In this podcast episode, Carol Hamilton and Susan Kahan discuss the importance of donor trust and nonprofit accountability. They challenge misconceptions about fundraising, such as the focus on overhead costs and the belief that it is a necessary evil. They argue for reframing negative attitudes towards fundraising in order to build confidence. The conversation also addresses the "overhead myth" in the nonprofit sector and emphasizes the need to invest in staff and create a healthy organizational culture. They discuss the challenges of asking for larger donations and stress the value of building relationships and learning from others in the field. They also highlight the importance of building a culture of philanthropy within nonprofit organizations and using donor feedback to improve programs. Overall, the conversation emphasizes the need for effective fundraising strategies and the importance of transparency and accountability.
(00:00:01) Donor Trust and Nonprofit Accountability
(00:06:05) The Overhead Myth
(00:12:19) Building Confidence in Fundraising
(00:18:07) Building Relationships in Fundraising
(00:24:13) Building a Culture of Philanthropy
(00:30:47) The Challenges of Nonprofit Fundraising
Carol Hamilton: Getting donors to see beyond supporting your direct services can be challenging. What is my money going to be used for? is the question that is driving this concern. Donors want organizations to steward their gifts well. The myth persists that the smaller the overhead percentage the better the nonprofit organization. Yet in reality an organization needs staff and a wide range of infrastructure from communications to finance to operations to run well. Skimping on these foundational elements – paying well trained staff fairly, ensuring they have what they need to do their job well, that systems are up to date and well integrated – does not actually achieve what donors want – a fully realized group of people working toward an important mission. The pressure to fit within an unrealistically slim overhead budget leads to many of the things that I frequently talk about on this podcast – not being able to support staff in a way that promotes a healthy organizational culture. Obsolete structures and processes and ultimately contributing to the burnout many are trying to recover from. Mission Impact is the podcast for nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I am Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategy consultant.
My guest today on Mission Impact is Susan Kahan. We explore what the overhead myth is and why it is still getting in the way of organizations doing their best work. What it means to create a culture of philanthropy within your organization. As well as the power of practicing big asks and the importance of curiosity in fundraising. Mission: Impact is brought to you by Grace Social Sector Consulting. Grace Social Sector brings you whole-brain strategic planning, mapping, & audits for nonprofits and associations. We combine Left-brain strategy and analysis + right-brain wisdom about human complexities for a proven, whole-brain, whole-organization process through which every stakeholder thrives. Reach out to us for support and facilitation of strategic planning, mapping your impact, auditing your services and getting an organizational assessment. We especially love working with staffed nonprofits and associations with human centered missions.
Well, welcome Susan. Welcome to Mission Impact.
Susan Kahan: Thanks, Carol. It's great to be here.
Carol: So I'd like to start each conversation with what drew you to the work that you do? What would you say motivates you, or what would you describe as your why?
Susan:Well, again, thank you so much for having me. I'm really honored to speak to you today. And I would say, what drew me to my work is that I really love helping people and I love connecting people to the right thing that they care about. So, in fundraising, I'm a fundraising consultant. In fundraising, it's all about finding people who care about something and giving them the opportunity to do something about it. And there's no greater thing that you can do, in my opinion, than donating to a cause. So to be able to help nonprofits find those people, to help the people who care about those causes and give and do something is really something that draws me in. And the final thing I'll just say is that there's this Hebrew proverb that has always meant a lot to me, which is that if you save one life, you save the world. And so to me, that's why I care so much about philanthropy is that if you can just save one life, you're, you're my you're, you're doing so much. And so I think that that's what compels a lot of people who work in nonprofits and in philanthropy. And that's definitely why.
Carol:, a couple different things come to mind.
As you were talking I often, love to quote Mr. Rogers and it's like, look for the helpers. I was talking to one of my sisters, and she said, I read the paper and she's a diligent newspaper reader. And she was like, I get so depressed, and I wish at the end of each article they're like, okay, here's all the depressing reality, but here's three simple things you could do.
Yes. To address that issue, right? Yes. So you're not feeling so helpless. And I love the idea that even if you may not have time to volunteer, you may not be able to fit that into your schedule right now. You may not be able to be an activist. Yes. But, you probably can donate to an organization in some way.
Yes. And, what, what's the thing that really connects to what's important to you? And then how can you find organizations that match that? And I'm curious, there's a lot of, I think when people think about donating to organizations, there's a lot of fear around, how will my money be used and mm-hmm.
