Posts Tagged leadership

Letting the Mistakes Go

One of the hardest things about being a new director is facing all the mistakes I make. Especially those mistakes where I know I could have done a better job if I just had more time to plan and consider my response.

Part of the learning curve in a new job is that my to do list just comes at me way too fast. And if I let the mistakes pile up, they start to weigh on me. And then I’m more tentative the next day, more indecisive, questioning my judgment. I don’t have time for this. And it’s not actually helpful.

I’ve instituted a new routine at the end of every work day. It’s especially helpful to mark the end of my day since I’m working at home. But it’s greatest use is helping me reflect on my day, learn what needs learning, and then let it go. The next day, I feel more free to keep trying, keep learning, keep screwing up, and keep learning some more.

I reflect on these five phrases

  • I forgive myself for any pain and suffering I have caused myself or others due to my own ignorance and confusion.
  • I ask forgiveness from all those whose pain and suffering I have caused due to my ignorance and confusion.
  • May I show love for the world by loving myself, just as I am.
  • May I be happy and free.
  • May I take what I learned from today, and use what I have learned to benefit all beings

Then I list five things I learned during the day

  • I need to have energy going into this weekend. Remember it’s better to be present than prepared.
  • Scary calls never seem to be as bad as I anticipate
  • I can speak clearly about my concerns, and it actually helps everyone.
  • People need rest. More than I think.
  • Just starting to jot down a messy list can magically turn into a polished PowerPoint presentation.

Often these learnings aren’t just from my mistakes – I am gathering information about what’s working so I remember not to get stuck by phone calls or fear of speaking.

Also posted for me to reflect on every time I sit at my computer: “Remember: There is no amount of self care that will magically make this situation easy. Some situations are just hard. Keep breathing. Relax into greater wisdom.”

Do you have daily practices that help keep you sane? What works for you?


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Entry Wishes

Enter as you wish to be in it. Exit as you wish to continue. – Havi Brooks

As I enter this new role as an Acting Director, what qualities do I want to have in the role?

Grounded power, ease, insight, compassion, sovereignity.

How does my approach change if I enter as I wish to be in this role?

I notice and celebrate the places of ease, the places where my insight and sovereignity make a difference. I bring compassion to the harder places, and ask myself “What action demonstrates my grounded power? What brings ease?” I tell these stories too.

What can I do now to set things up for entry?

I have enlisted a lot of help for clearing out all the old stuff that continues to come up. I have set up a lot of self care practices, from meditation to eating well to seeking out nourishing friendships to keeping my room extra clean since it’s now also my work space. These things all support me in having access to grounded power, ease, insight, compassion, and sovereignity.


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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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An Appropriate Response: Wisdom, Compassion, & Courage

This is the fifth 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

An Appropriate Response to Impermanence

An Appropriate Response to Suffering

An Appropriate Response to Egolessness


Wisdom, Compassion, & Courage Form An Appropriate Response

How do we apply wisdom, compassion, and courage to all that we face in nonprofit management? Wisdom requires that we clearly see these three characteristics and how they shape our reality. Compassion asks that we respond with a heart well-tenderized by the Brahmaviharas so we can meet the world openly. Courage inspires us to practice the Eightfold Path in our daily work, from intention setting, to right speech and action with others, to mindfulness and concentration on what we do. By asking ourselves and each other how to apply wisdom, compassion, and courage to all that we do, we practice the dharma as we care for our nonprofit. We liberate ourselves as we work to support the liberation of others.

Dalai Lama Kyegundo
Creative Commons License photo credit: SFTHQ


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An Appropriate Response to Egolessness

This is the fourth 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

An Appropriate Response to Impermanence

An Appropriate Response to Suffering


An Appropriate Response to Egolessness
OCP Logo

Out on the Colorado Plateau Summit

Among all staff members, it is the Director who has the most temptation to become identified with the organization. Their key role as the face of the organization, as the person in charge, as the one responsible sets them up for ego-identification. I am most successful as a leader when I can get out of the way, when I can make it as easy as possible for others to contribute their best skills and talents to the cause. My practical Midwestern upbringing has served me well here. I care most about finding the most practical way to accomplish something, and am happy to take a front and center role when needed, and a behind the scenes role when that is appropriate.

I have found great success in team leadership models where 3-5 people come together, each contributing their unique skills, with the support of a larger team to paint a broad vision. For example, the Out on the Colorado Plateau summit had a 4 person leadership team that held the larger process. This team was supported by a committee of 20 who were involved in choosing the vision for the summit (visibility for rural LGBTQ individuals and communities), and several key decisions that had many pros and cons depending on the perspective you came with: holding the event at the local college or at the county fairgrounds event center, 2-3 keynote speakers with both local and regional appeal, approximate cost for attendance (free vs. $20 vs. much more than that). Sub-committees broke off (each led by a co-coordinator) to make detailed decisions about presentation schedule, media plan, secure food donations for the day of the event, and solicit sponsorships. It’s been one of the most well-functioning, engaged teams I’ve participated in. No one person was “in charge” of the process, but many contributed an important piece to make the event happen.

