My Own Private Stockholm Syndrome
A couple of things have happened in the last few weeks: I started working for a startup (which accounts for the delay in this post, apologies); someone suggested that a nonprofit I was considering launching be run as a for-profit consultancy.
Both of these things have thrown me through a loop. (Though? For? Who’s to say.) Both have pushed me to rethink the last six months of my life and what it is that I find valuable in work. That’s been difficult for a number of reasons, but there’s one that underlays much of it: Nonprofit Stockholm Syndrome.
(FWIW, the podcast Criminal recently did a story on the originating event from which the phrase “Stockholm Syndrome” is derived. As is generally the case with that show - very interesting!)
As I have said many times here before and as I like to start most conversations: the nonprofit system is deeply broken. It is broken on many and maybe every level. It is very unlikely to actually change without real revolution. And yet - here I stay. These two inciting incidents, though, have made me seriously consider leaving. And the idea of leaving makes me deeply sad.
Part of the sadness is in the devil you know. The brokenness of nonprofits is a language I speak. I understand the power dynamics, I see where the cracks are in the foundation, I know the key players. I have built friendships in our collective trauma of navigating this system. It’s where a decade of my energy has been spent. The idea of learning another language is daunting.
The other part, though, is starting to let go of the idea that I can change it. I wanted to build this theory of an organization as a nonprofit because I wanted to prove that you could run a nonprofit that was good to it’s staff, stood by it’s values, allowed for transparency. I wanted to make a model that others could replicate so we could prove to funders and the world that change is real.
I said that to a friend and she said - yeah, but, you know you’re setting yourself up for failure, right?
And that’s the thing, right? There are other models for changing the world - you can build big, progressive for-profit companies where people will pay real money to do it. I don’t have to stay in this broken system in order to make change. It’s a thing that I keep on seeing more and more. Maybe it’s my age, but I’ve now gotten to the point where my peers have decided they should leave the sector in order to make real money and change in different ways. That’s one of the inherently broken parts of this whole system - that there’s no system to upward mobility and at best decent salaries. It’s been true for decades. I heard about “nonprofit brain drain” at my first job out of college, over 10 years ago. But it hasn’t changed, the drain continues, and it seems now it’s time for my generation of leaders to leave.
BUT THAT’S WHY YOU STAY, RIGHT? THAT’S WHY YOU STAY AND FIGHT? EVEN THOUGH IF YOU LEFT, YOU COULD BUILD SOMETHING REAL AND IMPACTFUL AND MEANINGFUL AND GET ACCESS TO REAL CAPITAL AND NO ONE WILL COMPLAIN ABOUT YOUR OVERHEAD BECAUSE THAT’S NOT A THING ANYWHERE ELSE AND NO ONE WILL ASK FOR QUARTERLY REPORTS ON HOW YOU SPENT THEIR $5000 AND YOU CAN JUST GROW HOWEVER YOU WANT? YOU STAY BECAUSE IT’S RIGHT. YOU STAY BECAUSE IF YOU LEAVE THERE WILL BE NO ONE LEFT AND THEN THE WORLD WILL COLLAPSE OR SOMETHING.