So what do you say to donors? In terms of them? I, I, if they're not familiar with an organization, ways to, to look for an organization that will meet what they're trying to achieve, but then also to have some kind of. Sense of this organization is doing good work?,
Susan: That's a great question and I think it's becoming more and more important.
I think we're seeing just nationally, not just for nonprofits, but, for the government , different things that people in general in the United States have less trust in institutions. So I think that that is a big hurdle that our sector has to overcome. Think about it, because you're right that there're, I think, more questions than 20 years ago, definitely 50 years ago.
, and how is this nonprofit using my money and, and I want more of a say in it. So I do think that that's something that we all need to think about in a way that. Probably wasn't considered or as valued as much. So I think from the donor side, you should be looking for, do they, are they on Candid and GuideStar?
Do they share their finances? Do they have a board of directors that's clearly listed? Do they, do you see their staff even listed or. At least some of their staff because, putting up faces to who are the people behind this, I think that shows some credibility. I think you can, hopefully the nonprofit on their website or when you talk to someone they share, their past accomplishments.
We hear a lot about impact. So what does that look like? And again, that shouldn't be something too specific because we wanna make sure that nonprofits have the opportunity to run and, and develop programs. I do think that they should be able to share updates, regular updates on what they're doing, who they're helping, who they're serving.
So those are the types of things as a donor to look for. And again, it's about, okay, I care about this cause what is this nonprofit doing about it? So let's say I care about climate change. Well, That can mean a lot of different things. So, there, and there are a lot of nonprofits that are working on the issue of climate change.
So what specifically does this nonprofit do on this topic of climate change? From the nonprofit standpoint, I'll also just say that I think you need to have a conversation with your donors and you also have to explain to them, unless it's a restricted gift, and that's a whole other conversation, but you do need to let them in and.
See what you're doing. Give them opportunities to be involved and trust that they can understand how things work, and have a conversation with the donor about that. And donors, I think it's important that they understand that, their $5, their a hundred dollars, Not all of that will go directly out.
It might be used towards the dreaded overhead, which I think is a huge myth that we need to debunk that overhead is a bad thing. Our staff deserve to be paid well. They deserve to work in nice places, they need technology. Technology has costs, all those things. And so I think it's, it's, it's a conversation that needs to be had between the donors and nonprofits.
Carol: Say more about that overhead myth because what, when I was thinking about you, me, you mentioned Candid and that's a website where you can look up every nonprofit in the United States and Right. See their, their tax form that they're required to, to publish and make public as long as they have a budget of a certain size.
Right. And all sorts of information is available there. But then candid and then organizations have. Layered on that, all sorts of more ways to enhance their transparency. And so organizations can earn, I don't know, I think, what it is, up to the platinum level of their transparency. They're,.
And, and it's just all the different information that they're sharing. But there are other, good, good housekeeping seal of approval websites. Yes. For nonprofits, yes. But some of them to my mind, are, are, are feeding into that. Overhead myth of, saying basically this is a good nonprofit because they only spend X percentage on overhead and everything else goes to quote programs or the people that they're serving.
Right. Can you explain to folks why that isn't necessarily a great idea?
Susan: Oh my goodness. I could, I could talk for days on this topic. It really, it riles me up because I think, donors feel, I want my money going to the cause and Sure, I agree. I get it. But let's, again, I'll take an example of an organization.
Let's say you have a shelter that helps people who have been affected by homelessness. Okay? And so you're saying, I care about this issue. I see it in my community. I wanna do something about it. I'm gonna donate to this shelter. Okay, well not all that money is gonna go into housing. Some of the money's going to go to paying for marketing the services to get people to go there.
And what does that mean? That needs to go to paying for the salaries if you don't have the people to operate and then the people to run the place. If you don't have the people paid to be there. Then you don't have a shelter. You could talk about utilities, electric bills need to be paid. How do those get paid through donations?
You could talk about having a website. Websites cost money. You need to pay for these things. You need a database to track your information, to track your donors. These. All have our expenses. And, I think those who work in the nonprofit get frustrated cuz we hear about, well, what's the percent that's going to quote unquote overhead?
And it's like, who cares? I mean, I don't understand why this is a number that becomes a priority because especially I'll say from the outside, someone who's not involved in the decision making of the budget, you tell me what's the right percent, should it only be 10%? Okay. Should it be 25, should it be 30?
