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Social Sector Leaders Need Oxygen by Martha Lasley


Leaders in the social sector feel as though they are climbing Everest with no oxygen, no rest stops, and no base camp.


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. Leaders in the social sector feel as though they are climbing Everest with no oxygen, no rest stops, and no base camp.

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 nonprofit consulting.

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 instanceFree Articles, funding for leadership development training and capacity building within grantee organizations has been almost non-existent until recently.

Source: Free Articles from


As a certified trainer in Nonviolent Communication, Martha and her team at offer Coaching Program in Toronto, San Francisco and New York.

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