Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Is it a big mess, or is it progress?

I'm here at my desk, with my second cup of high test coffee, looking at the proliferation of papers piled up everywhere. Yesterday was a busy day and today will be, too. While others who come in here would see a mess, I see progress. I set up fifteen trade shows yesterday, which is a lot, but I don't mean that kind of progress. What I see when I look at this is me, taking back control of my work life. Things had slipped for a little while there, during the time when I was trying to keep the non-profit I co-founded moving forward without losing control of my professional or personal lives. Really, what happened was I lost control of every last damn thing except the non-profit, but I was bound and determined that I would finish what I started.

Two friends and I founded the non-profit together five years ago and since then, it hasn't been easy to manage my time, especially because the darn thing took off like a rocket. Right out of the gate it steadily continued to grow and evolve, which was great. The only problem was, my available time didn't grow or evolve along with it. The more it grew, the more it sucked up my time and energy.

So what exactly what I doing for the non-profit that was sucking up so much time? Well, everything, pretty much. Cleaning the office (once we had an office, for the first three years we worked out of borrowed space), setting up files, recruiting, training and deploying volunteers, writing proposals, updating donors, drafting policies and procedures, lots and lots of support to the Board, and, of course, running programs, projects and activities.

What had started out as three mom's wanting to try to do "something" quickly grew into a brick-and-mortar agency that required a heck of a lot more than part-time moms to staff it. As the organization's first Executive Director, I felt like I was racing the clock all the time, trying to build things up and create enough structure to attract the kind of funding we needed to hire a real staff, while at the same time trying to pace myself so I didn't implode in the process.

It was, hands down, the hardest thing I've ever done. But it is also the most significant thing I've ever been privileged to be a part of. Nothing can compare to the feeling you get from helping people who have been exploited, abused or marginalized take their personal power back. It was worth all of the heartache, headaches and sleepless nights. I learned a lot about governance, policy development, bookkeeping and non-profit management best practices. But I learned even more from our clients, who taught me about resilience, humility and dignity in the face of crisis. They let me into their lives during some of their darkest hours and most private moments, which has been an honor beyond measure.

When I came into this, let's just say I knew a great deal about our future clients and their needs, which was what drove me to do this in the first place, but nothing at all about non-profits and how they operate: I had never even volunteered in one before. All I knew was that somebody had to do something, and that "somebody" was going to be me. I knew how to run a business from my restaurant management days, so I just jumped in and came at things from the perspective of all the restaurant maxims I'd ever learned. "If you got time to lean, you got time to clean," "FIFO (first in, first out)" and "Keep their drinks filled, and they won't mind waiting." So, I kept moving, dealt with whatever had to be dealt with as soon as it cropped up, and tried to give everyone just enough attention and appreciation that they wouldn't feel abandoned if they had to wait for me to get back to them. 

As we moved from a loosely organized group into something more business like, we had our share our growing pains. Everybody, it seemed, wanted to be a General, but no one wanted to be a foot soldier. When all the oars in the water are pulling in different directions, all you do is go around in circles and I guess you could say we circled the harbor more than once. This was maddening, to say the least, but it was part of the process of finding our way forward and I took it in stride as best I could (although there were more than a few melt downs, I must say). 

Finally, after five years of growth and having overcome multiple challenges, the Board finally decided it was ready to hire a "real" employee. They began putting feelers out, prepared to have the process take months, and were pleasantly surprised to find their ideal candidate in one of the first people they interviewed. In two days time, she will take over as Executive Director and for the first time in six years, I will have free time again (insert angels on harps here).

So as I sit here, surrounded by papers, I'm feeling good because for the first time in a long time, I can really concentrate on what I'm supposed to be doing, without my mind racing in fifteen different directions all at once. I'm looking forward to going home at night and cooking dinner, to having time to do big projects at home that I've been putting off (cleaning out closets, reorganizing the pantry, painting the hallway). I will still be able to volunteer at the non-profit, working on the projects that interest me most, but without having to give up every second of my life to do it. I'll also finally have time for things I've always wanted to do, like writing.

I'm proud of myself for a lot of reasons. First and foremost, that I had the opportunity to be a part of the non-profit and for being one of the three amazing women who founded it. I'm proud that I hung in there, no matter what, which took courage and determination and an ability to sacrifice that I didn't even know I had. I'm also proud that I had the strength to stand my ground and do what had to be done, even when it was unpleasant, or unpopular, to keep us on course. Most of all, I'm proud that my son is proud of me, and of the non-profit I helped create. He now volunteers there, too.

I guess you could say the moral to this story is sometimes, progress happening looks like a big mess. The important thing is to keep your focus on the big picture and keep on trucking. Pretty soon, the big mess resolves itself into something wonderful. That said, I'm off to set up a few more trade shows.

My messy but productive desk

To see the other wonderful "mess" in my life (ie, the non-profit), click here.

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