The Loneliness of Working for Social Change

You can also read this article in Psychology Today here

Ever since Sarah Wright and I started researching loneliness together about ten years ago, I have asked participants at my leadership conferences “Who here feels lonely sometimes?” at the beginning of a session I teach on how to create a culture of belongingness in organizations. A decade ago, about 15 percent of people would self-consciously raise their hands.

Loneliness and Leading Social Change

My heart sank a few weeks ago in Amsterdam, where I was teaching a leadership program to 53 nonprofit leaders, when ninety percent of hands were raised in response to this question.

Is this because we are lonelier, or because loneliness has become less stigmatized? Clearly, loneliness is skyrocketing: 58 percent of Americans are lonely post-pandemic and Ministers for Loneliness have been appointed in the UK (on the heels of a study that found that British children spend less time outside than prison inmates) and Japan. Likely, it is both.

One thing is clear: social change leaders are suffering. In some nonprofit organizations, board members volunteer their time but are reluctant to give financially to the organization.

Show Us the Money

Considering that nonprofit staff require money to show up at work, materials for beneficiaries require money to purchase and offices require money to rent, this lack of financial (rather than volunteer) willingness can result in nonprofit leaders feeling they are out on a limb, alone.

Such leaders feel they are barely able to keep their organizations afloat, especially if they don’t want to depend solely on government funding so they can pursue a social mission untainted by its expectations and requirements.

In other organizations, board members write a check to ease their conscience each year but are not willing to donate their precious time. Just as board members who don’t show up to meetings can leave nonprofit leaders feeling unsupported and lonely, board members who refuse to add revenues to the organizational budget can exacerbate the loneliness that nonprofit leaders experience.

Are You My Friend?

As part of our evidence-based leadership approach, in a survey the social change leaders completed for a study I am conducting with Juliana Schroeder at the University of California Berkeley and other researchers, an early finding we presented at the conference is that leaders think they are better friends with subordinates than vice-versa.

The social needs of nonprofit leaders, it seems, are heavier as they work so many hours that they have little time to develop non-work friendships.

Why is it so challenging for social change leaders to form close, meaningful relationships within their organizations? Because they have to lead these people. As is the case for leaders in the private or public sectors, it is difficult for them to truly share their challenges and concerns with either their board members or staff, who may perceive them as weak if they do.

“Within your organization, you really can’t talk to your staff,” one nonprofit leader shared, “and you don’t want to talk to other board members about problems that you wouldn’t talk to your board chair about.”

If you do talk with other board members about challenges in the organization, he confided, the problem is that “are you going to try to start a coup and try to overthrow the board chair? Are you going to go to someone else on your staff and then you’re going to bring down morale within the organization?”

For socioemotional support, many social change leaders feel stuck. What, then, can they do to fulfill their need for close relationships?

Finding Solutions

Other nonprofit leaders, rather than their staff or board members, may be the ideal people with whom they can develop relationships. The importance of peer relationships is central to one of the leadership principles I teach to leaders in the nonprofit, private and public sectors: “It’s Easier to Be a Friendly Leader than to Be a Friend and a Leader.”

How can we help as board members of such organizations to support our social change leaders? When we dedicate both our time and a financial contribution that is meaningful to us, the leaders of these organizations are less likely to feel they are in it on their own.

That, along with forming peer relationships with other social change leaders outside of their organization, will help them feel less isolated. Given the detrimental physical and mental health outcomes associated with loneliness, that means a lot.

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