Should it be five? Like, how are you coming up with these numbers to say this is what makes sense for this specific organization, if you think about your house household, for example, you, you earn a certain dollar living, you maybe have income in various streams. Maybe you have investments, whatever it is.
But let's say you have a monthly budget, however, that gets determined. How would you feel if someone who had no idea your circumstances were to say you're spending too much on groceries? I mean, it's none of their business, so I, I feel very personally affected by this, cuz I think it's hard to judge someone else's budget when you're not really involved in the decision making.
Now I will say, I don't think we wanna go, We, we, we, we don't wanna go too far and, and not have a lot of the money go towards quote unquote programs or, the people served. But I also think it's important that our staff are paid well because staff turnover costs a ton to nonprofits every year.
And we want our, most people don't go into nonprofits because of the salaries. So, I, I don't think we're overpaying our staff. I don't think that's a problem we should worry about.
Carol:, we talk a lot on this podcast when I'm, I'm talking to other guests around how we can make the whole process of working in an organization feel healthier.
, like the more that you cultivate an inclusive and healthy organizational culture, the more you're gonna be able to do in terms of pursuing your mission. And the less. You're worried about the chair that's broken. Yes. And the computer that's too slow. And so ,It's finding that sweet spot.
But I think the emphasis has been way too much on, we're gonna, we're gonna slim all those things. And it, and it, and over time, of course there's another extreme where we need to also have all those. Systems in place so that you're paying attention to any financial malfeasance and the fiduciary responsibility of the board.
Exactly. But the reality for 99% of organizations is that they're feeling squeezed to make due and. That actually can get in the way of them being more effective in pursuing those programs and providing the best services that they can and, and, really taking a holistic approach. So, I'm there, I'm there with you on the whole it's, it's just a.
I can understand why people grabbed onto it as a metric. Mm-hmm. But it can really screw things up in some weird ways as well.When people try to, like, make their budget look like that, and it's like, well, no, you wanna invest in the people who are gonna, who are, who are. Essentially make the nonprofit.
Susan: So,Well, and I also think that, I don't even know what the benchmark is because I, I find it silly personally, but, there's these benchmarks. So you should have your overhead only, I don't know, 15% of your total budget or whatever the number is. And I'm not recommending that number at all, BEC, but I think, an organization that's a national organization with.
10 different offices across the country and 200 staff is gonna have very different needs than a one office, 10 person staff and, or someone that, again, they have a physical, a facility where people come to, to do, whatever versus, like the. To compare how budgets should be made.
I mean, again, there's so many variables. There's so many variables. So to just say, well, here's a number that we can compare, app, apples to apples. Well, does that actually make this apple better? I, I, I think it's, I think it's sort of,
Carol: We wanna be in the, let's make the apple better business.
Susan: make the apple better.There's nothing I could take away. Make the apple better. Don't worry about comparing apples.
Carol:. That's funny. So when you're working with people inside organizations on helping them get more comfortable with fundraising what would you say? What are some things that help people step towards that?
Cuz I think I've, I've said before that very few people get into the nonprofit sector in order to raise money and raising money is necessary.
Susan: Yes, yes. So true. I, again, it's sometimes I've seen in organizations where fundraising is seen as sort of the. Dirty, evil, like, like the ne or necessary evil, and it's like, what about this is evil?
I think first of all, we need to change that mentality, talk about overhead is a problem. Also saying that fundraising is a necessary evil. Of course we have funds, of course, things cost money. Of course, you need to find ways to get the money. I, I don't know why. I mean, it's like a company. Of course you need sales, you need to operate.
So again, I think some of these, the way we talk about it needs to change. But in terms of confidence building, I think that that is a really important part because if you are more confident, you'll be better at most things that you do. And so much of fundraising is about relationship building and getting to know people.
And if you come across as. Not confident or insecure or unsure of it. Talk about lack of trust in a mission. I mean, if I were to say, well, I guess we need the money and will you donate? And I mean our organization is okay. I mean that no one will give. But if you say, look, we are solving this problem and we are really having an impact on this work, and I know this is something you care about and I want you to come along and help us make a bigger impact.
I mean the difference of what that can do to connect with your Don, and notice I didn't talk anything about dollars, that is what is so important. So, confidence, confidence, confidence. And to get there, I think there are two main things. One is practice. I didn't just get to these words and know these things on my first day, but just like anything else, you need to practice.
