The Entanglement of Nonprofit Work


Published by on December 18, 2023

Remember tetherball? Do kids even play tetherball at school anymore? It was a rather violent endeavor now that I think back. Equal parts dodgeball and volleyball. We tried to avoid being smacked in the face or having our fingers jammed by a flying ball attached to a rope hanging from a pole, while at the same time hitting it as hard as we could to send it spinning. 

The interesting thing about tetherball wasn’t necessarily the activity itself, which was rather mundane, but instead, it was the shift in the game’s dynamic when it changed from a single player to two players.

What can look like a pointless exercise for one person – simply hitting the ball to watch it be wrapped and unwrapped around the same pole – becomes a fierce game of territory protection or innovative maneuvering when a second player joins in. Each person trying to send the ball higher or lower toward the other, as they learn the other’s strategy and technique.

The interesting thing about tetherball wasn’t necessarily the activity itself, which was rather mundane, but instead, it was the shift in the game’s dynamic when it changed from a single player to two players.

The key on the school playground was to find that second player, locking eyes with your partner-in-crime to win the tetherball war after eating lunch as fast as you possibly could. For most of us, though, the war we were trying to win wasn’t against the ball. It was against the enemy of aloneness. 

We didn’t want to be the only player standing in front of the pole aimlessly spinning a ball round and round. We wanted to see the joy, frustration, laughter, fear, and camaraderie on the face of the person across from us. When we asked someone to be our friend, or tetherball enemy, what we really wanted was to show them our skills, learn from their moves, and compete. We wanted connection. We wanted friendship.

The “non-traditional” nature of nonprofit work

For those of us who have devoted our careers to philanthropy and nonprofit work, this hits home. So often we feel as though we’re operating on an island because few understand our “non-traditional” work, yet it’s universal in nature – philanthropy translates directly to “love of humankind.” Our work fills the cups of others, while filling our own.

In my 20 years of working inside nonprofits and institutions both large and small, staff members were continually fueled by the extraordinary outcomes of a one-to-many approach. The donor who grew up unable to read and established a literacy center impacting thousands of children who lacked access to books. The researcher who devoted their entire life’s work to solving a problem plaguing millions. The volunteer who spent early mornings and late nights lifting boxes and clearing garbage to ensure hundreds of others enjoyed an engaging experience.

How could we possibly feel isolated in this endeavor? 

Isolation occurs because oftentimes, we find ourselves entangled in the rope of the tetherball, trying to move forward but feeling instead like we’re wrapping ourselves around the pole again and again only to be undone by a simple shift of the ball. 

The ball in this case might be a major gift, that means the difference between success and failure, does not come to fruition. A program is not delivered because a facility expansion is delayed. A staff person resigns leaving us to absorb additional duties for which we’re not equipped. A societal crisis arises which redirects all available resources to close a gap. 

Few other career fields involve this type of inherent entanglement. While other professions and sectors are vital to our lives and many show up every day with the same passion as we have in the nonprofit sector, the work is transactional. A service is performed, a fee is charged. Hours are clocked, a paycheck is issued. 

If you’re a nonprofit fundraiser, you don’t solicit and accept a gift in the same way someone charges for a service. You’re constantly weaving soulful engagement with another person into the fabric of a larger vision for something greater for your community, your world, or humanity.

Entangled into the fabric of something bigger

Entanglement isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It fuels our passion for the work and feeds our souls in a way that traditional forms of employment compensation do not. But it also makes it nearly impossible to separate ourselves from the mission we’re representing. Our decisions, our actions, our output, our words, our presence – every aspect of how we show up in nonprofit work is ingrained in our commitment to pursuing something greater than ourselves. 

If you’re a nonprofit fundraiser, you don’t solicit and accept a gift in the same way someone charges for a service. You’re constantly weaving soulful engagement with another person into the fabric of a larger vision for something greater for your community, your world, or humanity. It requires intuition, patience, and curiosity to absorb and understand the deeply personal reasons an individual engages in philanthropy. Multiply that by thousands of people, families, organizations. There is no formula. No blueprint that is repeated each time. Yet if it’s not done, it has a direct impact on the lives and futures of others.

It’s easy to see why it feels that the job is never done.

For nonprofiteers, this is oftentimes where grit comes in as I discussed recently in my blog “Got Grit?” Unfortunately grit has become a 24/7 modus operandi for those of us in the philanthropy sector, as opposed to what it’s meant to be – an inherent fire smoldering below the surface that can be ignited only when needed as we persevere through the tough times. But what happens when all the times feel like tough times?

Feeling seen, feeling heard

One of the things I hear most often in my work with passionate, high-performing nonprofiteers is how exhausting this dance can be. Showing up as our purpose-driven selves each and every day, while exercising our grit as if we’re running full speed on a treadmill with no off switch. In some cases, the culture of the organization drives this exhaustion. Many, however, yearn for a solution that is so incredibly easy – to be heard.

Nonprofiteers want to feel heard. They want to be listened to. As a long-time leader, I learned this lesson early. Even if I was unable to solve a systemic problem rooted deeply in the DNA of the organization, I could listen to the obstacles someone was facing in their job because of it. I could offer support, creative solution-seeking discussions, and a light when they felt surrounded by darkness due to circumstances they couldn’t single-handedly change. They needed to feel as though they were understood by another person equally as entangled.

So how do we support ourselves in this nonprofit “entanglement”?

How do we create a community of changemakers to support us in our work?

Enter the concept of Moai.

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Beth Brenner is a Hiver and nonprofiteer with twenty years of experience in fundraising leadership, philanthropic strategy, and operational growth. A higher education leader, Beth’s work has advanced complex programmatic initiatives to achieve aspirational fundraising outcomes. Beth’s commitment to investing in people first led to the founding of her firm, Michael Macrae, serving individuals and organizations as they navigate the intersection of wellbeing and career. As a fractional nonprofit executive, regular writer and featured speaker, Beth provides professional mentorship through her one-of-its-kind Seasonal Career Roadmap, and unique 5-pronged approach to building confident, collaborative, courageous organizations.

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