nonprofit success

“Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.”

—Dale Carnegie

From tycoons of industry to single unit startups, everyone has to deal with negative emotions which are a very natural part of life. We can however — with a bit of practice — use them to our advantage. 

A great deal of business psychology is centered on better understanding and ultimately conquering these fears, both professionally and personally. 

This is especially useful for the nonprofit sector, where it’s more than just shareholders’ returns on the line. With the right mindset, growth of one’s mission reach or donor income is almost inevitable, with the wrong one it’s almost impossible.  

How nonprofit leaders deal with self sabotaging feelings of doubt, fear or anxiety, will make an impact on every operational level and even influence other members of staff or volunteers to act in the same way.

It’s a familiar list: Fear of mission failure, lacking confidence to approach that big donor, doubts about meeting the board members’ expectations, public speaking, important presentations and opportunity costs.

How do you achieve nonprofit success?

I’m all for positive change and luckily there are some great researchers out there investigating how best to beat self-doubt and floor our fears. 

How we are affected by fear in the world of work was the subject of a 2018 study in the Harvard Business Review.

They interviewed a diverse group of 65 business people, everyone from CEOs of mighty organizations to modest sized local nonprofits.

With their findings they identified a number of common areas of concern amid the entire group.

  • Their organization’s financial security.
  • Future funding their venture.
  • Doubts of personal ability/self-esteem.
  • The venture’s ability to execute the mission.
  • Opportunity costs.
  • A weight of expectation.
  • An over obsession on personal shortcomings.

The study concluded that although all of the 65 experienced similar issues, how each individual reacted to their anxiety, led to strikingly different outcomes for their organization’s performance.

Those who saw nonprofit success:

Used their fear as a call to action and tended to take doubt as a challenge to overcome. This group was able to turn their stress into a sort of fuel for change and nonprofit success. 

  • When they had doubts they studied more.
  • When they had anxiety about their financial structures, they set new goals and targeted new clients. 
  • When confronted with difficult clients they used mindfulness techniques to improve their sense of perspective. 
  • When they had a bad day they asked why and then sought to remedy the cause. 
  • They used their staff to help in this process. Shared the burden and took on new ideas

They displayed a useful mindset to confronting their fears constructively. They used their staff to help in this process. Shared the burden and took on board new ideas.

Those who struggled:

  • Tended to let the fear slow them down and hinder their drive
  • They saw their anxiety as a stop sign rather than it signaling a problem which needed fixing. 
  • They refused to challenge their perceptions of what would happen if they overcame their doubts.
  • They stayed well within their own comfort zone.

One group stagnated because of their doubts while the other group was motivated by it. It’s a bit like for those who floundered they perceived fear in the context of a stop sign, they waited there for something else to change, and of course it never did. 

The other group saw doubt as a warning sign of a roundabout ahead, something to concentrate on and navigate in their own time, something which allowed them to continue in the right direction. 

I know from my own experience this is very true. The best way to approach your fears is to pass through them, the best way to deal with your doubts is to dispel them carefully.

From a business point of view embracing fear is a winning philosophy. The reward for doing so is huge, it’s a strange truth but if you begin with anxiety on any given subject or task and overcome it, you gain ten times the energy and confidence from doing so.

Beneath our fears are a reservoir of untapped confidence and faith in yourself. That fear is actually an emotion to be thankful for, it’s a sign post of a weakness to strengthen, a rung on a ladder to pull yourself up from, to a whole new level of confidence and faith in one’s abilities.

Nonprofit Sustainability

Nick Wood

Nick Wood

Freelance Journalist & Author
Nick Wood is a freelance journalist and author. Specializing in the nonprofit Industry, digital media, and the travel sector. With years of experience working within the industry on the ground in the UK and further afield. Founder of light-on-light, a project addressing the stories of individuals and organisations making a positive and intentional impact on society. For enquiries,