You need to observe how other people do it. I speak in a very specific way and that serves me and it's authentic and it's true to me. And Carol, you have your own speaking style and you speak your way, and someone else would speak some other way. It's important that you practice and learn your speech.
Speaking style. And then the second thing, it's about communication, persuasion, listening and developing those skills really well. To get to know your donors, to get to know how to talk about your organization because it's not just about a mission, it's not just about talking about the programs, but it's about sharing stories and connecting those stories in a way that someone can say, I wanna be part of this.
I wanna do something. Cuz you're getting them to. Do something. And I think that those skills can be learned. Another skill I would say is perseverance as a fundraiser. I was just on a call earlier today and we were talking about how hard it is to hear rejection. And it is, it's really hard to hear rejection and it, it, it.
It can really dampen your confidence, but you've gotta persevere. There are other people, other companies, other foundations, other institutions out there that do wanna support us. Our mission matters. I just need to keep going.
Carol: What do you, what are some things that you would say help people kind of
build that confidence? So you've talked about that practice and I'm wondering What are, I mean, what are some things that people can start practicing to help them?, so get more comfortable with their, their elevator pitch or their talking points, or that it sounds more natural and isn't just like, okay, I'm reading my script to you.
Susan: Well, the first thing is to speak out loud. That's the first practice. Whether it's o, you record yourself. On Zoom, I do this. All the time where I will record a pitch or something to myself, and then I watch it back and you say, oh, is that what I sound like? Or do I do this weird thing with my eye?
Like you, you'll be amazed, recording yourself speaking. You just, there are things you've never noticed, so that, or even talk to yourself in the mirror, like literally saying these words, prac and practice saying, if you're gonna ask for a gift, maybe you've never asked for a gift over a certain amount.
Say in the mirror to yourself. Carol, thank you so much for your past support. Will you give a gift this year of a hundred thousand dollars? And just practice saying that because just by saying, being comfortable with using big numbers. Cuz sometimes you, you're gonna make a big, hopefully you're making a big ass.
I think that there's just, there's nothing like that. I think observing others is also a great tool. Learning what to say. I think writing stories, knowing your story, why are you connected to the mission? Knowing the different success stories of the organization and I think being prepared with great questions.
Again, this is about building relationships. So what types of questions can you ask your donor when you meet with them? How can you be a curious and interested person? I think curiosity is really important. So those are some of the things I would think about when it comes to practicing.
Carol:, it's funny that you talk about, recording yourself and then listening. Mm-hmm. On, on, I guess I should have anticipated this, but doing this podcast, I know, before the episode gets released, when I'm working with my audio engineer, I'll listen to a, to a version, the first draft of the episode, and I am now aware of that.
Apparently I have a slight stutter. Apparently a lot of people do. Yes, or I'll say or, or so, or all the filler words that you say, you, you start to become aware of your patterns of speech that you would not be aware of at all. Yes. And it certainly has. By hearing myself over and over, I still say those words.
They'll, they'll be in this episode too. Sure. But, I also, I feel like I've been able to become a little more fluid and just by having these conversations I. Get more comfortable in expressing those thoughts, following with the conversation, being a better listener. All of those things have been unexpected benefits of doing this.
And so I loved your point around curiosity and following the conversation and, and cuz people, most people think of fundraising, they think of that big ask. Like, that's all they think about when they, for those of us who don't do it, Uhhuh. And that's why I'm like, okay, I don't wanna do it Uh Huh, but all the other things go into building that relationship.
So what are some things that you feel like help people step into that? And you talked about observation too, for an organization where this. Person might be the first person that's doing fundraising for them. What are some other ways that they can have that chance to observe if there isn't somebody already D in the organization doing the work?
Susan:, that's a great question, and I think it's pretty common actually, where there's maybe only one quote unquote fundraiser official person in a development role. I would encourage them to think about, Can they network with someone and see a, a director of development or some, someone like that at a similar type of organization?
I, I would, I'll say most people wanna help other people. I have a couple of things. I, I say a lot and one of those donors wanna be generous when they can and people wanna help people when they can. And so, it's true. If, like Carol, if I, I was an, I am a newer consultant in nonprofits, then I know you are, Carol, I know you've been doing this a little while longer, and if I had reached out to you over LinkedIn, we didn't know each other at all, but I had found you and I had said, Hey Carol, I'm new to consulting.
