run a nonprofit and maintain some balance and joy in life. I wasn’t expecting her news. “I’ve been hired to be the director of another nonprofit organization and am giving my notice today,” she paused slightly before dropping the next bombshell, “And Claire is probably going with me.” SASO was losing its two full time staff members, leaving me in my part time role to hold down the fort until new people were hired. Liane looked at me with some seriousness, “You really should think about applying for the director position.”

I had never seen myself as an executive director – at 28 I wasn’t sure I was old enough or had enough experience for the position. As I began to look at my mix of skills – skilled at writing, comfortable speaking in front of people, facility with budgeting and accounting, and enjoyment of working with people – I began to imagine that I could take a step into this role. What one day seemed an impossible challenge began to seem a grand opportunity. I applied, and got the job.

The learning curve was steep. As the last remaining staff member, I had to figure out how to hire staff, get them up to speed in an agency I had worked at for under a year, and start juggling the fundraising, grants, and financial management tasks that I was just learning to do. I quickly dropped any story that I needed to be “the boss” who was “in charge” and needed to “direct” everything happening “below” me. Instead, we were a team, learning together how to do our jobs, each a leader in our particular areas of expertise, each willing to help out the others when we needed an extra brain on a sticky problem. Our ability to drop the hierarchy and practice team leadership was noted; agency partners continually commented on the strength of our team and our ability to achieve greater success because of our approach.

I cannot imagine leading in another way, particularly in an organization dedicated to transformation and healing. Working with the trauma of sexual violence was our outer work. It is a deep practice of compassion, of being with the suffering of others, balanced with a deep practice of equanimity, of being completely unable to fix others’ suffering. As happens, this deep practice with others’ suffering continually touched into our own wells of suffering. The work is triggering, which while painful, is a great gift to be given the opportunity to face and heal our own suffering. We learned quickly that our inner work was just as essential. That when our own suffering was triggered we stopped to be with the feeling and honor where we’ve been. We would set new intentions, start planting those seeds, and tend to their growth. Our work together became a deep practice in inner and outer transformation, of ourselves and those we worked with. There was no division between our outer mission and what we practiced within. And there was much practice of joy with the realization that impermanence allows for the possibility of transformation.

In a nonprofit, how do we capitalize on our deep understanding of impermanence? A commitment to learning communities is key. By continually operating in a learning mode, we do not get entrenched in one right way of doing things. While we plan for things to change (because we know they will!), we focus on responding to current reality in the most appropriate ways possible.


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Does Your Nonprofit Care about your Personal Development?

I think we should all be careful of dividing the world into meaningful non-profits and soulless corporations. Caring for each other has more to do about the people who we report to and manage than the goals of the organization. If your boss comes to work every day genuinely looking to help you grow, and you do the same for the people you manage, then that’s a great workplace. If your boss is a jerk, and you are a jerk, then it’s a terrible place to be. It doesn’t really whether your company is making tons of money or saving lives in Tibet. What we do ourselves—individually, with the people next to us each day—is what establishes meaning in our lives. Penelope Trunk

How about a workplace where your boss comes to work every day genuinely looking to help you grow AND you are saving lives in Tibet? Is that really such an impossible task?

In the for-profit world, I’m finding that at least there is not the disappointment when you find out you work for a soulless corporation that prioritizes many other interests over my personal development. I even work at a decent corporation that attempts to care about my development, but the reality is that many, many other things come first. But when my own needs are shunted to the side, it’s fairly easy to let that roll off my shoulders. It’s not a personal attack, it’s just business.

In the nonprofit world, especially in the social justice world, personal development of staff must be a key part of the mission. At SASO, we are working to heal the trauma of sexual assault survivors. With so many staff identifying as survivors, how can we only work to heal people “outside” the agency while retraumatizing those “inside” the agency?


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Whole-Hearted Work

Heart at WOrk
Creative Commons License photo credit: AchimH

If organizational leadership/management doesn’t invest in a staff member, why should a staff member be invested in an organization? Why should they be loyal to organization leadership/management? Sure, in a tight economy people may feel more tied to a job that usual. But, if you were leading an organization, would you want people working with you to achieve your mission only because they were afraid of unemployment as an alternative? Doesn’t sound like a happy place to work to me. – Trina Isakson

Trina suggests some key ways to engage people more deeply into an organization:

  • Ask them for their opinion
  • Involve them outside their program area
  • Cross train
  • Make investments in their personal development

I’ve found that as people become more engaged and find meaning in their work, they also look to their workplaces to really see them for who they are. When we ask people to connect their hearts to the work we do, we can’t ask them to leave parts of their hearts at home for the work day. If they have children, we need to support them to with maternity leave and flexible schedules to pick their children up at day care. If their hearts are crushed by the daily realities of racism, we need to support their anger and their healing. When we want people to show up whole-heartedly for our cause, we have to let their whole hearts be part of the work we do.


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I’m Sorry I Wasn’t Listening

Creative Commons License photo credit: Samjhana Moon

It’s been 10 years since I started a graduate program in public health. Five years since I started a job in the nonprofit sector. Having left both of those feeling like I only partially finished the work I initially set out to do, what did I learn in the process?

I knew within months that the grad school I had chosen was not a good fit for me. I seriously considered transferring, even had conversations with my partner at the time about what it would be like to move again. I could never quite pull the trigger, mostly because I didn’t feel it was “fair” to uproot my partner for some other program that “might” be better for me if I didn’t have a clear vision of what I wanted to do.

Five years later, I finally gave up trying to twist myself into a pretzel to fit the graduate program. It was still really hard to let that go. It spent 2 more years “thinking about going back.” I finally had a friend help me learn to mourn the loss of this vision I had of myself with a PhD.

I also knew early on in graduate school that I craved some real world experience in making social change. When I started my job at Sexual Assault Services Organization (SASO), I felt like I finally realized a 5-year dream of getting engaged in the real world. I looked back, not quite regretting the time I stayed in school, but wondering what life would have been like had I jumped into this dream when I first felt it.

A year ago, I was feeling those now-familiar tugs that my life was no longer a good fit for me. I dreamed about living with few responsibilities. I felt more and more twisted into a pretzel, so limited in my own choices about how my days were spent.

This time, I didn’t wait 5 years to be really sure. I’d learned to recognize those feelings, and knew that when they persisted, I had to act on them. I quit my job and took a short sabbatical. I continue to be on sabbatical from the nonprofit sector, working a regular day job in the for profit world. It still wasn’t an immediate decision, but I’d also learned to be gentle with my process. Even during those 5 years in graduate school, I learned much that I continue to use. I wouldn’t have been nearly as successful in the nonprofit sector had I bailed on graduate school just one semester in.

Everyone will tell you to listen to your inner voice for guidance. Perhaps more important is to forgive yourself when you don’t listen to that inner voice, and use that as an opportunity to learn how listen a little more carefully next time.


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