Nonprofit Growing Pains

A graduate during the recession, I held 6 nonprofit positions over 5.5 years. Do the math, and you realize very quickly that I changed jobs frequently. Over this time span, I learned to embrace change and to never get too comfortable, mastering the ability to shift gears on a moment’s notice.

Earlier this year, I hit my two-year anniversary at my current job. I just finished a huge project at this job and, after some time off, I reflected on my current situation: I felt restless.

My organization was beginning to feel, to me, like a kid who suddenly had a growth spurt, and all of his clothes were short and snug in all the wrong places. We were outgrowing our capacity and, in order to adjust, we needed to make some dramatic changes, including staff roles and responsibilities. Due to staff turnovers and expansion, several of my tasks fell into the hands of new staff members. And my growing pains started to kick in.

Let me be clear: I love my job, my organization, and my co-workers. But my job wasn’t "shiny" anymore. I was settling into a daily grind, and, as someone who was accustomed to not getting too comfortable, I was beginning to feel STUCK.

What to Do?

One of our directors approached me a few times, always engaging in casual conversations regarding these shifts and changes. Finally, one day, she encouraged me to speak up, if I felt I wasn’t being heard about my needs within the organization. 

Initially, I shook the conversation off. I felt intimidated. I felt like my voice was out of place and nothing would result from sharing my feelings. But after 15 minutes, I got up from my desk, I walked into her office, and I simply said, “I’m stuck.”

What Happened?

The director’s immediate response was empathetic and positive. She could tell they were not utilizing all my skills, and, in turn, I wasn’t providing all my insights and knowledge. But she needed to hear it from me.

And then she said, “I will help you become unstuck.”

Being a part of an organization that focuses energy on our strengths, it was really hard for me to admit I was feeling weak within my role. But my strengths were only part of the equation. 

When our strengths are not able to shine, what do we do?

What I Learned

Let’s apply Newton’s First Law of Motion to this problem. 

In my equation, my “stuck” situation would remain at rest unless I applied a force of motion (change) to it. Speaking up about my feelings created enough needed motion to get the change ball rolling.

In the weeks that followed, I had several “how and why” conversations in order to find solutions to help me thrive. These conversations, in turn, have resulted in several lessons for me:

  1. You have to be a change agent for yourself. If you internalize negative emotions, they stew and only get worse. You will focus on the problem, not on solutions, and no one else can help you. Which leads me to...
  2. The value of finding a buddy. It is likely that you are not always going to be comfortable speaking up to your supervisor, every time you feel disengaged. Find someone you can trust, preferably on the inside, who you can bounce ideas and questions off of -- someone who checks in on your status and progress. 
  3. The importance of learning about yourself. What makes you tick? What do you love working on? What is essential for you to have in order to thrive in your work environment? Through this process, I focused on my strengths and discovered I always NEED to learn something new. Learning is the foundation of my motivation.

Nonprofit growing pains can be quite uncomfortable. If you experience them, you may want to hide -- or perhaps even run. But if you survive this awkward stage, you and your organization will both be stronger because of it.

Have you experienced nonprofit growing pains? Do you have advice for those who have?

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