Could I, could we take it? 15 minutes. I'd really love to talk to you about your experience. I'm sure you would say yes. I think you did say yes, I'm sure we had that conversation at some point and I think it's absolutely the same thing within the fundraising world, and I think, you can try to get sort of an unofficial mentor to have someone to talk to.
They've been through it, I would, again, I would look for an organization that's similar. So that's one thing I would consider. The second thing is Community foundations can be really helpful in finding resources for you. So they also, again, wanna help their local community. So again, I would go to your local fund community foundation but sometimes they can connect you with someone.
Great. And then there's also AFP chapters, which again are, there's national, there's local, and AFP has had, its. Ups and downs. But overall I've found AFP to be a great resource. Again, great networking to find other fundraisers and I think it's really important to, to have your crew have your people who know what you're going through, who you could say, Hey, I'm having trouble writing this fundraising appeal for giving Tuesday.
Can, what's worked for you in the past? And I bet most people who work in fundraising will have an answer to that. So I think sort of finding your, your people and, and. Again, and I'll also say it's really important as a fundraiser to be able to reach out to someone you don't know. And I think that if you're not comfortable with doing that to a potential donor, then the number one thing you should work on is reaching out to someone you don't know and starting a conversation with them.
And this might be a great way to practice that cuz they're not a donor, they're someone in the field.
Carol:, I love that point of Building that network of peers and, and people who are just a little bit further ahead of you, or maybe even a lot further. Further Yes. Ahead of you in terms of your learning and your network and using that as a way to practice reaching out to people.
Mm-hmm. And it's so funny you're talking about informational interviews when you first get. Started, and in a way that was part of the genesis of this podcast because mm-hmm. I was starting out as a consultant and so wanted to connect with consultants. I was having lots of conversations and, and I thought at one point, well, I should be recording these and I should be sharing them with other people.
Now we're not talking about the business of consulting. Right. But. It, it has just provided a great way to connect and, and build a network. And, and, 99% of the time people say yes, they wanna have the conversation. And, and. They're also, and you mentioned AFP, can you mm-hmm. Can you say what the acronyms stand for?
Susan: I'm sorry. A FP is Association for Fundraising Professionals. Okay. And they have chapters locally around the United States and Canada. And they have, whether it's. Meetups in person or webinars or affinity groups. I'm based in Chicago and they have a really robust chapter here.
But I know they do in other parts of the country as well. They're quite a large organization
Carol: and I think they have chapters we'll look, we'll look it up to see whether they're beyond the United States as well,
Susan: I know they're in Canada for sure. I don't know beyond Canada as well, but they do have chapters all over.
Carol: And of course with the internet, a lot of things are now online and people can access them from anywhere. So geography isn't exactly as much of a barrier as it might have been in the past. Absolutely. So beyond the individual, let's say, you're, you're newer, but you're now, you're, you're a couple years in, you're getting more confident in your personal approach to fundraising. Within the whole organization, what, what are some things that really c create conditions of success for an organization to, really build their, their fundraising approach?, I
Susan: Think about a few things. One is donor stewardship is so, so important. And I think, we talk about the culture of philanthropy sometimes, and, and what does that mean? That means where the entire nonprofit values supports accelerates the role of donors within the organization, sometimes it's like, oh, It just, the development team works with the donors. We, we don't have to, we're in finance, we don't have to work with them, but really, everyone should be thinking about your donors as investors, your donors as your clients, maybe your, your buyers, your purchasers, also stakeholders, you don't want, I. To be completely reliant in terms of decision making on your donors. That is not their role, but you do wanna make sure that they feel valued and appreciated. So I think one thing in terms of donor stewardship is how can you get people from throughout the organization to a. Be aware of fundraising. So talking about big goals are met, or if there's a big fundraising campaign, make sure everyone knows about it. Make sure that they hear the successes, the challenges, the feedback, if, let's say multiple donors reach out. They're like, we're really having, we heard about this new program and we're really, it doesn't sound great, or whatever the feedback is. You hear things once, okay, like, that's one person's opinion on a program. But if you hear something repeatedly in, in a lot of donor calls, then that's something to really take to the team and say, this is what we're hearing. For better or for worse, I think, again, sharing that feedback is really important. And I think the other thing, another way to get people involved throughout the organization is to do what you could either do like a phone-a-thon. So having everyone call donors to ask for a gift, which can get people to understand, even asking someone who's already given before to ask them to renew their $25 gift can actually be really hard. Or you could do something like a thankathon as well, where everyone gets, again, everyone in the organization from top to bottom is responsible for calling, they get their list of donors and they are calling just to say thank you and you can do that too. And that can be a great way to get everyone involved in the process. That's something you can also do with your board. But in terms of other things, I think it's thinking about how we can thank our donors in other ways at events and newsletters and, just wherever there's opportunities to say thank you. Cuz as a reminder, donors do not have to give, even if they've been giving for 10 years at significant levels, they do not have to give again. And it's all voluntary. And so I think that reminding everyone about that is really important.
