Social Sector Leaders Need Oxygen

Leaders in the social sector feel as though they are climbing Everest with no oxygen, no rest stops, and no base camp. Coaches and facilitators who support the social sector need to understand the unique challenges that leaders face.

Leading in the social sector takes gutsy compassion, and a different skill set than what’s needed in the corporate world. Executive directors work in an environment of perpetual urgency, where ordinary practices are completely suspended, as they work in the thin air of the sector most often referred to as “nonprofit.” EDs have the benefit of staff who are energized by their passion for making a better world, but who quickly become depleted and frustrated by low pay and the slow pace of change. 

Some of the unique challenges social sector leaders face include: Scarcity Mentality, Martyr Meltdown, Burnout, Rescuers Rush, Staffing Challenges, Pinch Point Stress, and Founder’s Syndrome. Let’s look at each of these and explore how coaches and facilitators can offer the base camp, the rest stops and the jolt of oxygen that supports climbers on their way to the summit.

Scarcity Mentality

Nonprofit leaders are drawn to social change work because of their passion. They have high dreams that they can only accomplish if they break the cycle of poverty. Otherwise they become embittered old-timers who resent the personal cost and lack of progress. Younger leaders start down that same path, and the only way to turn around the culture of scarcity is to develop the leadership capacity and shift the fear that drives most nonprofits.

Securing funding is a huge challenge, especially as politicians change every two to four years, along with the changing mission and turnover in foundations. Many advocacy organizations have disgruntled staff because they lack the political savvy it takes to make headway in Washington. In frustration, they often lash out at their internal comrades. Activists need to build strength internally, at the personal and organizational levels, to support each other in the heart-breaking and heart-warming work of social change. For that we need explicit boundaries and team building skills to stop the bullying and in-fighting.

Mission creep, or expansion of the organization’s mission beyond its original purpose, is a common problem as organizations shift their goals to match the goals of their funders. The fear that funds will be cut becomes the driving force, and organizations spend the bulk of their time seeking funding.

Nonprofit martyrdom doesn’t serve the organization or the clients because the poverty mentality gets transferred to the people they help. Low income people don’t need more poverty mentality—they need economic empowerment. Recently foundations have recognized how they promote the poverty mentality by providing aid instead of empowerment. Instead of hosing down problems with cash and insisting that their dollars be used for direct services, philanthropists are looking at long-term results. Funders tend to look for programmatic results rather than take a long-term approach to developing leaders on the front line. For instance, funding for leadership development and capacity building within grantee organizations has been almost non-existent until recently.

Do not think that love, in order to be genuine, has to be extraordinary. What we need is to love without getting tired. —Mother Theresa

Martyr Meltdown

Even when the board budgets for professional development, many nonprofit leaders are so focused on helping their clients, and they’re so deeply immersed in a sacrificial way of leading, they wouldn’t dream of spending money or time on their own development. As martyrs, they believe they can only give, not take. Breaking through that mindset is the challenge. We need to remind them how wonderful they feel when they give support and question why they would want to deny anyone else that pleasure.

Sometimes a personal meltdown is the only way to get them to believe that they are worthy of support. To circumvent the meltdown, we can support them in depending less on personal charisma and more on systematic methods. Instead of using their leadership to cultivate followers, they build capacity by empowering other leaders.

Slowly over the past decade, the social sector has shifted its focus to developing leaders and building organizational capacity to expand their impact. Many nonprofit leaders have delivered programs more efficiently by modeling successful businesses, but since the private sector is not in the business of creating social change, a new way of thinking about nonprofits is emerging. Social entrepreneurs work toward a triple bottom line where the people, planet and profits thrive.


When leaders sacrifice themselves, neglect their spirit, or abandon part of who they are, they destroy the morale and the effectiveness of the organization. The sacrificial burnout system is so endemic to nonprofits that leaders actually believe their work is more important than their well-being. The prevalent belief that they have to give their whole life to have social change succeed is compounded by the adoration they often think they get from being martyrs.

As coaches or consultants we can help leaders see themselves as linchpins and understand that their self-care and vitality are even more important than the work. Why? Because they make the work happen. Taking a stand for their personal self-care makes a real difference in the quality of their decisions.

Rescuers Rush

When people wrestle daily with painful issues like rape, homelessness, or land mines, the suffering reaches deep into the human psyche. When activists work in toxic territory, such as sexual assault or human trafficking, they need support in recognizing how they internalize others’ pain so that they can release the suffering they hold. It takes special courage to work in the realm of social change.

Charity after a disaster is a legitimate rescue that offers immediate relief, but chronic societal ills require less dramatic rescue and more of a systemic, long-term approach. The co-dependent rescue mentality combined with the sacrificial culture can be challenging to transform. It’s a long term process to get people to give up their default roles of servant, martyr, or savior because these archetypes are so embedded in organizational culture. The “say yes to every request” culture is no match for the difficult decisions that need to be made—for that we need a resilient culture where people and movements thrive.

As coaches, we can continuously offer an empathic ear, but that’s not nearly enough. We need to intervene to help people recognize that their chronic response – to rescue anyone who has any pain whatsoever—doesn’t always serve the larger organization.

Staffing Challenges

More than 25% of nonprofits plan to downsize in 2010 reports a study by Nonprofit HR Solutions. On top of that, the social sector faces serious questions about the next generation of leadership. A 2006 survey of 2,000 nonprofit executive directors by the Meyer Foundation and CompassPoint, revealed that 75% do not plan to remain in that position in five years. Some of their reasons for leaving include: burnout and a lack of work-life balance, low pay, the strains of fundraising, governance struggles with boards, and more attractive private sector opportunities.[1]

Few have succession plans in place. Before baby boomer executive directors retire, they need support to develop, empower, and challenge their staff. Without micromanaging, they need to hand over the reins on a daily basis. The truck factor (what happens if you get hit by a truck) may sound pretty morbid, but I can’t tell you how many nonprofit executives I’ve coached who refuse to take a vacation, actually believing the place will fall apart without them.

