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NGO Leaders: Be Less Sisyphus & More Surfer

Stephen Balkam

Originally published by Stephen Balkam on LinkedIn: NGO Leaders: Be Less Sisyphus & More Surfer

It’s often said that running a non-profit organization is like pushing a boulder up a hill. 

I’ve been guilty of using that metaphor and it certainly feels that way at times. We NGO’s take on large, ambitious and, at times, daunting missions from alleviating poverty to cleaning up the environment to finding a cure for cancer.

These and many, many more are laudable and highly valuable goals to strive for. Its just that the forces of inertia, resistance and donor fatigue seem to conspire to thwart our best efforts, leaving us like Sisyphus – forever rolling our rock uphill, only to see it fall back down on us. 

Our boulder or burden is the seemingly endless need to raise funds while also raising awareness of our cause or mission.  And, of course, delivering services to our members, users or the object of our core purpose, like cleaning the Chesapeake or saving the whales.   While doing all that, we must also lead a staff team, manage a board, speak to the media and testify to Congress. To mix metaphors even further, it’s a lot like spinning plates while walking a tight rope, which is also on fire. 

All of this struggle is what lies at the root of burnout amongst many in the world of charity management. Some argue that the purpose of a non-profit organization is to be so successful, that it no longer needs to be in business. That you have managed to conquer the personal or societal or environmental problem that you set out to address. And, in some rare cases, that is what happens. And the charity simply declares victory and closes its doors. 

For the most part, however, NGOs simply scratch the surface of a problem and cannot in their wildest dreams see a day when their work will be done or their mission completed.  There will always be more to serve or pain to alleviate. In the work of my own organization, the mission of making the online world safer for kids and their families is set in a world of exponential technological change that shows no signs of slowing. 

In other words, more and higher mountains to climb while simultaneously pushing a large round object skywards.

But there might be a more helpful image that we could use. One that is less fatalistic and might even provide a cure to the onset of personal and professional meltdown. 

Think of yourself as a surfer. You take your board (get it?) and you paddle out to sea. You keep your eyes peeled to the horizon, watching the water swell and fall. You feel that movement below you and move to take advantage of the best waves and the direction they are heading. And, seeing a promising breaker, you turn on a dime, kick like crazy and then stand up.  

You lean in, take a position and guide your board to take the maximum advantage of the swell that is carrying you towards shore. If you’re not careful or you take too big of a risk, you’ll wipe out. No worries. You’ve attached yourself to your surfboard with a line, so you gather it up and head back out to sea to try your luck again.

And, every now and then, you’ll hit just the right conditions of wind and surf, and you get to ride a big one all the way to the beach. But rather than being done, you cast off once more to try your luck (and skills) again. The waves - like your organization’s issues - will never stop crashing on to the shore.

What I like about this image is the sheer joy and exhilaration that it conjures up. Sure you’re at risk of falling, getting towed under and even being separated from your board. But it emphasizes vision and expertise and serendipity all coming together to give you the ride of your life.  

And it sure beats starting each day with a mountain to climb.

So next time you feel like you have a Sisyphean task on your hands, cast your mind to some warm Pacific coastline, feel the sun on your back and the sound of gulls in the air. And remind yourself of the immortal words credited to Woody Allan: “80% of success is just showing up.”

Show up. Paddle out. And ride the next one.