Emotional management in the nonprofit sector

Yep, that’s me.

Yep, that’s me.

People say that I don’t promote my book enough. This is very true.

I’m terrible at self-promotion and, till this day, have not done a very conscious promotion/marketing effort for my first book Community Heroes: What a year as an AmeriCorps VISTA member taught me about community development. In my defense, this is because I’m busy working on a big, new project (announcement coming soon!). After I finish this big project, I will promote both my first book and this new endeavor.

Nevertheless, I don’t want to completely neglect my duties. As Jeff Goins discussed in his great book Real Artists Don’t Starve, writers (and other creative professionals) dream of and expect the world to magically discover their work without ever promoting it. However, this is a nonsensical approach. Nobody will magically discover your work. You have to get out there and promote it.

If I truly value myself and the content that I have produced over the years (including my book), it is my responsibility to share it with the world instead of waiting for people to miraculously discover it. In other words, I need to stop being so afraid of talking about my book and all my other work. It’s time to be proud of it.

Today I share with you a chapter from my book Community Heroes. At the end of this chapter, I’ll share a few thoughts and personal insights about it and discuss what inspired me to write this specific chapter.

Emotional Management

If you’re considering pursuing a career in the nonprofit sector, chances are high that you’re very emotionally invested in a particular issue. This issue really lights a fire in your belly and, as a result, you don’t need external motivation to make you care about or work on it. Who would ever need to be motivated about the idea of ending poverty, fighting inequality, or solving the various other social injustices that we see in our world today?

However, as important as passion and inspiration are in the greater scheme of things–which they truly are–the greatest accomplishments in the history of social progress were never achieved by just caring about things.

Real progress is achieved through the extraordinary hard work of doing the “less sexy” activities that nobody enjoys doing because they are tedious (and poor material for those “inspirational” social media posts) yet fundamentally necessary in order to achieve groundbreaking change.

The greatest challenge, therefore, of a career in the nonprofit sector is finding the motivation to do the “unsexy” day-to-day work. This is the type of work that, unfortunately, isn’t glamorous enough to talk about in those tear-jerker speeches that you would love to give about the incredible impact of your work.

For the record, I absolutely believe that genuine passion and empathy for specific causes have been, and always will be, crucial prerequisites for the extraordinary progress we’ve made on big social justice issues. My point is merely that it’s much easier to be motivated for the big, shiny result than for the tough, daily work that is required to achieve it. The problem is that without the latter, you’ll never see the former come to fruition. You need to use the energy and inspiration for that big vision to fuel the gritty day-to-day work.

People don’t want to make or write books, they want to have books. People don’t want to be research assistants, they want to have been a research assistant.
— Ryan Holiday (from episode 45 of the podcast “The Jordan Harbinger Show”)

Since I'm a big sports fan, I’ll borrow an example from both basketball and football (soccer) to emphasize my point. If you play for the likes of Barcelona, Juventus, or the Cleveland Cavaliers, which coach would ever need to deliberately motivate you for massive games against opponents like Real Madrid, AC Milan, or the Golden State Warriors? These are monumental clashes that players live for and dream about competing in, no matter the day of the week or the time of the year.

No, the real challenge lies in motivating players for games against the ‘worst’ teams in their respective leagues. The lack of glamor of these matchups might make them feel like a nuisance or even trivial.

There’s a cliché in the world of football (and perhaps other sports as well) that says that championships are won by winning the “boring” fixtures against the small teams, rather than the glamor games against the big ones. Likewise, I believe that the extent of your success in the nonprofit sector is determined by how well you do the little tasks every day, instead of how big your dreams of social change are.

The challenge for those new to nonprofit work is dealing with the sharp contrast between the romance of your dreams that motivated you to pursue this career–ending homelessness, eradicating poverty, and so on–and the less inspiring and more pragmatic reality of your day-to-day efforts. Similar to the situation in the wonderful movie (500) Days of Summer, the gap between expectations and reality can be quite upsetting.

Believe me, I get it. That passion for making a positive impact–the passion that first inspired you to pursue a career in the nonprofit sector–wants to see that positive change happen now. It doesn’t want you to spend hours drafting a budget or ensuring that your grant proposal is within a specified word count. It’s tough to get excited for these things. They’re not what you dreamed of and will probably make you wonder how they play a direct role in the change that you’re desperate to see happen.

