Professional Development and Support: Oxygen for the Nonprofit Leader


Anyone who has taken a commercial flight is familiar with the routine that flight staff runs through just before takeoff: here are the emergency exits; flotation devices, and in the event of emergency, an oxygen mask will drop down in front of you… If you’re traveling with someone who may depend on you for help, you’re instructed to first apply the mask to yourself – then help the person that’s in your charge – in that order.

It’s pretty obvious why you should take care of yourself first. You’ll need oxygen in order to see your dependent through what could be a life-threatening event. But if you can’t breathe, well…

You can apply this same scenario to the longer-term success of nonprofit CEOs, especially since the very nature of the job involves dealing with a variety of “emergency” issues on a regular basis. Nonprofit CEOs need “oxygen” in the form of support and professional development in order to drive their organization. But a nonprofit leader will often put others and the organization before their own professional and health interests in the name of morale and fiscal conservation. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the nonprofit sector has a high burnout rate among CEO’s.

Among the causes of nonprofit CEO burnout, lack of support and a feeling of isolation are at the top. Lack of support can come in the form of inadequate staffing or ineffective board members. Isolation is often brought on by the feeling that CEOs think that they’re “supposed to know everything about everything” – and that can often be a very real expectation. That’s why it’s important for nonprofit leaders to advocate for themselves and ensure that they receive proper training and support.

IMG_0433A popular Danosky & Associates programs, LEAP (Leadership Enrichment for Advancing Professionals), brings nonprofit leaders together for a series of workshops focused on crucial aspects of running a successful organization: finance, fundraising, communications, leadership, board development, organizational development. Many of the leaders who have participated in this program have described it as a “lifeline.” One commented that “It’s so nice to be in the room with other CEOs and Executive Directors to receive knowledge that’s specifically geared to the nonprofit leader, and to hear that my colleagues are experiencing some of the same issues. I don’t feel so alone in my role anymore.”

One of the longer-term benefits of the LEAP program is that participants will often form their own network of support that lasts long after the program is completed. Guy Rovezzi, President and CEO of Northwest Connecticut Community Foundation, has supported the LEAP program from its inception. “LEAP keeps the same group together throughout the program so they can develop a sense of trust and an ability to communicate with each other that is comfortable,” he said. “Many have kept in touch to form a supportive network of peers following completion of the LEAP program.” One LEAP participant said, “even as we speak, I am applying the concepts I learned during LEAP, and it is my hope to build on the relationships I established with my cohorts.”

The Stanford Social Innovation Review acknowledges the value of nonprofit leaders having opportunities for “white space” – time dedicated to stepping away and gaining knowledge and support in the spirit of professional and personal development. Local community foundations like Northwest Connecticut Community Foundation, the Community Foundation of Greater New Britain, the Connecticut Community Foundation and others appreciate the value of nonprofit leader professional development and well-being. They work with consultants to develop these kinds of programs, and often offer scholarship opportunities for those who don’t have the budget.

As we write this, many of you are at the start of a new fiscal year – planning another year of life-saving services to those in need. But it can also be a time of renewal. Advocate for yourself and work your own well-being into your annual plan. It is just as important as the services you provide. It is the “oxygen” that will provide you the strength and drive to keep moving forward.

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