The nonprofit sector is changing at such an alarming rate, even those of us that do the work of social change day in and day out cannot keep abreast of all of the economic, political, and environmental trends affecting our field. In the midst of layoffs, program cuts, and fundraising concerns, most of us would rather stick our heads in the sand rather than face the fact that there’s no more business as usual. Most of us freak out in the face of change, even going so far as to change careers when the going gets too tough. Especially when it comes to Generation Y, we have to wonder whether our youthful passion for change gets overshadowed by the sheer and utter difficulty of the work we thought we so desperately wanted to do. I know my peers, and I have to admit that there is some truth to Baby Boomers’ complaints that we don’t stay in jobs very long. Where is our resilience?

Merriam-Webster tells us that to be resilient means

a) capable of withstanding shock without permanent deformation or rupture or
b) tending to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.

In short, being resilient means that we have the ability to bounce back from crisis like an elastic rubber band. But how do we cultivate resilience when all day long we’re putting out one fire after another?

Learn From New Experiences

Maxine Dalton writes about the importance of developing strategies to learn how to adapt to changing circumstances. Our experiences with change can be either rewarding or unpleasant, but we can be intentional about how we react to them. Dalton suggests four key ways to prepare to deal with challenges and ultimately become more effective learners.

  1. Take Action: Try learning how to do a new task through trial and error versus research or a how-to book or class
  2. Think: Gather data about a new situation by reflecting on past experiences, imagining likely outcomes or scenarios of a possible decision
  3. Feel: Develop personal strategies for managing with your fear or discomfort that results in experiencing something new or unfamiliar
  4. Access Others: Seek advice or instruction from others who have been in a similar situation or use another person as a model or example for what you need to figure out
  5. Develop a Spiritual Practice No matter if you meditate or practice an organized religion, the crux of your spiritual practice can serve to make you stronger if it helps you to focus on your core purpose in life. I love how Oprah defines spirituality for herself and how it comforts her in times of uncertainty:
    When you begin to realize that you are more than your body, that your purpose is greater than your profession or your career—that every life, because you were born you have a right to be here and there is a calling on your life—it means you live your life without fear and you know that no matter what happens, no matter what happens, you are going to be all right. You are going to be all right. That’s what spirituality is for me.
    Fail Upward Sometimes we think we have failed, when in fact all we’re doing is being true to ourselves. I remember when I heard the news that Darian Rodriguez had resigned as Executive Director of the Craigslist Foundation, I was sad. Until I heard that he was going to travel all around the world for six months. Talk about awesome. Most people don’t just up and go fly around the world, so undoubtedly that was something he had always wanted to do. Some might say that Darian gave up, that he failed because he left the organization - not so. There’s a big difference between failing and failing upward. When you fail upward, you give yourself permission to follow your joy, even if it means you’ll screw up every now and then. This month’s Oprah magazine quotes Robert Mack from his book, Happiness From the Inside Out: The Art and Science of Fulfillment:
    All great champions, most of whom are optimists, have become great because of-not in spite of-great adversity. Michael Jordan, a perennial optimist, once said, “I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game’s winning shot…and missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.’ If ever there was a case for optimism, this is it.
    Take a Vacation Paul Schmitz, CEO of Public Allies talks about the importance of taking a vacation, even in the midst of the hectic pace of nonprofit work. Paul believes that taking time off helps him to be a stronger nonprofit CEO:
    I believe that the balance I try to strike makes me more effective. I have had some of my best insights and strategies emerge when I have been away from the office and unplugged from the day to day. And a good vacation brings me back energized and feeling excited to be back.
    The inconvenient reality for nonprofit leaders is that there will be no going back to the “old days.” There will be no return to normality after the recession is over. We have to find ways to become better and stronger while we work with less resources and more demand. The good news is that we have done this before, as Barbara Kingslover puts it so beautifully in High Tide in Tucson:
    Every one of us is called upon, probably many times, to start a new life. A frightening diagnosis, a marriage, a move, loss of a job. And onward full tilt we go, pitched and wrecked and absurdly resolute, driven in spite of everything to make good on a new shore. To be hopeful, to embrace one possibility after another - that is surely the basic instinct . . . Crying out: High tide! Time to move out into the glorious debris. Time to take this life for what it is.
    We must strive to become as resilient as possible if we are going to be able to strengthen our organizations in times of uncertainty. Our communities need the kind of leaders that will stay the course of social change, even after being knocked down and out. Even when the rules of the game change right before our very eyes. Even when the going gets so tough we just feel like giving up and going to work for corporate America. How do YOU maintain your resilience and strength as a nonprofit leader?
    imageRosetta Thurman is an emerging nonprofit leader of color working and living in the Washington, D.C. area.  She holds a Master’s degree in Nonprofit Management and blogs about nonprofit leadership and management issues at Perspectives From the Pipeline.