Carol: It's interesting that you talk about the culture of philanthropy because I, I think when I was working inside organizations and I was not on the fundraising side, it did feel like it was kind of, oh, that's those folks' job, ?
Right. So I love the idea of the thankathon. I mean, that seems like a really. Fun and uhhuh, nice way to give people a baby step into Yes. The process and get everyone involved and get them knowing donors, and it's also just really interesting that I, I heard someone describe this as the three-legged stool that nonprofits have an interest in.
Business model is that a for-profit organization has something they're selling and they have. People who buy it, and it's a very direct relationship. Yes. And in nonprofits most of the time, there's some purpose. Oftentimes, if it's about direct service, then a group of people that the organization is helping who can not, the whole reason that they're, that the organization exists is that those folks cannot, pay for those services.
And so then you need third parties to be. Supporting and, and providing revenue, whether it's individuals or, institutional fund of right funders, corporate, all, all, absolutely. Government, all those. And so you, it ends up with this odd relationship between who's giving the money and, and who is, Working on behalf of the organization Right.
And who's being impacted by the mission. And so it can get a little goofy in terms of who's making decisions about what and who's paying attention to who, but mm-hmm. But it's, it's important for people to remember that because, Especially if they come from the for-profit sector where they're used to that more direct relationship.
Mm-hmm. It takes a little while to figure out how does this all go
Susan: together? Right, right. And, I think just having an understanding of the money doesn't just come. The money, even if you've been a strong, large organization. Every year. I'm gonna guess that's because you have a strong, large development team that's making sure those gifts keep coming in.
It does not just happen and you cannot lie. Right? It doesn't happen by magic. It is, you cannot rely on past success for future donations. So I think it's like the,
Carol: the warnings on the stock market, right?
Susan: Oh my goodness. Yes. So I think, the other thing, if I could just, for people who aren't in fundraising to, to think about, when you donate to something you're donating because you're trying to help something in the future, you, that there's a continued need moving forward.
You don't donate because of some past success. So maybe you had an incredible year, an incredible success. Successful whatever campaign, whatever it is that your organization did last year, that does not make a donor give again. They have to know, well, what are you doing now?, what are you doing for me lately?
It's like that. So you have to keep thinking about as you're communicating, as you're marketing, as you're, Giving feedback on what you wanna tell people what you've done. That's how you build trust, which is the question from the start. But as you move forward, you need to think about how you can tell them where we are headed and how you can be a part of that.
And that's why you should donate.
Carol: And so that's where I come in, where I help the group figure out where they're headed and, and why they wanna move forward in that. That's right. In that way, in terms of strategic planning. So exactly on, on each episode, I ask each guest, what permission slip would they give to nonprofit leaders or I.
What would they invite them to consider to not be a martyr to the cause, like I like to say, and as they work to cultivate a healthier organizational culture. So either a permission slip or an invitation and what might that be from your point of view.
Susan:Well, I think that is such a good question. I love that permission slip.
And so what I would say is to remember that, again, at the beginning we talked about overhead and how chances are you're squeezed for cash and squeezed for resources. I'm, again, not every nonprofit, but a lot are. And so remember, and if you're not squeezed financially, maybe you're squeezed with your time.
That, again, I'm gonna assume a lot of that is true for a lot of your listeners. I would say you can't do it all. And so to just acknowledge you cannot do it all. Like, if you can't, say like, and again, something I said in the beginning, you can't save every life, but you can save one life. What one thing can you do?
What one place can you start with? And so I always say start with what you're great at. Start with your strengths. Start with what's easy for you, and build on that and give yourself some grace for the things that you can't get to. That's okay. There's always tomorrow. There's always another way of thinking about it, but you can't do it all and start with what you're great at.
