by Arlene Harder, resident at Villa Gardens Retirement Community
If you have ever needed to leave an organization you started, did you do so with joy, or was there grief and regret? Let me tell you my experience.
Fifteen years ago, about one-hundred of us stood on a patio under sturdy canvas covering food stations contributed by several restaurants for the occasion. (It was the end of our first winter storm—one week after our record high of 113 degrees.) We were celebrating the 20th anniversary of The Wellness Community-Foothills, a non-profit cancer support program in Pasadena, California. As a cofounder, I was one of the honorees at the $75-a-person event.
Although I was no longer on the board or gave workshops, twenty years earlier I did whatever I could to support an organization that has served tens of thousands of cancer patients and their families.
What I said several years after I had left an organization of which I was proud
When I was given a lovely bouquet and a certificate of appreciation from the mayor and our county supervisor, I needed to say a few words. I repeat them here (approximately, since I didn’t write them down) because I think you may find them helpful if you are in the beginning, middle, or end of organizing some new venture.
Thank you for this honor. When I was asked to say a few words, I wasn’t sure what to say and decided to get my inspiration after I came here and saw all of you. That’s when I realized I knew hardly anyone! When I was involved in the first fund-raising events, I knew the names and faces of most of the participants. Tonight I recognize only a small handful.
When we began this organization, I wasn’t thinking about what it would look like in twenty years. All I knew was that the community needed a place where cancer patients and their families could get comprehensive social and psychological support.
I had a passion to make that happen. Looking around at all of you, I can see that an organization only continues through the effort of new people who catch the same passion that began it—and then expand it in their own way.
So I am glad to see all of you here, even though I don’t know who you are.
Later in the evening, a woman said that my comments reminded her of a speech she had heard on the stages of creating an organization. There was first the recognition of a need, a passion to make a change, a vision for how that could be achieved, the work involved in accomplishment, the need to do something else, and the grief of letting go.
She said, “I think you are in the stage of grief, seeing all these people you don’t know taking part in something that used to belong to you.”
“Good heavens, no,” I replied. “Far from it. I am absolutely thrilled that others also have a passion to make this organization successful.”
Then I told her that, “I believe one of the things that has prevented my grief in moving on is that I have other passions. For example, about thirteen years ago, I cofounded CancerOnline, a non-profit Internet program where I served as pro-bono executive director for five years. With that experience on the web, I later created LearningPlaceOnline, and then Support4Change and ChildhoodAffirmations. Along the way I wrote three books, am actively writing a fourth, and have ideas for two others.”
I continued, “So you see, if one stops an activity, for one reason or another, and there is nothing to fill the void, then I suppose grief is natural. But if you always have something to catch your interest and your passion, you don’t have to grieve. You can let go joyfully, celebrate the involvement of new people, and move on.”
Our ego gets in the way of letting go
I believe that one cause of grief in leaving an organization or activity is our ego’s attachment to what we’ve accomplished. The ego says, “If whatever you did was successful, you are successful. That organization or activity is you.”
Operating from the “true self,” however, you can create an identity that says something quite different. This central part of who you are says, “You are a person who has accomplished something that makes the world a better place. You are a person who saw a need and met it. You are a person who can see another need and, using the skills you have, can meet those needs with the same passion you gave to other projects.”
How to be successful in creating an organization, activity, or program and then letting go when you need to
Based on my experience, if I were to suggest the steps to creating a successful organization and then moving on, I think it would be this.
• Notice a need that has not been met by anyone else.
• Notice whether you have a passion to meet that need.
• Find others who can help you accomplish it
• Use the passion and skills of all of you to create the best possible solution to the need you are trying to meet.
• When you have given all you can give, or when there is something else in your life that needs your focused attention, notice all the people who are still involved in the project you’ve created.
• Give the new people attracted to your project your best wishes, celebrate their efforts, offer whatever advice you can, and let go, knowing they will each bring their best to this venture you helped create.
• Embrace your new passion or responsibility with enthusiasm, as you did for the one you have left.
You won’t always know what will happen to your old projectOver the years, The Wellness Community formed more than 25 separate facilities across the country and in several other countries. Another organization, Gilda’s Club, was also created to meet the needs of cancer patients. Then the two groups combined to create the international Cancer Support Community, the largest organization of its kind. This is an example of how you don’t know what will happen when you begin something new.
So my advice for you who see a need is just to go for it. Don’t try to imagine accolades you’ll receive for your success, for you may not be successful for any of a hundred different reasons. However, your intention to create something of value for the world will become like a snowball rolling down the hill, gathering more momentum as it rolls. The shape it takes will not be entirely in your hands.
Arlene Harder, MA, MFT is a resident at Villa Gardens Retirement Community in Pasadena, CA. As a licensed psychotherapist for thirty years, Arlene developed an interest in the use of guided imagery techniques to reinforce the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual qualities that arise from deep within each one of us. She co-founded The Wellness Community in Pasadena, CA, (now the Cancer Support Community), the largest professionally-led nonprofit network of cancer support worldwide. And she has written four books, Letting Go of Our Adult Children: When What We Do Is Never Enough, Healing Relationships in an Inside Job and How to Love a Perfectionist Without Going Crazy.
© Copyright 2010, Revised 2017, by Arlene F. Harder, MA, MFT