The values held by many Gen X and Y employees are a bit different from their seniors. They are tired of feeling invisible, want the opportunity to lead, and they can do so without the frazzled 60-hour work week. If there’s inter-generational tension, it’s because GenXers are outraged that boomers have destroyed the work/life balance by reversing the accomplishments of the older generation who fought tooth and nail for a 40-hour work week. Workers of any age in every sector could do with a little more work-life balance, but a whole lot of boomers value making a meaningful contribution so much that any other way of life is unfathomable.

Social sector leaders are tired of low salaries and find it even more frustrating when their board members from the private sector justify the salary structure because “you get the satisfaction of doing valuable, meaningful work.” Where is the logic in that? Meaningful work and a decent salary don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Ready to Lead? Next Generation Leaders Speak Out, a 2008 study produced in partnership by CompassPoint Nonprofit Services, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Meyer Foundation and, found that 69% of survey respondents in the non-profit sector feel underpaid for the work they do in their current positions. This is exacerbated by the concern that if they stay in nonprofit jobs, they risk sacrificing lifelong financial health: 64% of respondents reported that they have financial concerns about committing to a career in the nonprofit sector. Topping the list of concerns was the fear of not being able to retire comfortably.

Grantmakers for Effective Organizations is a coalition that promotes strategies and practices that contribute to nonprofit success. In their GEO Action Guide: Supporting Next-Generation Leadership[2], they address the looming baby boomer retirements, the “war for talent,” and the urgent need to identify and cultivate young and capable leaders for the future.

Pinch Point Stress

Executive directors sit at the pinch point of an hourglass responding to the demands of both the board and employees simultaneously. Resting on top of that is another hourglass where the executive director is also at the pinch point between funders and clients served. In addition to leading their employees, attracting funders, and serving the public, many executive directors also have to develop leadership in their board of directors.

Afraid to hurt people’s feelings and afraid to say no, many nonprofit leaders don’t set boundaries or even negotiate for what they want. When someone pays $25 to be a member of the organization, they sometimes think that entitles them to call the shots. Tragically, the nonprofit leader often goes along with a member’s demands, even if it’s not remotely part of the organization’s mission. We can support leaders by challenging them to say no with compassion.

Founder’s Syndrome

One of the reasons there aren’t many leaders waiting in the wings is that many organizations haven’t confronted the dilemma of “Founder’s Syndrome” or even recognized that the traits of the founder are both assets and liabilities. These same visionary, charismatic, driven, decisive leaders can be lone wolves who don’t know how to take their organizations to the next level. We can support the development and transition of founders by helping them recognize the value of planning and policy, by seeking input from others to improve organizational structures and decision-making. We can encourage them to relinquish old strategies that worked during the start-up phase and make staffing selections based on future organizational needs.

They may need a lot of support for developing an exit strategy and succession plan. Part of the process includes increasing intergenerational dialogue, identifying and nurturing young leaders, especially leaders of color, who historically had to prove themselves before they were selected to participate in leadership development programs.

To make that shift, they can start by creating more work-life balance for themselves and their staff. Meanwhile, the leadership team needs to become less dependent on the founder and develop their own capacity to lead. We can facilitate cultural change much more quickly by creating an empowered coaching culture, where everyone breathes fresh life into the organization. The spirit of coaching acts as an antidote to the rescue culture. People at all levels become more trusting, engaged, collaborative, creative, and more alive. The beauty is in the alchemy of transformation—a very organic, magical process that changes people and organizations at the core.


In Forces of Good, Heather McLeod Grant & Leslie R. Crutchfield say the next leap is to see nonprofits as “catalytic agents of change.” They researched nonprofits and found six practices that helped these organizations magnify their impact (not necessarily their budget) to eliminate the root cause of social problems. The organizations worked on a variety of social change issues including hunger relief, youth leadership, environment, housing, public policy, education reform, economic development, and Hispanic interests. They list six practices that helped them create sustainable change:

  1. Work with the government and advocate for policy change, in addition to providing services.
  2. Harness market forces and see business as a powerful partner, not as an enemy to be disdained or ignored.
  3. Create meaningful experiences for individual supporters and convert them into evangelists for the cause.
  4. Build and nurture nonprofit networks, treating other groups not as competitors for scarce resources but as allies instead.
  5. Adapt to the changing environment and be as innovative and nimble as they are strategic.
  6. Share leadership, empowering others to be forces for good.[3]

Leaders can’t just give lip service to putting the oxygen mask on first; they have to live in the full experience of loving self-care. In addition, leaders often need help changing to a more empowering leadership style, setting limits, and creating a nurturing support system, so they can stay on to do the transformative work of social change. The Ready to Lead study recommends leaders hire coaches to help them work through these changes. Can we push that to the next level and create a 360º coaching culture that supports people at all levels? Can we really look after each other while addressing the worst in human nature? We all need support for the tough, long-term challenges of deepening personal consciousness and furthering organizational development. We’re moving beyond change and into more sustainable transformation and evolution. The challenge for coaches of nonprofits is to live our own lives on purpose, in balance, and to take a stand for leaders to create their dream life and dream organizations.

[1] Compass Point

[2] GEO action guide: Supporting next-generation leadership. 2008. GEO.[3] Crutchfield, L. & Grant, H. M. (2008). Forces of good. John Wiley and Sons.

Written by Martha Lasley