What Keeps Nonprofit Leaders Up at Night?

Job Issues are the Culprit!




It’s a simple question, really.  What keeps nonprofit leaders and workers up at night?  Is there anything that can be done to help them sleep better?

I recently asked this question in an anonymous 3-question survey.  I received an interesting set of responses.

Job Issues

Half of respondents said that what kept them up at night were things that I categorized as “job issues“–things that are just part and parcel of what their work in the nonprofit world is.

Here are some actual quotes so you know what I mean:

One Director of Development stated:  “not having enough time and resources to do what needs doing”.

A freelance grantwriter responded:  “Not having enough work to ensure a steady income.”  This person also added “not hitting the target in terms of what the funder wants to see”.

Others indicated similar answers:  “Deadlines.” “Stress of completing work on time when they are all a priority.”

Financial Issues

The second set of responses relate directly to organizational finances. This topic was voiced by one-fourth of the respondents.  Here are quotes from them:

“Finances,  in a word.” (Program Director)

“Being able to raise enough money for our organization” (Grantwriter)

“Developing stable money for operations” (Executive Director)

“Crazy a** government leaders who find it easier to be mean…and not fund programs that in the long term save millions in taxpayer funds…” (Program Director). (OK, so this is slightly paraphrased!  This respondent had some STRONG insights.)

Quality of Administrators and Other Workers

The final theme that comes out of the survey answers is that some of the respondents (25%) were concerned about the quality of their co-workers.  Here’s what they said:

“Administration unqualified to lead.” (Consultant)

“Top-heavy management and their not understanding what the front line staff is doing; They ask for near impossible tasks to be performed.” (Program Manager)

“The unprofessionalism of many of today’s workers.” (Support Staff)

“Poor management/professionalism of the management.” (Community Outreach Specialist)

So What Now?

These three themes don’t come from a statistically significant or randomly selected sample of nonprofit workers, but they do echo earlier work I’ve done on the topic.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about how to help people such as these respondents be able to sleep better.

One way is to help people understand how to write better proposals to more appropriate funders.

I’ve developed training materials to help grantwriters become better at their work, so that’s a start.

Using the principles that I teach in my online training materials, a colleague and I were just awarded a $200,000 grant from a foundation!  And the application was only 3 pages long!

These materials are not quite ready to release, but if you’re interested in being informed as soon as they are ready, please sign up on a special mailing list at



Bye-Bye Nonprofit Boomers?

ItsmyturnnowTrue or false?

Few people in their 50s want to lead nonprofits and, even if they want to, they aren’t going to be that good at it.

[DISCLAIMER: I don’t know the answer.]

In a recent issue of The Nonprofit Times (Feb. 1), Thomas McLaughlin says the older baby boomers who rushed into the nonprofit world in the 1960s and 1970s are now looking to retire and they are not finding a lot of people in their 50s qualified to be CEOs, no matter how good they may be at a more specialized staff position. He asserts that the nonprofit world is more difficult to run an organization in now than 30 or 40 years ago when the Boomers began. That means you have to be much more savvy than the people now retiring were when they became CEO. Mr. McLaughlin claims that people used to make it up as they went along, but you can’t do that anymore. Finally, though the ideal is to promote from within, that may not be a viable option in many cases, as the “talent pool” is too shallow.

Mr. McLaughlin (who has written some wonderful, practical materials for nonprofits) has it wrong this time.

CEOs are still making it up as they go along. CEOs ALWAYS make it up as they go along. The world is changing fast enough that what’s being taught in graduate programs may not fit well by the time the student is CEO-ready. Even the experience of 5 years ago may be out of date.

Where was “social enterprise” only half a decade ago? Facebook, Google+, Instagram, (and other social media apps) are how old?

Remember the not so long ago advent of logic models (and some say they are now old hat and should be discarded)? Transformational leadership is older but still not implemented well.

New ideas come and go and leaders have to pick and choose–and make it up as they go along. New nonprofit organizations are constantly starting up. Some make it and some don’t. Even older, established nonprofits are subject to quick demises.

I think the leadership crisis will be solved by people stepping up to the plate as their ideals and goals for social impact push them forward. Maybe that’s not a perfect plan to hire your next CEO, but it is what has worked in the past.

I do believe that nonprofits DO need to be cognizant of the broad job requirements and be willing to invest in training for their leaders. A colleague and I have developed a curriculum and written a book to bring human services nonprofit leaders to a higher level of “book” knowledge and “classroom training” prepared (Watson and Hoefer, Developing nonprofit and human service leaders: Essential knowledge and skills) and I know others are working on the problem, too.

Given reasonable investment in education and executive leadership coaching, I think the nonprofit sector will move forward in much the same way that other sectors are adapting to the ever-changing milieus they are embedded in.