Five Limiting Beliefs of Nonprofit Leaders

Whether we recognize it or not, we all have limiting beliefs. You know, those less-than-truthful things we tell ourselves that hold us back. For nonprofit leaders, perhaps it’s the belief that you’re not qualified, or that you’re the best thing to ever happen to the cause sector. A limiting belief can be either positive or negative and still curb your individual and organizational potential.

Let’s take a look at some common beliefs that nonprofit leaders may have. No shame or judgment is intended with any of these as we all exhibit some aspect of at least one or two of them. The good news is that the key to limitless potential is removing the roadblocks.

Limiting Belief #1: My Four and No More (aka An Insularity Complex)

Insular definitionAn old saying notoriously used around churches is “my four and no more!” meaning that an organization or church would only support what happens inside its own four walls. While it’s rare to find this mentality in modern churches or nonprofits, it’s not uncommon to identify communities that have insular practices. Insular communities network, collaborate and seek education. However, they tend to do so only within the confines of their community boundaries.

While this may be convenient and cultivate strong relationships and connections, it doesn’t foster ingenuity or expand understanding like connecting with new individuals and organizations does. In order to keep growing, we need the fresh ideas and experiences that only come with being exposed to new perspectives and solutions. Who knows? That problem your nonprofit has been trying to solve in your community may be a thing of the past for another organization that is closely aligned in mission, but thousands of miles away. The good news is that with today’s technology and professional associations (like Cause Network!), you can connect and learn from those outside your community boundaries. 

Limiting Belief #2: Frugality is a Virtue

In an interview for a previous ED position, I was asked to provide an example of how I demonstrated “extreme frugality.” This was back in the days of coupon-clipping, and while I momentarily pondered that as a response, I knew it was not “extreme ” enough for the interviewing board members. Ultimately, I shared that my husband (not me) reuses Ziplock sandwich bags on occasion…you know, if the contents are not wet or crummy. As soon as the words left my mouth, I felt my face go flush and I began to sweat. Perhaps that was an overshare? Thankfully, the individuals conducting the interview nodded in approval and delight. The entire episode also sent a clear message about the culture of the organization: frugality ruled.

I entered a leadership position where one day I could be at a speaking engagement or meeting with a top donor and the next I was plunging a toilet or painting because we couldn’t hire help. My capacity—what little there was—became equivalent to capability from the board’s perspective. Why hire costly expertise or outside help when things were getting done? If anything, we simply needed to bring in more volunteer help. Or, maybe an intern or two?

As I write this, I can sense some nonprofit leaders nodding their heads in understanding. This is not an uncommon story. Too often, we’re prioritizing frugality over excellence. Doing more with less should not equate to doing more work with less impact. Let’s let the frugality myth go and stop limiting our potential in order to preserve a budget. 

Limiting Belief #3: I Know Everything I Need to Know (aka Know-it-All Syndrome)

As arrogant as it sounds, it’s not uncommon for nonprofit leaders to feel their expertise surpasses that of their peers or outside experts. Often, when a leader has founded an organization or experienced great success while leading it, they feel they’ve somehow “arrived” in terms of nonprofit sector superiority. The idea of a mentorship, webinar, or investment in a conference is dubbed a waste of time or money unless they’re the one teaching or mentoring. Unfortunately, settling for what you know or what you’ve experienced before is a very limiting behavior. When you place yourself above learning from others—be it through formal training or casual conversation—you shut off a channel for inspiration and stimulation. Eventually, ruminating on your own success and ideas will get boring…for you and for those you are already familiar.

No matter how much you’ve done, what degrees you’ve earned or what achievements you’ve reached, there is more to learn. Some of the brightest, happiest, and most engaged nonprofit leaders and professionals are the ones who regularly challenge themselves with new perspectives and areas of knowledge. Stuck on a problem? Feeling sluggish in your decision making? Switch gears and learn about another area that can help your work. Do one webinar a week. Read a book. Join a peer network. Intellectual stimulation is needed no matter how brilliant you are. Often, a simple shift of focus can refresh your mind and supercharge your problem solving. 

Limiting Belief #4: We’re Too Small/I’m Too New

The formative years of a nonprofit organization or a nonprofit career are hard. If it feels like every organization is ahead of you or everyone is more experienced, well, they probably are. Hang in there. Unlike the frugality we covered earlier, being new actually is a virtue. You’ll receive more grace, have unique opportunities, and probably get way more excited about things than your senior counterparts. Enjoy it! Do not let your newness or current size limit the plans or aspirations you have for your career or your cause. Switch your perspective and your narrative: 

Want to go for a big grant? Present yourself as the humble but worthy underdog. 

Meeting with an intimidating major donor? Ask them for their mentorship and expertise, and trust that their financial support will follow.

Nervous to launch a new program? Ask a foundation or peer organization to partner with you on a pilot version first. 

Being new or small is not limiting—it’s a launching pad. 

Limiting Belief #5: I’m Not Good Enough 

The first time I heard the term “imposter syndrome,” I was dumbfounded that someone else felt like I did. As the term caught fire on nearly every blog and talk show around the world, I realized everyone must feel this way at some point. It’s the idea that if our team members, donors, board members, or anyone really knew us, they’d flee. The idea that we’re “not good enough” to fill the role we’re in now or aspire to be is a bogus lie that’s now widespread. It has to stop. 

Don’t get me wrong…you have to work for your position and any success that follows, but you don’t need to become worthy to do that work. You are worthy by being human! Your cause is worthy because you believe in it. Never let someone else’s perception of your potential limit what you do. 

Years ago, I attempted to pursue a grant that my predecessor failed to win despite applying several times. The grant was a beast: a year-long process, hundreds of pages, and countless requirements, but the prize was significant. It would change the lives of the individuals served by the organization I was leading. When I expressed to the board that I wished to pursue the grant, the response was cutting: “Why do you think you’ll win when your predecessor didn’t?” Instantly, I felt inferior…an imposter in the boardroom. Thankfully, I had far more encouraging mentors in my life who pushed me to go for it. I did, and the organization won the top grant prize in the nation. What if I had let the board’s limiting belief or my own feelings of inadequacy dictate my actions? 

The Possibilities Are Limitless

Whatever limiting beliefs you have, do your best to reshape your thinking. You’re working in a sector that has constraints unlike any other, but it also has more heart and potential than any other. We can’t afford to carry limiting beliefs into a career with unlimited possibilities.

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