Paradoxical commandments for the nonprofit professional

[Image description: Two hummingbirds drinking nectar from a red flower, with a blurry green background. The bird on the left is grayish-brown, and the one on the right is blue and green. Both are trying to find general operating nectar. Image by James Wainscoat of]
Hi everyone. Before we begin today’s blog post, a couple of things. First, please go write a review of a foundation on (it’s like a Trip Advisor where you can anonymously review foundations). Second, if you’re an Executive Director or CEO of color, there is a Facebook support group for you, full of amazing colleagues: EDOC—ED Unicorns of Color, which stemmed from ED Happy Hour, which is open to all current and retired EDs/CEOs.

Speaking of amazing colleagues, one of the reasons I love our sector so much is the quality of the people we have. However, I’ve been encountering more and more professionals who have become increasingly jaded and cynical about the work.  It’s gotten worse since the election. This is understandable, as the last couple of years have been especially rough on all of us, and the current challenges have really highlighted just how awful and inequitable the systems—grantmaking, public policy, hiring practices, etc.—we work within are.I too have been exhausted, feeling lately like a hummingbird, flitting from one thing to another, constantly fundraising. On some days wish I were doing something else, something that is not so mentally and emotionally taxing. Something likely involving Netflix and ice cream. A while ago, I read Kent Keith’s “Paradoxical Commandments,” a set of inspiring imperatives often mistakenly attributed to Mother Teresa. Keith lists things such as

“The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow; do good anyway. […] What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight; build anyway. […] Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth; give the world the best you have anyway.”

It makes me think about what a similar set of commandments may look like if it were specific to our work. Here’s a draft, in no particular order; it may change it with time. I hope this may be helpful to you as you navigate our flawed but awesome sector:

The Paradoxical Commandments for the Nonprofit Professional

  1. The years and energy you spend working toward a vision may be forgotten and credit may go to those who come after you. Work toward your vision anyway.
  2. The life-changing programs and organizations you build may be destroyed by the whims of those with resources and influence. Build life-changing programs and organizations anyway.
  3. The community you love and work hard to strengthen may occasionally doubt your motives and attack you. Work hard to strengthen this community anyway.
  4. The people you help may never understand or appreciate the hours you put in or other sacrifices you make. Help people anyway.
  5. When you fully engage in conversations about race, gender, disability, and other identities, you may make mistakes, get misinterpreted, or get hurt. Fully engage in these conversations anyway.
  6. If you work to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion, you may get stonewalled or punished by those with power and privilege. Work to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion anyway.
  7. If you take risks to hire or invest in the communities and individuals who have been most affected by injustice or those who may not conform to society’s arbitrary standards, you may get burned in the short run. Take these risks anyway.
  8. Openly share your failures and lessons learned, and people may look down on you and use your words against you. Openly share your failures and the lessons you gain anyway.
  9. If you speak up against unjust philosophies and practices, you may lose donors, funders, colleagues, and other supporters. Speak up against injustice anyway.
  10. Many volunteers, board members, donors, funders, community members, and colleagues are frustrating to work with. Appreciate their efforts and find the good in them anyway. 
  11. If you work hard and do things ethically, you may get surpassed by less competent people and organizations with privilege, connections, or flexible ethics. Work hard and do things ethically anyway.
  12. If you take the high road, you may get attacked by those who take the low road, and you may not be able to defend yourself. Take the high road anyway.
  13. Trusting and collaborating with other organizations may lead to your organization being used. Have faith in and find opportunities for effective partnerships anyway.
  14. Our sector has many flaws. The systems we work within are imperfect, and the game favors some and leaves behind others. Work within this imperfect reality anyway, even as you work to change it.
  15. For all your years of effort, and possibly a lifetime of dedication, you may only be able to lay one stepping stone on a path that requires a thousand. Lay that one stepping stone down anyway.
  16. The world, including your friends, family, and community, may never say thank-you for all the good you do for it. Do good for the world anyway.

Let me know your thoughts and other commandments you think of. Thank you for all that you do, every single day, relentlessly, against myriad challenges, to make the world better. 

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