Writer’s Block: The Nonprofit Equivalent

Full disclosure: The blog post you are reading almost didn’t happen. Like most people, there are times where I can come down with a nasty case of writer’s block, and I was stricken by a particularly acute onset this time.

After staring at a blank screen and typing and retyping a single sentence for nearly 45 minutes, I was ready to give up. I put my head in my hands and closed my eyes to think. Then my wife walked into the kitchen where I had relocated, hoping a change of scenery might help.

“What’s wrong?”

“Writer’s block. Can’t think of anything to write for my blog post.”

“Write about that.”

“About what?”

“About your writer’s block. What is the nonprofit equivalent of writer’s block? Write about that.”

It struck me that what had transpired in a casual interaction in our family kitchen was in some ways the work of Armstrong McGuire in a nutshell: We partner, we listen, and we help provide a new angle and unique perspective on the issues you face as board, staff, and organization.

My wife is not a nonprofit practitioner. She has spent her entire career in healthcare. But in that moment, she helped me see what I could not see in the thick of the work: That a challenge or barrier is sometimes just an opportunity unrealized.

So back to her initial question. What is the nonprofit equivalent of writer’s block? Here are few things that immediately come to mind:

  • Paralysis by Analysis: For many organizations, the overwhelming demand for services can lead to exhaustion and strained bandwidth. Board, staff, and leadership can feel bogged down in a morass of competing demands for time, attention, and resources. What can transpire is a seemingly endless spiral of meetings, emails, and phone calls to make sense of where you are on the map and what new direction is needed. It’s in those moments that an outside perspective is most needed, to facilitate conversation and chart the best path forward.
  • Mission Creep: As nonprofit professionals, we are wired to roll up our sleeves, dive in, and help. That drive is noble but can be distracting and ineffective if not kept between the guardrails of a clear and concise mission statement. When crafting or revising an organizational mission or vision statement, the challenge is not what to add but what to leave out. It’s easy for a leader or a board to continuously add an extra phrase, clause, sentence, or even entire paragraph when what is most needed is less, not more. Let’s call this one “editor’s block.”
  • The Siren’s Song of the Status Quo: My colleague Staci Barfield recently wrote on this: “What Got Us Here Will Not Get Us There.” It is human nature to yearn for the known. We are creatures of habit and since our organizations are just a collection of individuals, it makes sense that there can be a collective pull to sticking to what has always worked, the tried and true. However, much as the alignment of your vehicle will falter over time, the long-standing direction of your organization could be leading you to a ditch without regular reflection, measurement, and realignment. What got you here may not be the thing that gets you to where you need to be as a nonprofit.

Don’t let your organization contract an acute or chronic case of nonprofit writer’s block. Get up, move around, and always reflect on where you have been and where you are headed. But, most importantly, reach out to others for a different perspective. You’ll be surprised at what you learn.

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