The truth of the matter, however, is that finishing that grant proposal is the only way you stand a chance of starting that affordable housing program that will give a struggling single mother of two a life-saving opportunity to put a roof over her family’s head. Writing that budget is the only way to get funding for your job training program that will provide poverty-stricken individuals in the community the skills they need to obtain higher paying jobs and move up the socioeconomic ladder.

Unfortunately, people rarely deliver rousing speeches or write inspirational books about how important these activities are. That type of glamor is reserved for the results of the work, not the day-to-day labor that was necessary to achieve them. You’re going to become frustrated by tasks that, on the surface, don’t seem to immediately contribute to the transformational social impact that you want to see in your community.

The paperwork.

The grant proposals.

The budgets.

At risk of sounding repetitive, I have to again stress how crucial it is to understand that the unglamorous work that you do on a daily basis is the only way to achieve big-picture social impact. Contrary to popular belief, being inspired or “just believing in yourself” isn’t enough to bring about real change. If you don’t realize this, you’ll probably end up doing the worst thing you could ever do: give up.

I became very frustrated and restless early on in my VISTA service because all that I could think of was immediately achieving a grand vision of change. I was obsessed with it and wanted it to happen right here, right now. However, I was blind to the fact that the little, daily tasks were fundamental prerequisites for achieving this change. This blindness created frustration within me which, in turn, was burning me out emotionally.

It made me realize that it wasn’t sustainable for me to permanently be 100% in a mindset of “we have to change the world right now, today, no matter what!” It’s not emotionally sustainable to be like that every day because it will quickly burn you out, especially once you realize how long it takes to achieve change.

I forget where I first learned about it, but I once heard someone say that motivation is like the speed of a car. Driving at 200 kilometers per hour is all well and good but you will likely experience a fatal collision if you come into contact with even the smallest of obstacles. Likewise, if you’re on full-throttle emotional intensity every day, the slightest of setbacks will send you into an emotional crash. However, if you “drive” at a lower speed, then hitting the inevitable obstacle will damage, but not kill you. There’s a far greater chance of surviving an impact at a low speed than when this impact happens at an unsustainably high speed.

Now I know what you’re thinking; this sounds like I’m telling you to be passive and bottle the passion you have for your work. That’s absolutely not what I’m saying. I’m simply saying that if you want to do this type of impactful and transformational work for twenty, thirty, or even fifty years of your life, you’ll have to strategically manage all that passion and emotional energy over the long-run. Otherwise, you’ll burn out in the blink of an eye.

Emotions can grant you strength. But you must never let them overpower you.
— Winter Schnee (from the show “RWBY”)

Speaking of burnout, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for nonprofit professionals to practice emotional self-care. That is, thinking about poverty, discrimination, and the infinite number of social injustices of the world for every waking second of your life is a recipe for psychological meltdown. These topics weigh heavily on a person’s heart and soul and aren’t particularly uplifting to talk or think about.

To say it bluntly, they’re just really, really depressing topics of conversation. Therefore, regardless of how passionate you are about the change you want to achieve, you have to mentally disconnect from your work from time to time. Be it through video games, movies, art, sports, learning new skills and languages, skydiving, or any other interesting hobby, you need to find other worlds to cross over to when the work you do becomes too emotionally taxing. And believe me, it absolutely will.

Once you start this line of work, you also have to be willing to accept that the social impact that you’re desperate to see happen might not come to full fruition during your lifetime. The honest truth is that there’s a good chance that you won’t accomplish the extent of the change that you dreamed of accomplishing when you first started. Does that mean that you just give up then?

It seems to me that too many people unfortunately adopt an all-or-nothing approach here and think that if their contributions aren’t going to completely solve a societal problem, it’s not worth doing anything about at all. My response to this type of defeatist mentality is: “where’s the honor in that?” Because to me, that’s really what it comes down to: honor.

