Is it You, or Is It Them? When Giving … Costs Too Much

On a family vacation last summer, I made it a ritual to walk by myself (sans my young boys and husband) on the beach every day. On day four or five, a storm was predicted, but I didn’t want to give up my new habit, so I went anyway. Not a soul was on the beach. The clouds were low, heavy and grey and the tide was the lowest I had ever seen on any beach. The water line had receded about 50 meters from the day before. To reach the water, you’d have to walk a good 100 meters from the pier that brought you to the sand. I began my walk, trying to focus my mind on positive thoughts, on sorting out my priorities after vacation, etc. I quickly got distracted and began lamenting how this particular beach hadn’t yielded a single shell, shark-tooth or sand-dollar during our entire stay … when I came across a conch shell. Perfectly intact, it lay midway between where I was walking and the water line. I walked over, excited to get this shell, planning to proudly deliver it to my kids, only to find out that it still had a living resident. The tide had washed it ashore and there was no way it would make it back to the water. I walked the extra distance until my feet were in the water and threw it in as far as I could muster.

Onward with my walk. As I threw my second and third conch in, the starfish parable came to mind. I’d only heard this parable a few years ago, when I was deliberating staying at my corporate job … or taking a pay cut and a sharp turn in my career, to run a fledgling nonprofit. My wise old friend told me the parable after I shared my angst about not being able to help enough, not making enough of an impact … and having it consume me as I tried. Anyway — that parable has stuck with me ever since and is apparently well known by anyone who is involved in the nonprofit life for any length of time. If you’d like to read the parable, here it is.

In 2013, I accepted that nonprofit job. For the first two years, it was the most rewarding and challenging job I had ever had. Having served some years in the military, it was like that — the calm satisfaction of serving something more than my own needs. I had a great team, we had a great culture, we laughed, we cried, we helped many and we celebrated our wins … then moved on to bigger, harder problems. For a time, I thought that my life was back on track — my days filled with service to others, using every ounce of experience I’d ever had in leadership, finance, HR, marketing, sales, operations, metrics, databases, etc. I was in my favorite kind of role — as a smoke-jumper. A role not appealing to most, nebulous, ill-defined, riddled with process/people challenges, carrying more risk than reward, consuming you at a rate faster than “normal” jobs. I took on the Executive Director role proudly wearing my scars from prior tough jobs.

The life of a nonprofit leader is different from most other leadership roles and yet … after two and a half years, my personal end-result was the same. I was tired to the core, I had neglected all the parts of my life that brought me joy (reading, exercise, friends, family, planning the future, vacations, and on and on) and minor issues in my personal life began screaming for attention and nurturing.

I could go into detail speculating about why the turnover rate of nonprofit leaders (especially ones from other industries) is so high, sharing potential root-causes such as:

1) An antiquated model of a volunteer, part-time board of directors managing a paid, professional leader and team

2) The scope-creep encouraged by donors who are generous, but whose expectations need regular calibration

3) The built-in understaffing of enabling functions (HR, Finance, IT, etc.) — all of which fall mostly on the Executive Director

4) The pervasiveness of Founder’s Syndrome in newer nonprofits and the power struggle that occurs as a result of ill-defined roles, responsibilities and governance

5) The tremendous amount of duplicity and noise in the nonprofit community and

6) The constant pressure to “find new donors” above all else

All of that is what I saw up close and personal in the three-plus years I spent in and around that small nonprofit. Having spent a year of introspection away from the “rat-race,” today, I would say that these factors were not the whole story behind my choice to leave my role.

I’m no stranger to being the smoke-jumper, or to burning out, or to immediately taking on jobs that are even harder, even less defined and more demanding, with the optimism of a kindergartner wearing her new outfit to school on the first day. “The upside is infinite!” has been my mantra for oh, so many years — and it’s served me extremely well.

Back to the conch shell, though. At Kiawah, on that beach, on that day … with no one around, with tens of these fist-sized living snails littering the low-tide beach, I found myself throwing one in, after the other … diverting my walk, throwing as hard as I could. It’s at that moment … as I was throwing my 10th or 15th one in, that the parable came back to me, my experience at the nonprofit came back to me … and so did the raw feelings I had around the decision I’d made some 6 months ago, to resign and start my own business, to stop being someone else’s employee, perhaps forever.

I started to reflect on the commonalities between each of my transitions (and there have been many over the past 20+ years). What if, I asked myself … what if I picked up this snail … walked it in, threw as hard as possible and actually hurt my shoulder in the process? Whose fault would it be? The snail didn’t ask to be saved. My picking it up and throwing it 30–40 meters into the water in no way assured that this snail wouldn’t wash right back up, get baked in the sun the next day and die, anyway.

What was the right amount of give in this situation? Was it like the starfish parable: Save as many as you can, one at a time? Or do we sometimes have a distorted view of our ability to help — and of what is reasonable to give up in return? We all have triggers. We all have hard-wired work-ethics, values and views from the summation of our life’s experiences. But, at what point do we need to examine what really works to move us forward towards what we want to achieve, towards living the life we want? I’ve had several a-ha moments over this past year. That day on the beach made me confident of my choice to own, run and fight for my own business. It also made me reflect and put to rest the “why?” around some of my choices and outcomes.

The next time you are unhappy, take a moment or a few days, to define the root cause of your unhappiness. Do you really know what is expected of you, at work, in your marriage, wherever you spend time? It really could be you and your expectations … but you are the easiest to fix … and you will have the rest of your life to enjoy the benefits. 2017 is my year of giving grace to myself. Here’s my take on all of this. Save all the starfish you can, but don’t dislocate your shoulder or drown doing it.

There is a perfect cause for each of us, that doesn’t consume us as we give.

Is what you’re giving to your professional life balanced with what you are getting from it?

If it isn’t, why not?

Is it you?

Is it the work?

Is it the culture?

Do you have a long-game in mind?


Cindi Basenspiler provides leadership and success coaching to individuals and teams facing their biggest challenges. Customized programs hold clients accountable for forming strong systems, processes and habits. Are you considering hiring a coach to help you navigate a challenge, to become a better you? To get more information, visit my website.