Social sector leadership demands hard, long hours, resulting in diminished effectiveness and burnout.

From Burnout to Bliss

by Natalie Rekstad, Founder & CEO, Black Fox Philanthropy, B Corp

Social sector leadership demands hard, long hours, resulting in diminished effectiveness and burnout. To help address this, we produced a session for the 2021 Skoll World Forum’s Wellness Hub entitled "From Burnout to Bliss."

Since you’re reading this, you probably know burnout symptoms. However, since burnout can be sneaky, this resource may name some of those feelings. We can be “fine”… until we’re not.

As a former corporate executive, nonprofit founder, and executive director for ten years, and now founder/CEO of a B Corp social enterprise, I have experience of burning the candle at both ends. Smart people learn from their own mistakes; really smart people learn from others' mistakes. I am going all "radical candor" on you so you can be the latter.

To be clear, I am on this journey with you. I’m a “cautionary tale” of how to do it wrong but am mostly on the other side of it now. I don’t always get it right, but am delighted to share what I’ve learned as a founder who bootstrapped at first, but is now virtually obsolete in my own organization thanks to a great team and infrastructure.

What drove me to burnout in the past are edges I still work on, but once I brought them out of the shadows, they became gentler companions. Here are some of those edges.

  • I’m afraid I’ll let people down if I don’t meet their needs – personally and professionally.
  • This work is a bodysnatcher – most of us in the global space know this is one of our soul assignments. The stakes are high and there’s always much more to do.
  • I’m afraid that if I’m not on top of everything, people will “find out” I’m not that smart. Imposter Syndrome has driven me to some extent.
  • I came up in the 1980s “do more, be more, have more” culture; workaholism was a badge of honor.
  • That same culture took the feminist message of “you can be anything” and hijacked it into “you have to be everything.” (For example, the Enjoli commercial – “The 8-hour perfume for the 24-hour woman”.)
  • Lastly, if I slow down I’ll feel the deep pain of my former marriage.

I unearthed these edges while completing my Inner MBA via the work of Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey. They believe that change often fails because people focus solely on behavior, but most efforts require changes to a person’s skill set and mindset. They posit: “Mindset transformation requires overcoming blind spots, unearthing our competing commitments, and freeing ourselves of limiting assumptions.”

In the course, I mapped out ways that block progress – why we don’t change despite the strong desire to change.
This was never meant to be public-facing, but we believe in radical transparency at Black Fox Philanthropy. I’m bringing that into the blogosphere.

This ‘Immunity to Change’ map shows how mindset, fear, and false beliefs kept me doing vs. being. My competing commitments and assumptions drove undesirable outcomes, contributing to burnout.

We are human “doings” – we’re wired for action – but at our core, we’re human BEINGS. It’s been my slow, decades-long learning to trust just “BEING”. Doing so has enabled me to be more effective on many levels as a visionary and one who leads vs. being in trenches where I don’t belong.

Let’s get tactical on how to bring more bliss into your lives while still caring for your mission and those around you. First, we don’t get to effectively play in the vision space without an infrastructure that supports us in successful work.

As a social entrepreneur, the visionary “app” is always running in the background. That’s a good thing – I can solve problems or connect dots effortlessly while “off duty”. But I have to have “off duty” time for this to happen. This harkens back to an article I read years ago: “Darwin Was a Slacker and You Should Be Too”. The piece highlighted how he and other giants worked just four hours per day. While I cannot turn off my entrepreneur brain except in meditation, or absorbing activities like skiing really fast or sleeping, the GOAL is to work four hours per day maximum, including meetings.

His post isn’t about having it all figured out, but to share hacks I’ve discovered along the way. Here are some of my hacks that can fit any situation.

  • Mindset Shift | My company isn’t about me; it’s about the Mission. The North Star question became: What does Black Fox Philanthropy need? My key question: What does Black Fox Philanthropy need from me?
  • The Firm needs me to be grounded and supported, my wellbeing a priority.
  • The Firm doesn’t need me to take care of everyone, to put others’ needs above my own at the expense of the Mission.

This new lens enabled me to make hard decisions that resulted in greater overall health, sustainability, and boundaries for myself. It set me free from feeling I needed to hold up the sky alone. It was a false belief that ultimately limited our impact.

  • Part-time Virtual Assistant | My virtual assistant has supported me and the company 10 – 20 hours per week for over three years. That would be time I would have spent on areas that weren’t my zone of genius and would’ve resulted in working 50+ hours per week, with diminishing returns per hour.
  • Fractional COO | In 2019, we weren’t able to keep up with the demand for our services. We didn’t have a solid infrastructure and team in place to smoothly onboard and serve new clients at the pace at which they needed our support. The result was a waiting list, so I sought a fractional COO with Executive-level talent who had systems and operations as their main zones of genius. This was game-changing. While the COO was 15-20 hours per week for the first 90 days, after a Project Manager was hired, she scaled back on the number of hours to more of a strategic advisor role. She’s a vital thought partner on all things Black Fox Philanthropy, helping to optimize operations.
  • Daily Mindfulness Practice | Centered around abundance, gratitude, and calling in more light to my energy for the highest potential of Black Fox Philanthropy. I know that leading this firm is one of my soul assignments. I humbly and delightedly carry out that assignment with as much support as the Universe provides – which is significant. I also set my intention for the day saying a prayer of gratitude that I get to do this work in a community with giants. My prayer at convenings includes, “May I go where I’m needed most today”.
  • Granular Hacks | This post is not about having it all figured out; I don’t. But we all have discovered hacks along the way. I’ve shared some higher-level hacks, now here are some more granular hacks.
  • Ruthless with EMAIL: Do, delegate, delete. If it’s mine to do and takes two minutes or less – DO IT – I don’t look at it twice.
  • To streamline, I ask that team members put in the email subject line: “3 minutes or less – response needed by X date/time.
  • SOS Score, Scale from 1 – 10. I’d do this in my weekly meeting with our COO and during crunch times – I would give her my SOS score, and we would talk about what needed to happen to lower it.
  • “Do It Ugly” but get it done. (Internal company FAQ: What’s up with all of Natalie’s typos? I type 100 wmp, going for speed and moving something forward if it is an internal communication.)
  • “The ugly first draft” – curate the content, but have someone else do the ugly first draft, like Fancy Hands. With that ugly first draft, I can craft it into my own voice and perspective. For example, I sent my outline for the Skoll webinar to a team member who then created the first draft of this blog.
  • If someone can do something 80% as well as I can, delegate it. Good enough is good enough.
  • Litmus test: Does doing this map accomplish my priorities? Does this move X forward? (My current lens: Does this help move $1B in new funding into the hands of proximate leaders in the Global South?). If it doesn’t map to my priorities, is it FUN? It’s always fun, it’s always an honor to teach – I say yes to things that bring me joy.
  • Giving myself permission to slow down, enjoy the success and relationships – seek a depth of connection in my work with colleagues and clients. I give myself permission to take a walk if needed. Write yourself a “Permission Slip” if that helps. Take the work seriously, but not yourself. Enjoy yourself!

May you find the bliss you seek so that you can be a more effective leader and human the world needs all of us to be!


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