The Dirtiest Word in Nonprofits

by Joan Garry

It was somewhere around day 60 of my tenure as the Executive Director of GLAAD when I figured out the dirtiest word in nonprofits.

Want a hint? I’ll give you two.

  1. It’s not usually a dirty word outside of the nonprofit sector.
  2. And no, it’s not “fundraise” or “committee” or “grant application” or anything like that.

And yes, I realize that last one was two words anyway.

No, it’s something much more problematic for many many nonprofit leaders. In fact, most people I know who are drawn to be an Executive Director don’t handle this word very well. They kind of suck at it.

Want to guess what it is…?


Wow, those first 90 days…. I barely knew which way was up. Things were, well, messy.

The finances were in free fall and I feared layoffs. I had never done a lick of fundraising.

Some board members called with ideas of how to fix things while others reached out with new programs we should consider launching.

Donors called to hear my vision (vision? I could barely see straight). Staff members clamored for direction, for clarity, wanting to know where they stood and whether their jobs were at risk.

Emails flew and I was copied on absolutely everything.

And as for the work itself, there always seemed like there was more to do. And that everyone thought I should be doing more.

The pressure felt off the charts.

Are you on the edge of your seat?


The biggest difference between a thriving nonprofit and a messy nonprofit comes down to just one word. It happens to be this one dirty word.

I ask them to guess what it is, and thousands have done so.

There were some very good responses. Shall we do a Top 10?

#10:  Scotch (funny)

#9:  Discipline

#8:  Focus

#7:  Help (we’re not good at asking)

#6:  Consistency

#5:  Vacation

#4:  Boundaries

#3:  Delegate

#2:  Balance

#1:  Resilience

I am thinking that this all rang pretty true for you as you read the list. I’m betting that you would have come up with a few of these on your own.

But there is one word missing….


Drum roll please………

The dirtiest word is prioritize.

Why such a dirty word you ask? Well it’s really simple. Prioritizing means saying that one thing you do is more important than another. GASP!!! Isn’t everything equally urgent every moment of every day?

I’m not saying that your work isn’t important – all of it. I’m saying that, for your organization to thrive, you have to choose. You can’t do it all and you have to make smart moves with maximum  impact because a) your organization needs to thrive because the world is counting on you and b) you need to have a life beyond work.

Prioritizing means saying two words that are very hard for E.D.’s who are hard wired as pleasers to say two other pretty nasty words  – “no” or “not yet.”

I know. I have been there and I know this is hard.

But you just have to do it. And I can help.


I have consulted and coached hundreds of CEOs of organizations large and small. I am also the lead coach/mentor/host of The Nonprofit Leadership Lab, an online membership site for board and staff leaders of small nonprofits.

In all of these interactions, I coach folks to focus on the smartest moves they can make that will have the maximum impact and make the best use of their valuable time. Because I have seen how transformative it can be to embrace the word “prioritize” and throw these three big “rocks” into your organizational pond.

I won’t leave you in suspense:

Rock 1 – Invest in Yourself

Did you just roll your eyes and think, “Oh no, is she saying I need to go to a pilates class?” No she didn’t.

She wants you to make it a priority to be the best leader you can be.

Make a list of your superpowers as a leader and manager and then list your kryptonite. How might you seek out strengthening areas where you need help? Public speaking, time management, delegation – you know the stuff you do every day. Time to model it for your stakeholders and if you throw this rock in the pond, the ripple effects? You’ll model what leadership looks like and will thus see more of it in your team.

Oh here’s a good ripple effect. You might get home in time for dinner or to help your kid build her Lego robot.

Rock 2 – Create a True Partnership With Your Board

Too many staff leaders write off their boards as weak and disengaged. But this is a choice they make at their organization’s peril.

Ever been asked to climb aboard a twin-engine jet that is missing an engine? Or get settled in your seat in time to hear the flight attendant say, “Good morning and welcome aboard. Just wanted you all to know that one of our engines is kinda useless this morning but don’t worry because the other one is amazing and in fact, this plane has been flying this way for quite some time and it hasn’t given out yet.”

It’s time to create a partnership starting with your co-pilot. If you’re the Executive Director, that’s your board chair. Lead together. Build the organization and its strategy together. And engage and feed your board to be the best ambassadors they can be.

Tossing this rock will have massive implications. I might add that it requires strong leadership to get it right (see rock #1)

Rock 3 – Build an “Army of the Engaged”

The strength of your organization rests in numbers. The more people who are invited to know and do more for your organization, the greater power you have to affect the change your organization exists to see in the world.

Many organizations are insular. For new board members or volunteers, we look to the usual suspects or ask folks to recommend people “they know.”

Maybe – just maybe – it is time to think of board recruitment as casting. Maybe – just maybe – it is time to be strategic about social media to educate folks about the problem you work to solve so those folks are propelled to come out of the stands and onto the field.

This rock requires intention, a different mindset and creativity. Throw this rock with intention and build an army of folks around you. It doesn’t all have to rest on your shoulders.