Posts Tagged organizational structure

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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Giving Myself More Space to Speak

I have been noticing how quiet I am here. Yes, I am busy. But I also have a lot on my mind, a lot that would be helped by talking through it, writing through it, grappling intensely with all that is going on.

Yet I’m facing a lot of fear about not getting it “right” if I try to write things out here. Particularly around processing so much of the insights, epiphanies, and challenges brewing in me as a result of my participation in the Anne Braden Anti-Racist Training Program. I’m noting here how silence can be a detour in my struggle to be a white anti-racist. I catch myself thinking, “I’ll wait until I have it sorted out, then I’ll write about the insights, not the messy internal process that got me there.” I’m much more comfortable projecting an idealized image of myself as someone who has it together, a leader, the person to come to with questions and concerns because I’ve got it figured out.

But I don’t have it figured out. I moved to San Francisco this February because I had reached the limits of what I knew, and I wanted to learn from others. From my work in an anti-violence nonprofit organization, I had reached the capacity of what I could do within the organization.

As part of the Progressive Leaders Fellowship, I had time to think through what I most needed to experience next and create a plan for how I would develop that aspect of my leadership.

I hope for a future without racism, violence, gender bias, homophobia, and hatred. To create that future, we need to rebuild our social movements of the 1960s and 70s. These days in the US, we rely too heavily on social justice non-profits to do the work of ending oppression.

We need to rethink the roles that social justice non-profits play in creating or limiting social change:

  • How does a business model for non-profits take us away from building social movements?
  • How do narrow missions keep us from working across issues for social change?
  • How do current non-profit structures contribute to staff burnout that ultimately drains away our best people?

We need to reform social justice non-profits back toward their roots in social movements, while at the same time we seek other structures outside the non-profit realm that contribute to rebuilding our movements. The specifics of this vision aren’t yet clear to me, in part because they need to be built collaboratively, based on the experiences of many people working to end oppression. The immediate needs are spaces to build a larger vision for how nonprofits and other organizing structures support ending oppression.

In re-reading this vision, I am excited that my move to San Francisco has allowed for exactly this. The Anne Braden Program is helping me root deeply in the history of U.S. social justice movements, and see my work as part of this larger, longer-term vision.

Yet, I’m also experiencing some dissonance with my blog title being focused on “nonprofits” – as I think more and more about movements and not nonprofit organizations, I feel limited by this scope. So much so, that this morning I contemplated a blog name change – perhaps to “Rooting Movement” or something similar that would allude to the broader basis in social movements that I am shifting toward.

Yet as I contemplate this shift (which may or may not happen) – I also remember that I am speaking to people who are based in nonprofits, people who feel frustrated with the limits of their organizational structure, people seeking the broader container that social movements bring to our work. And that remaining with a nonprofit-centric name will continue to allow me to be connected with people seeking information about nonprofits.

For now, I make these two commitments:

1. I will write and press “publish” even when my thinking still feels messy and incomplete. As a mentor reminded me last week, “You might try worrying less about your coherence. Even when you think you aren’t speaking clearly, I am understanding you.”

2. I will allow myself latitude with what I publish here under the name “Rooting Nonprofits.” I will give myself more space to write at the intersection of personal and political, and more space to write about larger social movements and not only about work within the four walls of a nonprofit organization.


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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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On Floundering through the First Year

I floundered a lot more in my first year as an Executive Director than I needed to. I needed a coach, a mentor, someone who could be that sounding board I needed, who was completely outside the organization I worked for. I felt unqualified for most nonprofit leadership trainings that existed. One I looked at longingly required 4 or more years of nonprofit experience. I’d worked in the nonprofit sector all of 11 months when I got the promotion to ED at the tender age of 28.

I’d like to think my inexperience was unique, but small nonprofits in rural communities often take a chance on the bright, enthusiastic, and young. When the alternatives are:

  • a used car salesman who has no executive skills and no connection to the mission,
  • an “experienced” nonprofit professional who half the board already knows and hates, or
  • a bright young professional who cares deeply about the mission and shows promise for leadership
  • Social justice organizations are GREAT at seeing the possibilities in someone!

    While I was grateful for the opportunity and felt I was more than capable of doing the job, I also wasted a lot of energy just feeling lost. Feeling like there was no one else who understood my unique position. In a hierarchical organization, the Executive Director is often a lonely pivot point balancing the interests of board and staff, between the organization and the community, and between what funders will pay for and what clients need. When I looked to other Executive Directors for support, I found people who had more experience than me and were struggling with a different set of issues. I also found these people to be more comfortable with maintaining the status quo of how their organization operated, rather than changing how their organization responded to the community.

    I’d love to be able to go back in time, send my current self as a mentor to my former self. There were so many times I just needed to hear, “Trust yourself. You know what you are doing.”


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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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Nonprofit Evolution

I’m not the only one out there thinking that nonprofits must evolve in order to succeed. The NonprofitNext Initiative is exploring the trends of what nonprofits will become in the next 5 to 10 years.

Heather Carpenter highlights their work on her blog:

The nonprofits that will survive are the ones that “can think creatively about: partnerships, networks, organizational structure, business models, alternative financing, crowdsourcing, mobalizing, decentralized action, transparency, diversity and inclusion.”

In order for nonprofits to truly sustain themselves into the future, they need to:

  • Embrace adaptive leadership;
  • Put people first and build human-friendly culture;
  • Think and plan on a systematic level;
  • View technology as an accelerator;
  • Move away from traditional power structures, and;
  • Move beyond the culture of scarcity.

These points form many of the same concerns I have for the nonprofit sector:

  • Put people first – we can’t end sexual exploitation by exploiting the labor of our workers.
  • Move away from traditional power structures – business-based hierarchies in nonprofits have dismantled our broad-based grassroots movements.
  • The culture of scarcity keeps us in silos that compete against each other, rather than organizing together to raise all boats.

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