3.17 Sharing the Work of Worry

Over the past three years, I went through periods of time when I woke up as many as two or three nights each week with deep anxiety about cash flow and fundraising. Some of this may be inevitable for any grassroots or nonprofit leadership role, particularly in economic times that have crunched most of us more than usual. But it’s not pretty and it’s not fun, and I resented the toll it had taken on both my psyche and my work.

Stressed out, bitter, exhausted – these are not adjectives one would associate with good fundraising, not to mention a happy or successful life. My spiritual practice and other attention to what some would call “self care” did not seem to be enough. I got tired of other people’s suggestions, if only because I’d heard most of them before in my own head.

Then, I remembered the words of a wise friend who told me that part of leadership means “sharing the work of worry.” It’s a funny expression and not one that immediately resonated with me. But it stuck.

I realized first the things she did not mean. She did not mean stressing out other people needlessly. She did not mean complaining to anyone who would listen. And she did not mean making others feel guilty because they weren’t paying attention to our bottom line. (I tried all those things – none of them worked – and since this friend is smarter than I, I suspected that she had something else in mind.)

Last year we hired an operations director, a position long overdue for our facilities- and land-based organization. For the first few months she learned the ropes, built relationships, made sure our current systems were up-to-snuff, managed the financials. Then she slowly began to assume more responsibility. She created consistent and easily understood reporting systems for our finances. When we had to tighten things considerably, she recommended a whole slew of cuts (including some very painful ones). As we began to shift our grants strategy, she kept tabs on where we were applying and made sure financial reports and moral support were readily available.

And most importantly, she began to share the work of worry. She did this by tracking cash flow with greater frequency and more precision. I know down to the dollar where we are at any given moment and we check in regularly about gaps, individual donor giving levels, proposal timelines and more. Fundraising is still my primary responsibility but the tenor of the work has shifted because this work of worry is now shared.

And it is in this sharing that the nature of the worry changes. Instead of being an almost invisible responsibility all my own, one that knocks loudly in the middle of the night, it has become more integrated in the overall culture and flow of the organization. It is not just mine, it is ours, just like the overall mission and the program work are ours. We still face cash flow problems that make me uneasy but sharing the work of worry has changed my attitude and my ability to function in the midst of it all.

4 Comments to 3.17 Sharing the Work of Worry

  1. March 17, 2011 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Claudia; nice post. Part of this sharing is acknowledging to others that you don’t know all the answers (or even know all the right questions), which is humbling. Indeed, there are times when sharing your concerns with donors — in a selective way — can be very powerful. “We need to diversify our income,” said the fundraiser to the donor. “You know a lot about our group — what do you think our best opportunities are?”

    As the old cliche goes, “If you want advice, ask for money. If you want money, ask for advice.” I don’t suggest doing this in a manipulative way, but rather with transparency and (yes) humility.

  2. March 20, 2011 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Andy for the comment. You are so right on. This kind of humility is quite a road to walk. When we hit a severe financial crisis last fall we were very honest, particularly with our individual donors. And we recently shared our entire restructuring proposal with a prospective funder while a grant was pending because they expressed concern about our financial health. It felt good to respond with this level of transparency and we got the grant!

  3. March 21, 2011 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    Thank you. I’ve been feeling the same way for about the same amount of time. Often robbing Peter to pay Paul then playing “catch up” It isn’t fun! All the best.

  4. March 21, 2011 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    The reality is two-fold: (1) Anyone worth their salt in philanthropy knows that many folks are struggling financially and (2) most folks really appreciate authenticity. This doesn’t mean endless or mindless sharing. It just means we can find ways to communicate our reality with integrity and in a way that motivates more support.

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