Carol:I appreciate that. I feel like that's become the mantra of this year's series of podcast interviews. Okay, good. It's all like, what, what are you focused on? What can you, what do you, what do you do really well? What are the, what's the one, two, or three things that you're really gonna move forward and, and time to let the rest of it go.
. So where can people find you? How can they be in touch?
Susan: Great. So again, my name is Susan Kahn and I am the founder and principal of Sapphire Fundraising Specialists. And so you can find firstname.lastname@example.org or on LinkedIn. And my last name is spelled k a h a N.
Carol: All right. Well, thank you so much, Susan.
Thanks for coming on the podcast. Thank you,
Susan: Carol. It was great to talk to you.
Carol: Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find out how to connect with Susan, the full transcript of our conversation, as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes.
I want to thank Isabelle Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as Cindy Rivera Grazer of 100 Ninjas for her production support. We want to hear from you! Take a minute to give us feedback or ask a question at missionimpactpodcast.com/feedback. And until next time, thank you for everything you do to contribute and make an impact.
In episode 78 of Mission: Impact, Carol Hamilton celebrates Mission: Impact’s 3rd anniversary and goes solo to talk about:
Carol Hamilton: When I work with a client on strategic planning, one of the steps that I take the group through is a brainstorm on the wider trends that are impacting their organization and the field that they work within. I sometimes get the question of – why did we bother doing this if the results do not get into the final product – and sometimes what is lifted up in that wider environmental scan is reflected in the final product and sometimes it is not. Yet I still think it is important for a group to think out beyond their organization and consider what is going on more broadly that could impact their future.
Welcome to the three year podiversary of Mission: Impact. I released the first few episodes of the podcast in August of 2020 and a lot has happened in the wider world during that period. On this 3 year pod-iversary episode, I will explore a couple big trends I am observing in the sector.
Mission: Impact is the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I’m Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategy consultant. Mission: Impact is brought to you by Grace Social Sector Consulting. On this podcast we explore how to make your organization more effective and innovative. We dig into how to build organizational cultures where your work in the world is aligned with how you work together as staff, board members and volunteers. All of this is for the purpose of creating greater mission impact.
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I have been thinking a lot recently about the shifts that I have observed over the course of my career. One of the big trends that I am noticing and experiencing myself – is the reconsideration of the role of work in our lives. Over the course of my career starting in the late 80s/early 90s, the idea of finding your dream job that fully matched your skills, talents and interests became more and more pronounced. I remember my older sister recommending the book What Color is Your Parachute, early on in my career. I dutifully did all the exercises to hone in on what was going to be more fulfilling in work. Countless other career related books with the general theme of – love your job and you will never work a day in your life – came out over the years – and I read way too many of them. With each job change, I was looking for greater optimization. More of this, less of that. Luckily I did always keep in mind – that as one boss had told me along the way – there is a reason they call it work – and there is a reason you are paid. There are always aspects of every job that are not fun.
As we have been encouraged to follow our passions and center that as we think about our careers – more recently people are examining the dark side of that pursuit. How jobs that are about your passion are ripe for exploitation. For example, When there are many people waiting for their chance to get into a career, it is easy for employers to pay very little because the people in the coveted roles are just “lucky to be there” – in fields such as publishing or the arts.
In the nonprofit sector, we have wages of fulfillment of feeling like we are contributing to the greater social good or fighting for a good cause. And hopefully we are – and that is one aspect that has certainly been a motivating factor for me over the years in the sector. And yet there is a downside to this.
It can also lead to workers being used and abused. With the notion that if you are doing nonprofit work, you should be ok with lower wages and a broken desk chair and that slow computer and outdated software. I have talked before on this podcast about the concept of “vocational awe”, a term coined by Fobazi Michelle Ettarh which really crystallized it for me.
As Ettarh, a librarian by profession, writes – vocational awe ”is the idea that libraries as institutions are inherently good. It assumes that some or all core aspects of the profession are beyond critique, and it, in turn, underpins many librarians’ sense of identity and emotional investment in the profession.”
This concept does not just apply to librarians – it applies to much of nonprofit work – most helping professions. If you love your job and you fully identify with the job, you don’t really need to be paid well or have healthy work conditions – you should feel lucky to always be asked to go above and beyond.
