Cultivating Real Superheros

By Chris Gandy :

When you have been in the not-for-profit sector as long as I have, it is hard not to notice certain characteristics about the people who are attracted to and work for cause-based organisations. 

Typically, those joining not-for-profits at any age commence with abounding zeal and verve.They are there to save the world in one form or another. Problem is that for far too many the energy and passion is unsustainable and as a result of burnout, disillusionment or economic necessity are either lost to the sector within 10 years or perhaps, worst still, coast along feeling completely disconnected from their job.

To me this phenomenon is not only a great loss to our current and future communities and the world in general, but one that the sector has a responsibility of addressing. And clues to the solution awaits at our own doorsteps.

While it is true that tenure and engagement in many parts of the sector is unacceptably low, rays of hope appear dotted in every organisation in the form of people I call Real Superheros.

You know who I am referring to. These are the people who keep turning up for their causes with a positive disposition no matter the challenges they face. They are resourceful and seemingly irrepressible with an uncanny ability to roll with the punches – and many have been at it continually for 30+ years. What’s more,  they are sprinkled at all levels throughout organisations – leaders, frontline workers, back room staff and volunteers.

So what makes this Superhero group tick? How do they keep on keeping on?

Over the past few years I have sought to answer these questions by simply asking them (43 so far) the secrets to their resilience. While this is not a sophisticated piece of research, I think my findings may be  useful in assisting us to build a far more impactful sector.

Essentially my Superheros spoke about two things: habits and attitudes they have developed.


Placing the Cause above all else is a behaviour most have perfected. To constantly remain mission focused some have their mission statements plastered all over their work stations etc. One leaves it on the kitchen table so they see it each day while having breakfast. Others go so far as to personalise their organisation’s mission statement:

 Our mission is …… I help achieve this by…..

Finding ways to stay connected with the people they serve is another Superhero habit. Sometimes this can be challenging due to location or perhaps confidentiality issues. A number get around this by talking to colleagues, particularly in client facing roles, about how they can assist them to be more effective in the field.

Managing their own and others expectations seems to be another Superhero trait. They know exactly how much can be accomplished with the often meagre resources they have available. They wring every possible ounce out of each resource but adroitly avoid creating false expectations.

They thank others for their assistance and support and graciously accept thanks themselves. They never act the martyr.

Personal development aspirations are also important amongst this group. They are humble and don’t profess to have all the answers. Most make it a ritual of attending annual conferences to keep abreast of latest thinking in their field and to maintain networks. A couple of people told me they try to attend conferences or workshops in totally unrelated areas simply to broaden their minds and to put their own challenges into perspective.

Another interesting finding amongst my small sample is they all admitted to having a creative outlet of some description. Whether it be a drummer in a rock’n’roll band, building model trains, being in an amateur theatre ensemble, growing orchids, playing scrabble for prize money or cake decorating – this seemed to be a consistent habit.

And, you guessed it, they had perfected the habit of taking regular leave. As one Superhero put it:

We all have to recharge the batteries and not feel guilty about it.  I’m not useful to anyone dead!


Talking with each member of this group, it is clear they bring a proactive “can-do” approach to their respective roles. They don’t talk about what others should or shouldn’t do, but what they will do and how they will do it. They have a commitment to set and reach goals. So refreshing!

As a group they expressed a high level of intolerance to any activity or process they regarded as of no importance or being a waste of time. Things that were seen as bureaucratic red tape were savaged by these Superheros.

And finally the trait that probably had the biggest impact on me was the belief amongst the group that working/volunteering in the not-for-profit sector should be regarded as a privilege. No “but for the grace of God go I” guilt trip here with this lot. Rather a deep and genuine desire to serve humanity. These Superheros understand that is was their choice was to serve their cause and they honestly appreciated the opportunity to do so.

They are an inspired group of people and their own inspiration serves to inspire others.

Can’t help but think that if we could only come up with effective ways of developing these habits and attitudes amongst every new starter in not-for-profit sector what extraordinary outcomes our communities would enjoy.

Chris is the Founder of Cause & Effective. He and his team help cause-based organisations maximise the opportunities and minimise the risks when their CEO departs.

About B-Cause

B-Cause is published by Cause and Effective. We help good causes find and attract effective leaders.

Thats our take on things. Over to you, please add to the discussion.

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