You lead a nonprofit because you believe in its mission, right? You believe your work matters—that you’re making a difference in the world.
So why do so many of us act like it’s no big deal?
The culture of nonprofits tells us we can’t be too bold. We can’t ask for too much money. We can’t take risks. But our work is changing lives. We should be the first ones to confidently ask for funding or make a change so that we can affect even more people.
We are often so concerned with potential failure, ruffling feathers, losing the donations we worked hard to raise, remaining above reproach, that we don’t ever take a chance on doing something differently. We are too scared to take a risk, our feet permanently stuck in the mud of our comfort zones, even if our current way isn’t working.
Our actions are minimizing the significance of what we’re doing. We are too timid to ask for more money and too scared to invest in ourselves. We’re unintentionally saying to others, “This is not worth a big investment.”
Vu Lee, a writer in the nonprofit world, suggests that the stark contrast in the way a tech startup positions itself to investors, for example, versus how a nonprofit often positions itself to donors is actually quite ludicrous.
“Bitmoji, which is a cute app that turns you into a cartoon in hundreds of different poses … got a start-up fund of eight million dollars! We nonprofits, meanwhile, are like, ‘Our mission is to end systemic poverty. Here’s our grant application for $19,’” he writes for GuideStar.
Vu’s example is admittedly tongue-in-cheek, but his point is clear. If we truly believe in what we’re doing, shouldn’t we be all the more bold? Shouldn’t that propel us to do whatever it takes to make an even greater difference in the world?
Comfort Zones Block Growth
Growth happens when we get uncomfortable. That’s true in our personal lives as well as our professional lives. We can make changes, but unless we are taking deliberate steps outside our comfort zones, we won’t grow.
Speaker, author, and self-described “recovering lawyer” Bob Goff was a guest on my Real Hope podcast recently and spoke about how important it is to be uncomfortable if we want to impact others and make a difference.
“I don’t just want to do comfortable things. I want to do courageous things,” he said. “It’s the difference between change and growth. You can change spouses, you can change cars, you can change jobs, but you won’t necessarily grow. What I want is growth.”
If you have enough life experience behind you, chances are you’ve learned this on your own. If you look back on your life, it’s the uncomfortable times that forced you to adjust—to reevaluate what matters most and decide who you want to be.
It’s the same in leadership. We can hide in complacency and mediocrity pretend like everything is fine—that we’re doing all we set out to do. We can choose to believe we’re totally on track to accomplish our mission and everyone working with us is fulfilled, compensated well, and enjoy their jobs. Or we can take an honest look at how we are doing in each area, stand up, and make a decision to change.
Unsubscribe from Nonprofit Myths
Change is easier said than done, but it is possible. You just have to be willing to embrace the uncomfortable, which can feel like swimming upstream in the nonprofit world.
Nonprofits are conditioned to avoid risk—to keep overhead down and carefully account for every penny they spend—but they don’t take time figuring out every dollar they’ll raise, says Sherry Quam Taylor, expert nonprofit leadership and fundraising consultant.
There is the known “overhead myth” throughout the nonprofit sector. It’s the unreasonable idea of a nonprofit’s success is based on how little they spend their personal “overhead” to then give more to their mission.
“Most nonprofits don’t grow because they’re intensely risk-averse,” she explains. “when nonprofit leaders come to me, they are often a bit stuck. I often encourage them to shift their mindset and embrace risk. Breaking out of your comfort zone is a step towards achieving things you never thought possible.”
Many nonprofits still subscribe to the myth that they should have to “do more with less,” but as Sherry and others will attest, this doesn’t make sense as a growth strategy. To do more, you have to invest in yourself. Keeping admin costs to under 10 percent often cripples a nonprofit, even if they’re pouring funding into programs. Investing on the front end allows programs to expand long-term and serve even more people.
It’s all about mindset.
So how do you get out of your comfort zone as a nonprofit leader and move towards growth? You take an honest look at what is and isn’t working. You embrace risk, even when it’s scary. You decide your mission matters more than ruffled feathers or potential failure.
It’s all about your mindset—and practice.
If we don’t try to move past the status quo, we’ll never achieve those big dreams—the ones that sparked our passion and got us involved with the organization in the first place.
There’s a well-known adage attributed to John Augustus Shedd: “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.”
God did not create us to be comfortable. Nowhere is this more evident than in Jesus’ life. He did not settle for the status quo. He was not afraid of ruffling feathers. He continually calls us to step outside of our comfort zones and follow Him—to value our relationship with Him more than being comfortable.
After all, courage is not the absence of fear but the decision that something matters more than our fear. It is being afraid, but taking a step forward anyway. That’s what we have to do as leaders of nonprofits, if we truly want to make a difference.
Your mission matters. Let’s show that to our donors and our community by being willing to put some skin in the game—by thinking bigger. By rejecting what doesn’t work, even if that’s how it’s always been done.
“You want to actually grow something in you? Get uncomfortable,” Bob told me in our interview. Let’s get uncomfortable today.
Growth is not easy, but it’s possible. And you can be a part of the change that makes it happen.