The flip side to practicing egolessness is tapping into the deep interconnectedness between us all. I find myself deeply drawn to projects where I can help foster a sense of belonging among people who have felt isolated and alone. In the process, I continually examine who feels welcome and comfortable in the spaces I create, and who does not. Knowing the pain of exclusion and loneliness, I seek to build spaces that include people often shunted to the margins – people of color, LGBTQ folks, women, people with disabilities, and immigrants.

This work was most powerful at SASO, where we challenged ourselves to examine our role as an organization in perpetuating oppression, and do our best to dismantle this. SASO, like many rape crisis centers, grew out of the feminist movement of the 1970s. Violence against women was a tool of sexism, used to keep all women in our place. As federal funding came for rape crisis programs in the mid 1990s, the radical edge softened, and oppression was rarely talked about.

Yet when we looked at statistics of sexual violence, it was clear that sexual violence was still being used as a tool of oppression – all forms of oppression. How else do you explain that Native women are 2.5 times more likely to be raped than all other races combined? That more than 70% of disabled women have been sexually abused at some point in their life time? That immigrant women and men were targeted for sexual violence, because perpetrators assumed they would never go to the police to report it?

We recognized that institutional oppression was often more insidious than overt interpersonal racism, and made a huge difference in whether people felt welcome in our agency or not. For instance, why did we not have even the most basic services available in Spanish? Why did we offer therapy support groups but not sweats in a Native sweat lodge for Native survivors? Why do all our brochures assume that it’s a woman who is being assaulted by a man, when we know men assaulted by other men, women assaulted by other women, men assaulted by women? How can we work in an office that isn’t even handicapped accessible?

While painful initially to look at our failings as an agency in being the welcoming and comforting space we wanted to be, our examinations led us to see clearly where we could improve. Monthly, we dedicated time to meet and set intentions toward change. We held each other accountable as we took the small but necessary steps to change how our agency operated. While the initial steps felt small (I’m going to call another rape crisis center with a Spanish hotline and see how they operate it), they built upon each other. I’m proud to say that five years later, SASO has model programs for engaging the immigrant community, Spanish language programs that are being requested around the state, helped organize the first ever LGBTQ Pride Festival in Durango, and finally operates out of an accessible office. Perhaps most notable, the majority of staff are people of color and identify as LGBTQ. The agency has become a welcoming place for those most marginalized.


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An Appropriate Response to Suffering

This is the third 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

An Appropriate Response to Impermanence


Responding to Suffering

178/365 - Don't Be Blinded
Creative Commons License photo credit:

One of the biggest changes in context between the Buddhism of the East, and the Buddhism of the United States is our capitalist culture. Capitalism teaches us from birth that greed is good, that clinging to money and what it buys is what will make us happy. This huge delusion is a core root of the suffering that many in the US feel, including our general dis-ease that suffering should cease to exist if we do all the right things. We slip into the trance of unworthiness, thinking that all others have found happiness while we alone have been found unworthy. We are deeply desperate in our culture of teachings that remind us that holding on tight to our money is not what will lead us to happiness. Buddhism offers beautiful teachings on generosity. As the first teachings of the Buddha to lay people, it becomes a teaching practice to instruct people on the benefits of generosity. Every fundraising ask is simply a teaching.

Participating on the Fundraising Committee for the Durango Dharma Center, I have heard many lamentations about how the cultures in Burma, Thailand, and elsewhere in the east have a deep appreciation for generosity and the importance of giving generously to the dharma. This often leads to comparison to our own culture’s stinginess and our difficulty raising needed funds to keep our center open. Durango’s sangha is unique in that we have no guiding teacher, but a strong council of Community Dharma Leaders trained at Spirit Rock who guide our practice. We have been grappling deeply with raising enough funds to sustain our CDLs, so they can focus deeply on their own practice in service to our practice.

I draw deeply on the fundraising philosophies of Lynne Twist, whom I heard speak in 2008 at Upaya Zen Center. How asking people for money is a sacred ask, as we ask people to open their hearts wider to what they most care about, whether it’s our project or something else entirely. How fundraising is a healing profession, where we help people heal their relationships with money that get so distorted in the confines of capitalism. How fundraising asks people to drop the myth of scarcity and begin to live in abundance.