And then we wonder why the sector is afflicted with a huge case of burn out. Burn out is certainly showing up all over our economy – and the conditions in our sector make it even more likely – where the need so often outstripping demand for our services, the constant struggle for funding and support and rarely being fully staffed – make burn out rife.
And more broadly, it is not really surprising given how our economic life has been consistently unraveled over the last 40+ years. Several books I have read over the past couple years have helped me understand how we got here. One was “Your job will not love you back” by Sarah Jaffee. It examines how a labor of love – in a variety of contexts including the nonprofit sector – can lead to that exploitation that I have been talking about
One that I read more recently was the Good Enough Job by Simone Stolzoff. It really looks how wrapped up our identities have become in what we do – and how that “love what you do” has meant that people are looking for their careers to fulfill way more than is really possible in our lives. Somewhat in the same way that our romantic relationships – looking for “the one” has created expectations of one person fulfilling all our needs in a way that is really not possible.
One of his remedies is cultivating a hobby. Finding flow and fulfillment is doing something outside of work – and not with the idea that you are pursuing it to create a side hustle. Just doing the thing for the thing.
Two more books that put these trends in context for me include The Sum of Us: How Racism Hurts Everyone by Heather McGhee and Can't Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation By Anne Helen Petersen.
Both examine the historical, economic and sociological background of how we got to where we are today. And together they helped me understand the trends I have experienced since starting to work in the Reagan era.
McGhee’s book explains why we can’t have nice things in the US – the example she opens with is very illustrative. Apparently public pools were common in the early 20th century in the US. But when there was a push to integrate pools – white people decided to close them and pave them over rather than share them with people of color. Instead private swimming clubs popped up all over the suburbs. This dynamic has played out over and over and undermined many attempts to bring the type of social safety net that many European countries enjoy – white people in the US would apparently rather go without – without affordable housing, universal health care, decent wages supported by unionization – than share these public goods with people of color.
In Can’t Even – which really in some ways has a misleading title – Petersen examines the historical, economic and sociological trends that led to the high level of economic precarity that our increasingly gig based economy brings. She argues that the anxiety that that brings, drives a lot of the behavior that we observe within our work and broader lives today. One interesting thread that she describes is how the workaholic ethic of the tech, finance, consulting and legal professions with staying at the office late into the evening, has spread throughout the economy – and become so commonplace that actually working 9-5 is now called quiet quitting.
For me, this has been part of my attempt to dismantle my internalized protestant work ethic and disentangle my sense of worth being derived from my productivity. It is an ongoing and emerging pursuit and I can still feel guilty when I prioritize rest over work.
What does any of this mean for you as you work in the sector? I would invite you to consider what assumptions and “givens” you have accepted as ‘just the way it is’ over your career in terms of how your work is structured and what you are expected to give the organization you work for or support? To what extent is your identity wrapped up in what you do and who you do it for? How might you begin or expand pursuits that you do just for the sake and pleasure of doing them?
How might your organization better focus its attention and initiatives so that it works well within its constraints instead of just pretending they don’t exist? What guardrails can the organization agree to, to prioritize worker well being – such as striking the phrase “fast paced environment” from job descriptions (that is one that I read as code for we are all workaholics here or our workplace is chaotic and disorganized!), or considering the possibility of a 4 day work week – or closing the office for a period of time, not just at the winter holidays, to give everyone a break.
And how can the structures that support organizations help make all these things possible? By funding general support, streamlining reporting requirements and for government grants – fully funding the true cost of providing services?
I invite you to consider how we could create a sector together where everyone thrives and no one has to be a martyr to the cause.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me. thank you for helping me celebrate this three year milestone for the podcast. You can find the full transcript of the episode, as well as links to the books I mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Isabelle Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as Cindy Rivera Grazer of 100 Ninjas for her production support.
Mission: Impact is brought to you by Grace Social Sector Consulting. Grace Social Sector brings you whole-brain strategic planning, mapping, & audits for nonprofits and associations. I hope you enjoyed the episode. Please take a minute to share it with a colleague or friend. We appreciate you helping us get the word out. And until next time, thank you for everything you do to contribute and make an impact.
I am Carol Hamilton, nonprofit consultant and podcast host. My passion is helping organizations cultivate healthy, inclusive cultures that live their values, fostering learning, creativity and results. Find me at Grace Social Sector Consulting and download free resources.
Grace Social Sector Consulting, LLC, owns the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of the Mission: Impact podcast, with all rights reserved, including right of publicity.