In my 30s, I had a job that I loved and hated at the same time. It was like Charles Dickens’ “Tale of Two Cities” novel: It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.
After just a few years of working in this nonprofit, I found myself in charge of operations, fundraising, staff and volunteers. So, basically everything. I was giving my all since I genuinely believed in our mission.
For an organization that preached family first and healthy life choices, it had a very opposite culture for those of us who worked there: long hours, low pay, high expectations and, perhaps the most grievous, little appreciation.
After six years of hard work, millions of dollars in fundraising and a 30% average annual growth for six years, I walked away.
I didn't walk away from the mission, the work, the people or even the crazy hours. I walked away because I felt unappreciated and defeated. No matter how much I got done, I would never do enough to get a pat on the back and "you're doing a great job" from my boss.
Board members were oblivious to my struggle, and it was not until I had left that some of them reached out and asked me why I left.
When I left, I decided not to be in that situation again.
Over the years, I have learned to put boundaries in place. I do small things like not pushing emails to my phone during the evenings and keeping my computer away from my living space to "walk away" from work when working from home.
But the most significant change I made was to not tolerate unhealthy, toxic cultures or relationships for the sake of a cause I believed in or a job I liked.
For years I would sit quietly and let others disrespect me in exchange for peace and less confrontation.
But I didn't know how much internal damage those exchanges caused until I was depleted and ready to quit.
And it wasn’t just internal damage to my own mental, physical and emotional health.
Unhealthy dynamics and the burnout and resentment that follow can poison an entire organization – even one with an incredible mission.
You cannot run a healthy organization with an unhealthy culture.
The most important decision I made is that no mission, no vision, no amount of "good" is enough when it means inviting toxic dynamics into my work.
I remember vividly the day that decision made a huge impact on my life.
It was early in the days of The A Group, the marketing and web development company I founded, I pursued a very large contract that would establish us as a strong player in the technology field, and things were looking great.
Until the day the owner passed the baton to his daughter.
What was a great beginning began to feel difficult. Meetings went from amicable to combative. I saw the bullying pattern emerge: “You need me, “You don't have what it takes,” “If you want this deal, it will be on my terms.”
And yet, she was willing to sign a contract with my company. I justified it in my mind, telling myself that this was for the company's future and that I had worked with difficult people before and could make this work.
The day we were to close on the project, as we walked through the agreement, I had flashbacks to those six difficult years and saw myself walking into the same situation, just with a different person.
I still can't believe what happened. I got very calm. I spoke softly but firmly, and I said, "I don't think we are a good fit for you. I don't think we can make you happy. We are not doing this deal."
She came undone. She shifted from passive-aggressive and dismissive into total meltdown to the point of losing her "Christianity" and even calling me names and saying, "How dare you!"
It was the right thing to do. But I almost went through with it.
You might be struggling with feeling unappreciated, under-compensated or both. You might have a donor who bullies you or wants too much control in exchange for a large gift, a board member who is rude and dismissive or a boss or employee who is great at what they do but drags the whole culture down. And your justification might be something like, "I love this cause, and I will put up with it if it’s good for the organization.”
But is it really good for the organization? Do you have sense of purpose and unity among your team, or is everyone stressed, walking on eggshells, waiting for the next difficult phone call or demand? Are you able to do good work and accomplish your mission or are you limited by fear of criticism, losing your job or withheld funds? Is your heart in it, or are you bogged down with conflict, resentment and negative energy?
So, why did I write this post? Because I believe in you, and I know you’re doing a great job, even if you feel underappreciated. I believe in your mission too, and I don’t want you to get burned out and stop doing this important work for good, or see your organization crumble because of internal strife.
People don't give up on a mission. They give up on the organization.
Are there unhealthy dynamics that need to change in your organization? Are you allowing toxic habits or people to stay because of a larger cause? Is there a situation you need to take control of to protect your soul and the soul of the organization before it’s too late?
It’s up to you to break the unhealthy pattern and find the freedom to do your best work while loving your life.