nonprofit imposter syndrome

A majority of all adults experience imposter syndrome at some point in their careers; 70% by the latest figures. 

It affects professionals of all occupations and backgrounds, with the impact on individuals in the nonprofit community being a significant one. 

Be you a newly qualified doctor or starting up your own charity, doubts can creep in that you don’t deserve your success or promotion. There’s nothing wrong with a little humility, but this way of thinking can be detrimental to mental health and career prospects. 

Nonprofit imposter syndrome is the voice of self-doubt, which if left unchecked, damages a nonprofit leader’s ability to deliver on the core mission and run their organization effectively. 

Also studies have shown it to disproportionately affect women and minorities. Two groups who—on average—make up a larger percentage of a nonprofit’s staff and volunteer force.

The syndrome affects people in these commonly understood ways:

  • Despite doing their job excellently, individuals dwell on the idea of being undeserving of the success others have enjoyed when doing the same work. 
  • Undervaluing worth, even when their abilities supersede those of others who seem to sit comfortably in the same positions.

Ironically nonprofit imposter syndrome can lead people to push themselves harder and strive to be more perfect than others. This may sound beneficial but it leads to increased stress levels and heightened anxiety in the work environment. 

Working your way around nonprofit imposter syndrome

Firstly forgive yourself for feeling this way and recognize it’s a way of thinking, not a reflection of reality.

You have to accept and believe the job is yours. That the task set to you is your responsibility and you have every right and obligation to see it through. Embracing your role will encourage others to accept and understand that position is yours. 

The truth is that: 

  • People need and in fact want to be informed of who has authority. You’re not doing anything wrong by sitting at the head of the table or competing for your promotion.
  • Remember when in a management role your staff aren’t questioning your right to be there. They want effective leadership and have a desire to follow and to be led. 
  • People who matter WANT you to succeed more than fail!

Accept that you’re in the driving seat! Others aren’t going to grab the wheel off you. They want to be driven, and they will and do accept your position of authority.

Recalibrating how you think about nonprofit imposter syndrome

It’s also true that having imposter syndrome in the beginning may make you a better boss in the end.

You’ve mapped out the process and tried so hard that your abilities in your role will be more valued than those who put their feet up on the desk and switched off as soon as they got their promotion.

It’s universal 

It’s important you realize everyone at some stage feels this: every politician, general and sports coach. All those who step out of anonymity and into responsibility feel the change of altitude. It’s a sensation that takes time to adjust to, but if you have to believe one thing it is that in time you will fill the space, embrace the role and feel you are where you belong. Leading where needed, listening and mentoring where you can. 

It will happen, because to have this syndrome — when you lead a startup nonprofit or take the helm of a long term well established one — it means you already possess a certain self-awareness which others lack.

It’s this quality which will see your trajectory go higher and further than those who never felt the shift of gear. You’ll always be pushing hard and fast and if you make sure you include a lot of self-care and keep an eye on the work life balance your colleagues will admire you. Ironically one day they will be questioning if they are qualified or imposters to be working alongside you!

In conclusion when it comes to nonprofit imposter syndrome: Believe in yourself today and trust everyone else will tomorrow. Because they will and I’ve no doubt about that!

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, nickjohnwood@mail.com.