When I met Sarai Johnson last year, I felt super excited. She is the founder of the Lean Nonprofit, and she has so much nonprofit experience!


1. How do Consultants start out?

It isn’t true for everyone, but I would be hard-pressed to think of more than a handful of consultants who didn’t have some kind of burnout story to tell before they decided to become consultants. For nonprofit consultants, we usually start out by working in organizations, where we pour our hearts and souls into the work, only to find we are asked to give more, give more, give more, and more, until we are out of heart and soul to give. We, as a lot, most likely got into nonprofit work because we are caring and maybe a little idealistic – we want to use the work of our hands to change the world. Changing the world is a hard mission to let go, so for a lot of us, we end up needing to find new ways to change the world when the old way doesn’t work for us anymore. Many of us want to continue to serve the sector, but it feels more fulfilling and supported doing that from the outside, as a consultant.

As I said, though, it isn’t always true that burnout is the only reason people become consultants. And frankly, if you are burned out by the time you decide to launch your own business, it’s a really hard go, at least at first. The other way consultants start out is when they realize they have a talent for solving problems in a unique way. They usually have a good amount of success and experience under their belts. They are enthused by new projects. They love taking on a new challenge. Most of the consultants I know were a little too expansive to feel like they fit into just one organization or one single program or fundraising crew. People in that situation who are looking to advance their careers might start looking for options outside the usual sequence of things, where all roads lead to being an Executive Director, if you’re decent at nonprofit work. Not everybody wants to be an ED. And not everybody wants to cap their income potential by staying in the sector directly. As a consultant, depending on how you work your business, you have the ability to make significantly more money, eventually, than most nonprofits can pay a staff person.

OR It’s usually fundraisers who become consultants, why is that?

(I’ll do a both/and ;): Fundraisers are, by nature, pretty entrepreneurial. Fundraising is also completely aligned with sales, so it makes it a natural step into consulting to move from being a fundraisier for an organization to being a fundraising consultant. My opinion on why so many fundraisers step into consulting – even just moonlighting at first – is because nonprofits are highly sensitive to the top line of the budget – they are looking, always, constantly, forevermore, for more and more and more money. When you are a fundraiser for an organization with any visibility – one who gets results other organizations can see, it is a no-brainer for them to come to you to ask you to help them on the side. The other reality is, because of this top-line sensitivity, fundraising is the easiest sell for nonprofits. People generally buy things for just a few reasons – one of my favorite coaches calls it “Make More Money, Have a Better Life, or Stay Out of Jail.” Most nonprofit organizations are most concerned with making more money (though, they should also care about staying out of jail, but that’s a whole extra conversation I won’t start now)! 😀

2. What is behind the culture of overwork?


​In no particular order, the things that most easily come to mind for me are:

A. ​Puritanical ​R​oots​ of American Culture:
​The Puritans shaped the origin of our culture in such powerful ways, it’s hard to overstate how deeply their values and practices are still embedded in our society. One of the most insidious values they perpetuated that persists to this day, is a set of virtue​s that I think bring most Americans – but especially nonprofit people – to a place of overwork while also remaining stuck in poverty or working class positions.

The Virtue of ​W​ork​ – this hardcore work ethic that shows other people you matter and have worth as a person because you work hard​.​ The Virtue of Work tells us that work for work’s sake is good unto itself. It tells us that our life is for work, and that, as my dad said often as I was growing up, “You work hard, and then you die.” A bleak concept for a kid to pick up, but one that colored my perception of myself and my work (and fueled my workaholism until I had to stop).​

On top of that,  the V​irtue of ​W​ealth ​tells us that rich people are better than us​, which, in my opinion, flavors how philanthropy works to this day​. ​Conversely, the Virtue of Poverty tells us that money is evil, wanting more money is bad, and asking for more is unthinkable. We all get what we deserve, essentially. Ultimately, the Virtue of ​
Denial of ​S​elf​ is a powerful root value that we, especially those of us who devote our careers and lives to service to others, pervades our entire lives. We think taking time for ourselves is wrong. We think self-care is an indulgent, special thing we do on top of all the other things we do for other people, and we always need to come last. We might recognize that this is killing us, and yet, we don’t always know what to do about that.​

​B. ​Archetypal ​P​atterns​:
Carl Jung brought Archetypes into common psychological dialogue with his work, and Archetypes have appeared throughout history in mythology, storytelling, and everyday life. Archetypes are patterns of behaviors and personality traits that fall along relatively ​predictable storylines – Archetypes are essentially characters in the grand play of life. If I were to say to you, “Oh, you know Connie, she’s such a Saint.” You know what a Saint is like, right? It’s a person who gives of themselves in such significant ways that they are considered pious and holy. In nonprofit cultures, we tend to gravitate toward a few key Archetypes. One that I see most commonly is the Martyr. Martyrs are people who are willing to die for a cause – in modern times, this doesn’t usually mean we get burned at the stake – it means that we sacrifice our health because the work is so important. It means we suffer abuse and oppression within our damaged organizational cultures so we can see the cause advanced. Martyrs aren’t satisfied until their lives are obliterated in an attempt to uphold a cause.

C. Scripts:
If ​Archetypes are characters, Scripts are the prescribed dialogue patterns the characters use in relationship to each other. You recognize Scripts without necessarily knowing what they are. If I ask you, “How are you?” Your normal response is probably, “Fine.” Which is funny, if you think about it, because when do we call things “fine” otherwise? I mostly hear it used rather sarcastically – fine is just barely OK, and usually, it’s less than OK, but we’re trying to convince ourselves it is.

Scripts also play out in relationships between bosses and employees, between lovers, between family members. When you have a disagreement with your boss, a typical script is that the boss wins and you lose. When you have a “spat” with a lover, there is some level of escalating drama, very often, where one person is blamed for the problem, protests, blames the other person for something else, the other person protests, and often the argument dredges up old offenses from the past. Scripts are convenient ways for us to make sense of relationships and navigate the world in a way that feels safe. They are also limiting. For instance, if you think of divorce, you think of acrimony, anger, restentment, friends taking sides, kids suffering, custody battles and fighting for the assets to the bitter end. But…it doesn’t have to be that way. It can also be conscientious, caring, and even – gasp – loving to let relationships go while maintaining a new kind of family.

Scripts we follow at work without thinking are very often laden with emotional labor (upon women, most often), and guilt over wanting and needing a life outside of work.

3. Why do we feel like the work is never gonna get done?

​The work never will get done. It just won’t. That’s a hard thing to recognize – BUT – if we actually start to realize that there will always be more to tackle tomorrow, we can start to prioritize what must be done now, and what can wait. We don’t do trade-offs well in nonprofits. We hate them.

This is the end of Part ONE of the interview! Stay tuned for Part Two!