Recently, I have been writing about finding people or letting people into your organization and team: board members, volunteers, interns and student research groups. Finding the right people and making newcomers welcome is really important. But timely goodbyes are equally important. We all know this is sometimes hard. But every time you say goodbye, you grow a little. Every time you move on, you grow. And you give your organization a chance to grow, too, by making space for new perspectives, talents and ideas.
Nonprofit culture – dedication
Nonprofits are working for a greater good and very often attract people who find that greater good much more important than the smaller good of daily life. People who will place work above almost anything else in their life because it is for such a vital cause. People who will willingly work evenings and weekends and days off because their work is too crucial to wait and cannot possibly be done by someone else. In most nonprofits I know, 9-to-5 is just a Dolly Parton song without relevance to the start and end of their workday.
Nonprofit culture – family
Nonprofit teams are spending so much time together, often under pressure and under extraordinary circumstances. They are bound so strongly by a shared dedication to the cause that very often a family-like atmosphere evolves. Team members know a lot about each other’s personal lives, and increasingly become part of that personal life. Friendships are forged. The atmosphere in the office is informal and full of inside jokes. There is a sense of one for all and all for one.
How can you leave your family?
In such situation, teams often put much pressure on people who decide to leave. After all, you don’t walk out on your family, do you? That is just not done! And what about The Cause? Isn’t that important enough to stay for? Very often, team members are in real shock when someone announces their departure from the organization. And very often they put pressure on the person trying to make them change their decision to go and to stay instead. I have seen that years later team members would continue asking the person to return.
Indeed, one does not leave one’s family
If you want to nurture a professional and resilient nonprofit you must know that your organization is not a family and you are not Don Corleone as its top dog. You don’t want to head a team where people are typecast in a specific role in which they inevitably get stuck. Leading to grudges and cynicism. Resulting in an atmosphere where ‘we always do this in this way’ becomes the norm in conversations with newcomers. Instead, you will want to head a renewing bunch of enthusiasts that get better at every turn trying new angles and options where possible. And in order to make that so, you yourself will also have to leave at some point.
It is important to leave in time …
Saying goodbye at the right moment is important. There comes a time when you will feel that you are set in a certain role that no longer fits or excites you. When you feel it is time to generate new experiences, learn new skills, expand your knowledge and meet new people with ideas that are fresh to you. You will know when that moment has come – if you pay attention to those little signs your body and brain will give you.
For instance, when you think by yourself, “oh no, here we go again, we had that discussion three years ago and decided against it”. Or when you start seeing cynical subtitles in your head when people are excited about new ideas that are not new to you at all. These are moments when you know it is time for you to move on. For your own sake as well as for that of your team and your organization.
… and it is important to allow your people to leave in time
Now you see that it will at some point be important for you to leave. And that it will become important for your organization that you leave. So now it is easy to see that the same is true for each and every one of your team members. Given the context in which you all work, you know that a decision to leave is never taken easily. Because your team cares about the vision and the mission and the community you serve. And because team members have gotten close to each other through their work together, especially if there has been a lot of outside pressure and/or joint events and travels.
It is truly important to make sure that people feel very free to leave, though. Because if it becomes so hard to say goodbye that people leave only when they can no longer bear it, due to some conflict situation, or health scare or burn out, then all departures will generate negative energy only. This is neither good for your team members, your team as a whole nor the organization at large.
Say goodbye properly and you will have a friend for life
If you make people feel free to leave when they sense their time has come. And if you help them identify that moment carefully and maybe help them on their way to a new adventure. Then you have a good basis for a positive goodbye. A goodbye that
- does not create panic in your team about the hole they are left with. (Because they are confident that they can find a good replacement with scary new ideas that will help the organization grow).
- will not create a negative atmosphere in the team. (Because there is no gossip that if only the management would have…. then the person would not have felt forced to leave).
- is seen for the growth opportunity it signifies both for the person leaving and the persons staying.
In short, you will have laid the foundation for a goodbye that will keep the door open for the person leaving to continue to rally for the organization whenever applicable in their new role and context. Your team member may become a friend for life to your organization if you manage the goodbye as a positive experience for all sides.
Not so easy
I am well aware that the above is not very easy. It is one of the issues most nonprofits I know struggle with.
But what is the alternative?
However hard it is to manage goodbyes properly, please never stop trying to get it right. Because if you don’t manage this well, you will end up with friction in your team. The hitherto considered safe family environment will become like one of those suffocating families where no one dares speak up anymore. With gossip as the new currency. Where new ideas find no fertile ground and new people are not welcomed. And where new people leaving soon are not lamented as they should. This poisonous family will hinder the performance of your team and your organization as a whole. Slowly but very steadily. Making everyone stay and not leaving timely yourself is the surest way of killing your organization in the long run. I can almost guarantee you that. So be sure to make development a regular piece of any conversation with your team and with yourself. And develop those goodbye skills in time so that you can set the example with a timely departure.
Want to know more and ask questions?
Then join my Facebook group how to become a professional and resilient nonprofit with Suzanne Bakker here. In this group we will create a safe space for open exchange and discussion on potentially sensitive topics like boards, nonprofit management, fundraising, etc.