The roller coaster of nonprofit funding deeply challenges our ability to be equanimous. It can cause deep suffering. One of my largest challenges came on a day that SASO lost a major grant. I had been working as Director for a year, and had successfully raised an additional 25% to better support our foundational services of advocacy and prevention. SASO was a collaborator on a federal grant that was not renewed due to personnel changes at the granting agency. This grant represented almost 20% of SASO’s funding for the upcoming year. I had just 5 months to figure out how to raise that money through other means, or I would have to let go a core staff member.

I started making plans immediately for both scenarios. In financial management of our own assets during tight times, how do we keep our own money flowing to what we most care about? In times of budget cuts, how do we focus laser-sharp on what we most care about and celebrate what we are still able to do? And how do we do this at the same time we are deeply committed to increasing our fundraising efforts so that we do not have to make these deep cuts to what we have lovingly built? Between trimming the current year budget and raising money from several new donors and foundations, I was able to retain our core staff members. And in the process, gained new donors and streamlined costs down to what was most essential. The initial suffering in response to revenue cuts was transformed into gratitude toward the strength our agency gained in the process.


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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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An Appropriate Response to the Three Characteristics of Nonprofit Management

I have toyed here with the idea that spirituality may offer a deeper rooting for nonprofits and nonprofit workers. I had more to say, but was a bit scared to really go there. Will folks who need rooting be scared off by frank talk of spirituality? Will I be able to do justice to intertwining spirituality and nonprofit work, in a way that helps people feel supported rather than feeling like it’s one more “should” they need to be doing?

Yet the world needs me to be me. And I am currently excited to think about how much my meditation and Buddhist practice would have helped me with nonprofit management. Especially by how much it will help me in future positions.

I had the opportunity to pull my thoughts together on this when I applied for my dream job right at the sweet spot between Buddhist practice and nonprofit management. I wanted to share here this framework I developed for Buddhist or dharma-centric leadership. Stay tuned for posts full of stories on responding to impermanence, suffering, and egolessness.


An Appropriate Response: An Introduction

wrap your wings around me
Creative Commons License photo credit: timsnell

We talk of the two wings of Buddhism, wisdom and compassion. Like a bird flying through the sky, we need both wings of equal size and strength to get where we are going. Donald Rothberg talks about the recent addition by Vietnamese Buddhists of the body of the bird, which represents courage. In this age, we need to display deep courage to act, to not be paralyzed into inaction.

In a dharma-centric model, this combination of wisdom, compassion, and courage guide our appropriate responses to the challenges of nonprofit management. When we take our practice off the cushion and into the real world, it is critical to have clear comprehension of the three marks of all existence – impermanence, suffering, and egolessness. As we learn to do business in a dharma-centric manner, we will rely on using these three marks as three tools to help us succeed in finding an appropriate response.


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Torn to Shreds in that Oh So Good Way

I’m surrounded by a pack of epiphanies. They won’t let me go unless I surrender to their deeper knowledge.

Things I learned today when I let the epiphanies tear me to shreds:

  1. My THING (or at least an important component of it): I love to work together with a fantabulous team to create a space where people feel like they finally BELONG. Like when we raised the visibility of rural queers or found ourselves a home in the dharma or made ourselves the safest space we could imagine to heal our own and others’ trauma.
  2. Since my THING is a team effort, what the hell am I doing trying to become a pro blogger? Yes I love writing and it needs to be a component of what I do. But when given the choice between writing and community organizing … if you’ve seen my schedule lately or my lack of blog posts, you know who wins this battle.

So what am I doing here, if I’m not trying to become a pro blogger? First, phew. What a load off my shoulders that I don’t have to learn about search engine optimization or feel guilty that I’m not building a mailing list. Now that we can dispense with that boringness, what fun do we I get to have here? I want this to be a space where I process what I’m doing out in the physical world, where I develop my thoughts so I can become more of a thought leader on nonprofit leadership, and put my fabulous self out there so I can connect with other fabulous people with whom I’d love to be building spaces together where we belong.


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Rooting Nonprofits: A Purpose Statement

Why do I blog?

Writing about my experiences in nonprofits helps me make better sense of what is working in nonprofits and what is not. I’m passionately committed to the kinds of social changes that nonprofits are trying to make in this world, and I can’t stand watching us squander our time and resources on anything that is not our best possible work.

What do I blog about?

I am most interested in how we structure nonprofit organizations – how does our organizational structure help us or hurt us from reaching our mission? I’m disappointed that the Executive Director leadership model is the best we’ve come up with, and I’m intrigued by other leadership models that spread leadership across a broader set of people.

I also love all things that help rejuvenate us as nonprofit workers, and all things that help us see the interconnections between our intertwined movements.

What do I want to become known for through my blog?

I would love to be a source for folks looking for new ideas and new energy about how we can be more effective in being the change we wish to see in the world.

Thanks to Rosetta Thurman’s 31 Days to a Brand New Blog challenge for the questions!


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