Avoiding Leadership Fatigue – The Measure of Fundraising Success

By Avrum Lapin

Leadership fatigue is experienced by many in leadership positions, CEOs, football coaches, spiritual leaders, or Campaign Chairs. The energy and effort required to be an effective leader is exhausting, mentally, emotionally and physically. There are often points where frustrations mount and things get tiring and seemingly insurmountable, requiring leaders to step back, reflect, and recharge. However, there can be a time when the leadership fatigue reaches the point when it effects the core of organization, the project, the campaign.

Many capital campaigns or other fundraising projects start out strong, with the leaders enthusiastic about working hard and staying focused on their goals, only to have been stymied by distractions leading to leadership fatigue. Successful leaders work through these issues. However, in many instances leaders have had difficulty pushing through the mental and organizational obstacles to reach the end.

Leadership v. Management: In order to be effective, a strong leader must recognize the difference between leadership and management. Leaders think broadly and seek innovation, crossing traditional lines (within ‘best practices’) to try new things and attempt creative approaches and solutions … Just because it hasn’t been done this way before, doesn’t mean it won’t work, or that it will not be effective.

A leader assesses the capacities of his/her team – other leaders and managers alike – and ensures that everyone’s talents are being utilized in the strongest way for the good of the project and for the satisfaction of all involved. Conversely, a strong manager, also a fundamental player in organizational and campaign success, sees the moving parts of the activity, and makes sure that all are in sync.

While they travel in separate “lanes,” the effective interplay of leaders and managers is important, and essential to campaign success, and critical to avoiding leadership fatigue and burn out.

Recognizing the Signs: When in the thick of a project, it might be hard to recognize when fatigue becomes a factor. Initial excitement wanes, and frustration is incremental and not immediately noticeable. Focus and motivation are lost, clear signs that things may soon go “off the rails.” People follow leaders, so Campaign leaders need to show enthusiasm for their project; and motivate and show support for their team. Without the cohesion and rallying point of a central force, projects can lag or worse, fall apart. Leaders lacking excitement and motivation should step back and ask themselves if they simply need a break or a new perspective. Leaders need to be able to clearly express not only the case or proposition for the campaign, but also confidence and engagement.

Prevention: “Our fatigue is often caused not by work, but by worry, frustration and resentment.” – Dale Carnegie

This quote illustrates that often it is not the actual work that is causing the problem, but rather other factors connected to the process. Creating or facing seemingly unattainable objectives can lead to frustration and resentment on the part of both the leaders and leadership teams. Many of these impediments can be avoided by thoughtful planning and effective framing of leadership roles. It is important for the entire committee to set realistic goals that are achievable.

Creating working groups where delegation and shared responsibility are part of the fabric of the project will also prevent much frustration and stress. Also, successful projects or capital campaigns should be segmented into manageable chunks, so there are smaller, more attainable goals and milestones along the way. The key to success is often adopting the “series of sprints” mindset. Seeing the project as a sum of its parts that are shared by many will make the effort more understandable, enable it to run smoother, and give leadership important tools it needs to effectively lead.

Combating Fatigue: In March of this year, Johnson & Johnson has launched the Premier Executive Leadership, a $100,000 per person program designed to prevent leadership fatigue. They see this as an investment in leaders who are valuable assets to the company. Though nonprofits probably do not have the resources to enroll in this program, there are steps to make sure that total burnout does not happen.

One of the key components of the Johnson and Johnson program, explains David Astorino, one of the program’s executive coaches, is having a mission. “This program’s belief is you have to be motivated by something bigger than yourself. We help them define what their purpose is.” Nonprofits have a leg up in this area, as the nonprofit’s mission itself helps to define purpose and meaning. Reminding leaders of the meaning and how their work will impact the community and the lives of others.

With careful planning, and a good roadmap, it might be possible to adjust and refocus leadership efforts. The most direct action is delegation of responsibilities for planning and execution. Heaping all of the responsibilities on one person can be overpowering. Many people in leadership positions think that they are capable of handing large tasks, but find later that the responsibilities are too taxing and overwhelming.

Remember that capital campaigns are led by those with other life responsibilities – running businesses and professional duties, family obligations, and other community work. Building an effective and cohesive team allowing the chair to off-load key tasks to other team members can help to move the project forward, relieve some pressure at the top, and enable the chair to lead and inspire more and manage less.

Another solution may be to always re-evaluate and be ready to re-prioritize tasks and assignments. Perhaps not all of the work needs to be done at once and shifting focus and attention to more immediate assignments will ease tensions and stress.

Creative solutions also come into play. If a campaign is stalling as leaders are getting tired of the campaign cycle, it might be good to change things up. This might be time to add in a fun element to the campaign such as a volunteer appreciation lunch or an outing for leadership to meet with a similar organization that has had recent success. Sometimes a bit of a mental break along can make all of difference.

Leader BurnOutWhat Next?: Though leaders and leadership teams might do their best to prevent these situations, once leadership fatigue sets in, it might be hard to reverse the course. The worst scenario is if it becomes contagious and the fatigue affects a wider circle of volunteer and professional personnel.

This may be the point when a change in leadership is necessary. If the Campaign Chair no longer shows enthusiasm or inspires others, there is a real danger that the entire project may derail. Expanding the team by appointing a Co-Chair or a Campaign Completion Chair, is often an answer.

Bringing in someone else, a person with great leadership potential – like a closer who enters the game in the 9th inning to strike out the last two batters – is often, like on the baseball diamond, in the best interest of the organization. In the event that this happens, it is important that there is a smooth transition and the mission is preserved through the change.

This may also be the time to enlist outside help. Seeing the issues from a fresh perspective may help to invigorate the project and breathe new life into the organization. Enlisting outside help, even after the start of the campaign, can support leadership and help to re-right the ship. If new leadership is needed, an outsider can gently offer the suggestion without offense or in-fighting. New ideas and new eyes might be all that is needed to get back on track.

Some of the best solutions are reached through communication and comfort with a little vulnerability. Strong leaders will ask for help and work together as team. Projects that are approached collaboratively with community buy-in have a better chance for success. If leaders are exhausted and burnt out from doing work that they love, then the community, the campaign, and the end product will suffer. Knowing that the project will take time, with successes and set-backs will help to set the framework.

In conclusion, to forestall and minimize leadership fatigue consider the following:

  • Let leaders be leaders, and the managers be managers. They are distinct functions and are both essential to achieving goals;
  • Make sure that your vision, goals, and objectives are well thought out, clearly understood, and attainable. Unclear or seemingly insurmountable goals lead to frustration and burn-out;
  • Have a Master Plan so that all of the goals and tasks – regardless of who among the team members is supposed to do them – connect sequentially and are set up to get things done;
  • Always be ready to re-evaluate and re-prioritize tasks and assignments; and
  • Be prepared to expand the leadership corps and to bring in a “closer.”

My colleagues and I are interested in your experiences. Let us know what you are thinking.

Avrum Lapin is President at The Lapin Group, LLC, based in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, a full-service fundraising and management consulting firm for nonprofits. The Lapin Group inspires and leads US-based and international nonprofits seeking fund, organizational, leadership, and business development solutions, offering contemporary and leading-edge approaches and strategies. A Board member of the Giving Institute and a member of the Editorial Review Board of Giving USA, Avrum is a frequent contributor to eJewishPhilanthropy.com and speaker in the US and in Israel on opportunities and challenges in today’s nonprofit marketplace.

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