My philosophy is that despite this discomforting truth, if you’re going to work in the nonprofit sector, you owe the people that you serve every single ounce of energy and passion that you have. At risk of sounding somewhat morbid or melodramatic, I personally believe that if I give my heart, soul, and mind to fighting for something greater than myself for my entire life then, when I die, I can think to myself: “I dedicated my life to a worthy cause. I gave them everything I had and I can die peacefully with that in mind, even though I didn’t save the world or completely eradicate poverty. I did all that I could.” Although honor alone isn’t enough to save the world, I believe that it will at least grant me peace of mind.

Therefore, you have a simple question to ask yourself: are you willing to dedicate your life to this line of work, even though the social impact that you want to see happen might not happen during your lifetime? If the answer is no, that’s fine. You can turn away and choose another path. Honestly, life is already hard enough without making yourself miserable by choosing a career that’s not for you (and Lord knows there are already more than enough miserable people in the world). At least you’ll be one of the few people with the humility to be honest.

But if your answer to the earlier question is yes, you owe the people everything you’ve got. Truly everything.

Just don’t burn yourself out in one day because, God willing, you’ve got many decades of hard work and heartfelt passion to give your community.

Postscript

Reading this chapter more than a year since I wrote it has allowed me to see it from a more objective and detached perspective. A lot has happened in both my personal and professional life since writing this, which gives me the opportunity to add further context to and thoughts about what I wrote.

An important part of this chapter was how nonprofit professionals should understand that, contrary to popular belief, a lot of the work in this sector is nowhere near as emotionally riveting or romantic as pop culture makes us believe. There are many periods of doing tedious work and often it feels like just as much of a job as any other form of employment does. Hence, you have to ask yourself this: “Am I willing to put in the hard work in order to obtain those impactful results that inspired me to dedicate my career to this line of work?

Naturally, I also had to (and did) ask myself this question and my answer to it was and still is ‘yes’. That said, given that it has been more than twelve months since I first asked myself and answered this, now is a good time to pause and reflect on if I still feel the same way.

Don’t worry, I do still feel the same way. However, I have two small caveats to add. First, I learned that in order to remain motivated to continue this work, I need to see and believe in the greater impact of the work that I’m doing. I need to see and believe in the ‘endgame’ of my work. For example, as much I enjoy writing, I will admit that writing my book (and writing for this website) is work. However, I continue to do it because I believe in the importance of my book and all my other writing, know that these activities are crucial prerequisites for me to achieve my big professional goals (which will give me the opportunity to have the lifestyle that I want), and directly see/understand how writing regularly leads to the achievement of these goals.

If I don’t see how my daily activities connect to this bigger picture impact and, most importantly, do not believe in this impact, I can barely motivate myself to do the work.

Logically, the second caveat is closely connected to the first one. That is, in order to stay motivated, I need to see and make daily progress towards the achievement of the bigger picture impact that I believe in — no matter how small this progress is. Specifically, I need to see how my daily efforts tangibly and directly connect to this impact/goal; again, regardless of how small my daily progress is. With these two caveats in place, I absolutely am willing to put in the tough work for community development and social impact for the rest of my life.

Even though it sounds like an odd phrase, I used the words “emotionally sustainable” very deliberately. As I mentioned in the chapter, constantly thinking about poverty, inequality, and the other injustices in the world is emotionally unsustainable. You’ll always be depressed, frustrated, and angry at the powers that be in the world for perpetuating these problems. Hence, I stressed the need to mentally disconnect from your work from time to time.

Here too, I’ve faced a dilemma. During my times of disconnecting, I sometimes feel guilty and ask myself some uncomfortable questions. Am I disconnecting too much? By emotionally distancing myself (temporarily?) from my work, am I secretly giving up on achieving my goals/impact for social good? People sometimes emotionally distance themselves from things (or people) when they expect to heartbreak to come in the near future, using this distance as a sort of defensive mechanism. Am I doing the same because I expect heartbreak to come from my failure to accomplish transformational social impact and because I think that the work I’m doing now is not as important or impactful as I want, nay, need it to be?

My book Community Heroes: What a year as an AmeriCorps VISTA member taught me about community development is merely the tip of the iceberg of these questions, merely the tip of the iceberg of my journey in the field of social and economic development.

I have many more questions to face, and many more challenges to overcome.

See you, Space Cowboy.