I hope this story serves as cautionary tale to others in our field. I started a nonprofit in the summer of 2007. The whole thing was quite accidental. I joke that I had more confidence than common sense at that age. What I thought would be a hobby turned into a career and eleven years later I found myself face to face with some real problems.
As most “original activist” or founders of nonprofits, I dove into serving my cause head first and my passion for change kept me afloat with limitless energy. I was blessed with a devoted volunteer base and staff whose trust and belief in my ability to bring about change inspired me to constantly push myself.
The first many years we were open, I did EVERY job at the clinic except surgery (obviously- I am not a vet). I was the vet tech, the sterilization team, the receptionist, the accountant, the grant writer, the janitor, the public speaker, the after-hours phone, etc. As we grew, I recruited more volunteers and hired more staff but my life WAS the clinic. I had created my dream job, made even better by the fact that my dogs could join me. I was literally in heaven!!!
And then this happened…
Fast Forward to June of 2018. Our team was invited to participate in an intense and extensive Non-Profit Board Retreat. Knowing many term limits were set to expire and staring down the barrel of an extremely ambitious campaign, my current board decided to resign early so my incoming members could attend the retreat with me. We ALL went into the retreat knowing that changes had to happen if our organization’s goals were to be met. Fortunately, my new members though green were equally determined and courageous.
The retreat was 2.5 days and the opening speaker accurately warned us we would be drinking water from a fire hose. My list of things to change, to start doing, and to stop doing was soon so overwhelming, I felt myself shutting down. I was already pulling 80 hour weeks and my young body was now middle aged. I could not see how these changes we NEEDED to make were going to happen. I wasn’t strong enough to carry anymore.
We were assigned a consultant for several private sessions and it soon became clear, the board and consultant had one job for the weekend and that job was me. After one particularly tough session, we were given a 1.5 hr break during which the board had tasks to complete and I was supposed to make a list of all the things I do and then divide the list into two parts: things I can do better than anyone else and things someone else could do better. After about 10 minutes of staring at a blank page, I called my Digital & Development Director for help. In tears, I tried to explain how I felt about the direction we were headed and how writing down all the stuff I do was impossible. I knew it was necessary but thinking about change and enacting change are VERY different. With his patience and help, I was able to complete my list and rejoined the group with a list of concessions I was willing to make immediately and others I would work towards. I also had a list of hard no’s but my new board (God love them) knew to celebrate the small wins I was capable of having and help me continue making baby steps towards our ultimate goal.
The retreat was exciting and inspiring but after 2.5 days of being nailed in the face with the figurative fire hose, I was on empty. The car ride back with my D&D Director was strained. He took a wrong turn adding 5 minutes to our trip that I thought would be the death of me and his enthusiasm for the future of our organization was polluting the air with so much hope and change that I couldn’t breathe. I instructed him to be quiet because my head didn’t have space for all of the ideas he was throwing my way. Though he was considerately, beginning all of his sentences with, “Once you have your stuff all worked out, we can (insert HUGE idea).” The STUFF I needed to work out felt like open heart surgery.
Upon returning, I immediately went to the hospital to visit one of my most devoted and beloved volunteers. I threw myself a nice pity party complete with tears and whining that would make a two year old jealous. I remember sobbing, “They want me to let the clinic manager run the clinic. What am I supposed to do? The clinic is my life. I love it there because all the people I care about (four legged included) are there. I don’t want to stay home. What am I supposed to do now?”
I recovered quickly, as is my nature, knowing our plan was the only way to ensure the organization I have given my life to could continue without me. I also knew that I was the only thing holding us back from growth. I would not take on new things because I simply couldn’t carry any more responsibility. In spite of my protest at actually enacting the very plan I knew we needed, I had embarked on a journey to convert my staff to the leaders I know I needed them to be. Now, all I had to do was walk away and see if it worked.
I couldn’t quit the clinic cold turkey and I spent many hours initially trying to reinvent my calendar and rewrite my job description now that I was not managing the clinic, ordering supplies, organizing the schedule, paying bills, handling payroll etc. As I began feeling more and more confident with my AMAZING clinic manager, staff and volunteers, I started giving myself permission to be creative. I think initially, I worried if I wasn’t at the clinic working among my team, they would think I didn’t care or I would lose touch. I had to let that fear be replaced with the dreams I had for my organization. Suddenly, I was excited about all the ideas my D&D Director had been throwing at me on the way home from the retreat. In fact, I morphed into a Fundraising Ninja to ensure we stayed on target for a large goal we set. I was meeting with 2-3 people a day and I never once worried about my team. It was liberating and rewarding to let go and know that I could.
With my new found freedom, I had space in my brain to learn new things and research new ways to grow our organization. I am happy to report that this freedom has turned into our first Satellite Clinic and in a few months, we will be opening our first stand-alone, completely independent branch in Amarillo with even more locations on our agenda. This freedom has enabled me to dream again.
At the retreat, I felt I received a pseudo-promotion from Executive Director to CEO but what I now understand is, I AM a CEO. It is my job to grow the organization and make sure it lives on forever so that our community always has access to our services and our donors always feel confident their investment is protected. It is my job to pick the right people to run and represent our organization. It is my job to protect our dream!
I shared a much abbreviated version of this story with the President of a local foundation recently and she asked, “Do you know what you avoided?” I shook my head no and she answered, “Founder’s syndrome.” I left feeling super proud of myself for averting this crisis, a crisis that could have kept my organization stagnate and been its eventual undoing. I silently praised myself for letting go completely forgetting that it wasn’t voluntary and the retreat I attended was much more an intervention than anything else.
What Could Have Been…
Yesterday, I met with a similar nonprofit in a nearby community. The founder is now in her early 80’s and what they call the administrator is in her late 70’s. These two women have been to war and back many times. The stories they share span decades and I felt I was in the presence of greatness the entire two hours. It is women like these ladies that pave the road for people like me. They are THE originals and I am a feeble attempt to fill their shoes but as we spoke I realized something devastating. Their organization stopped growing a long time ago; no programs, no grants, no new services and a declining budget. They have no more to give it and sadly, they have not kept up with the ever changing world. When they are gone, their life’s work will most likely dissolve leaving a community they served for over 35 years without much-needed services. Though all non-profits are required to have a board, their board obviously hasn’t taken steps to ensure sustainability. No one in their camp had the courage to confront the Founder and enact change along the way to protect the organization.
In the grand scheme of things, my non-profit is a baby but I was already feeling the strain of doing too much and understood that aging would only complicate things further. I wonder what would have happened to us in 35 years had my board not pushed me out of my own way at that retreat last year. What would have happened if my team not stepped up and let me become the CEO I should be? I also understand that there is a time stamp on my reign as CEO. Barring an unexpected death in the near future, I need to prepare myself and my heart to serve my community in new ways outside of leading the organization I began.
For now, I am still young-ish with what I hope is plenty of time to make all my dreams come true but I must pay special tribute to the Foundation that sponsored the retreat last summer. In all likelihood they saved our organization. I am deeply grateful for my board members and my Digital and Development Director for not caving into my tears and gently pushing me out of my own way. I will never be able to thank the extraordinary staff and volunteers that protect, fight for and work for our dream every single day whether I am beside them or not! I miss the day to day clinic shenanigans and camaraderie but our future is so bright, I can’t see anything else.