10 Things To Do When You’re Having a Bad Day

Leader Bad Day

I especially love how he just gets up again like nothing happened.

Yesterday morning I received an email from a coaching client.

Subject line: Do You Have Time? Feelin’ Wobbly.

Now I receive hundreds of emails from nonprofit leaders with challenges. Sadly, too many of them are of the five-alarm blaze variety. Toxic board members, a nonprofit ED who had been working for months without pay – you get the idea.

But yesterday, this leader was just wobbly. And he’s not a wobbly type. This particular client is hard wired steady. Or presents that way in nearly every situation.

Yet, a week of changing the world had left him “shaken,” “off his game,” and questioning choices and decisions. Wobbly. Just having a bad day.

Been there?

Yup. Me too. The donor you didn’t treat quite right lays into you. You review the candidate pool for an open senior position and there’s no there there. A volunteer drops an important ball. Plenty of war stories to go around.

Each thing independently is a nuisance or a solid challenge and yet, the collection of them makes you feel like a boxer feeling for the ropes to try gain some balance.

Today, I offer you my 10 Step Program for Wobbly Nonprofit leaders – how to steady yourself and get back in the game.


1. Accept

No joke. You’re not a superhero. (Re-read that, you Type A leader you!)

You are going to have bad days and bad weeks. You selected a unique line of work in which there is a diffuse power structure. It’s not that straightforward hierarchy. There are stakeholder groups all around you that have power too. Nonprofit management is a messy business.

2. Unbundle

Each of the bad, irritating, challenging issues and mistakes you may have made do not all belong in the same bin. In most cases, it is not one huge problem. More likely, it’s that timing has brought them together in a serendipitous way.

3. List your successes

Take 15 minutes and make a list of the great things that have happened in your organization in the last 30 days. I guarantee that list will (a) make you really proud and (b) be a lot longer and have a great deal more weight to it that the list of the challenges that are making you wobbly.

4. Get on the phone with your biggest champion (spouse? mother?)

There has got to be someone you can call who will remind you that you are fabulous. So pick up the phone and say, “Honey, can you just say I’m fabulous? And then I have to go.”

5. Find something to laugh about

Did that donor really say that she will pull her funding if I don’t put a celebrity at her table? In nearly every wobbly situation, there is something absurd / ridiculous / laughable. Find it. Trust me. It won’t be hard.

6. Take a walk around the block 

I’d suggest a day off but I know you too well – you won’t think you have time. Smart phone, earbuds, and 6-7 songs that you absolutely love. Do not answer the phone if it rings. Just 30 minutes of walking with great music.

7. Assess each issue independently and objectively

Ask questions about each situation. How did it come to be? What role did I play? Could I have done something differently? Did I miss something? Was I not paying enough attention? Am I just sick of traveling and I wasn’t on my game? Ask these questions from a diagnostic place and not a place of self-doubt. One place leads you to lessons, the other to wobbling.

8. Go home and have a long talk with your dog or cat.

Vent to them. Not to the staff or your board. Get everything off your chest to a living thing that can’t talk back and loves you without condition.

9. Touch the work

Faculty driving you over the edge? Go eat lousy cafeteria food and eat with a table of students. Talk about literature or music by artists you’ve never heard of. Board members trying your last nerve? Go sit at the front desk and answer the help desk line. Chat with a client you represent. I can see less wobbling from here.

10. Re-read the cover letter you sent when you applied for the gig

I found this to be one of the most useful documents on my computer. When things got tough and I found myself thinking, “What was I thinking,” I would pull out that letter and there it was, clear as day. A letter that outlined what I was thinking! A letter I slaved over, articulating why the organization was so meaningful to me, why its work was so vital and why I was uniquely qualified to have a leadership role. I wrote that letter and when I read it before I hit send, I felt great. I knew I wanted that job and I knew I could make a difference.

Every re-read reminded me of that. And I always felt steadier after I read it.


Read a piece I wrote called The Top 12 Reasons To Work At A Nonprofit.

I hope it will remind you that while you give so much to your organizations, the rewards personally and professionally are mighty priceless.

My final thought: allow yourself to be wobbly. The job is tough and often thankless. And so I will end with two words.

Thank you.

Joan Garry
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Joan Garry

Widely known as the "Dear Abby" of nonprofit leadership, Joan works with board and staff as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership.
Joan Garry
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  • Craig Coogan

    Love you Joan! THANKS for a perfectly nuanced (and perfectly timed) post…as always. Never thought about doing #10 – and just did. Brilliant! 🙂

    • Craig. Thanks as always for being such a cheerleading tribe member ! 😉 I have had five emails this morning already (post published only 2 hours ago) from folks who said the post made them cry. They assured me that was a good thing 🙂 Keep on keepin on my friend.

  • Ceci Maher

    Wow. Couldn’t be a more perfect list. Thank you!

    • Ceci.
      Thank you so much — hope it helps!

  • That was a really helpful piece. It seems that despite the differences of organizations, geographic regions, and budgets the work as an E.D. is mostly the same for all who take on the task.

    • Rachel. I think you are really absolutely right. SO many common themes. See them every day.

  • Pam Martinez

    You are an amazing and gifted women Joan Garry. When I think things are just too tough and I have quit 4 times in one day, I read something you have posted and I know I am in the right place, doing the right thing. Thank you.

    • Thank you so much for these awfully kind words. I began writing over two years ago because I felt a voice was missing in the nonprofit space. An advocate, a cheerleader, a champion. Emails like this affirm my belief that this kind of voice is really needed . Hang in there and go home and chat with your dog or cat . And know that many benefit from your passion and commitment.

  • Heather Veleanu

    This could not have come at a more perfect time. Thank you, Joan!

  • Jonna Grad

    Excellent article! We have all been wobbly at times and have discovered some of these strategies by accident but to see this list is very affirming.

  • Once again you’ve proven to be an invaluable relief pitcher, Joan. The most dependable go to gal for righting our thinking, patting us on the back, or slapping us upside the head! Way to go, Champ!!! Thanks.

    • This is the nicest note I have gotten this week. Thank you so much!

  • I needed this today. Thank you for lifting me up when my Pollyanna spirit is flagging. You rock!

  • Deborah Carr

    Joan, I can always count on you when I think this job is just too much! Thank you for being there and for sharing your advice and expertise with those of us who just need another person to smile and nod and recognize that non-profits are messy!