Denial is More Than a River

I’m paying for my folly now.  I started to feel bad (badly?)  about a week before we were scheduled to leave, but I convinced myself that it was merely an allergic reaction.  We had been hiking when my throat started hurting and by the end of the hike, my voice had almost completely disappeared.  For the next two or three days I remained in denial.  I continued having meetings, going out, working.  Until it became clear that I really did have a cold and it wasn’t getting any better. My big concession was to start taking Sudafed and sucking on zinc lozenges.  Talking was difficult.  For the first two hours of the morning, I had no voice.  It would come back, cracked and brittle, every word using up air until I became dizzy.  But, of course, I did not shut up.  I had phone meetings, where I had to speak up; face to face meetings where I could be more quiet, but still needed to respond from time to time. Then there was the plane ride.  Five hours of discomfort to Newark, eight hours of misery to Paris.

Our apartment—of course—wasn’t ready.  There was a mix-up with dates.  To make a long story short, there was a place where we could sleep that night, but the next day we would be homeless from 9 am until around 6.  Not a big deal, there is much to do and see in Paris.  I would, I assured my husband, be fine.

What we really like to do is walk.  So we set out to visit old neighborhoods where we had stayed in the past.  We walked from the 11th to the 3rd then back to the 14th arrondisements.  As long as we were upright, and I was putting one foot in front of the other, I felt fine.  Well, maybe not fine, but okay.  Whenever we stopped, however, I realized how very sick I felt.  So, I voted with my feet and kept moving.  Twenty, thirty miles.  All was good.  I was pumped with Sudafed and cough syrup.  And our apartment was ready.  Mercifully.  I slept for 20 hours, and awoke still sick.

My point, of course, is that denial is not a tactic that leads to success.  It is, alas, a tactic in which too many organizations indulge.  It often starts with a willful ignorance about how to read the financials.  It’s as if there is a belief that if we don’t notice the structural deficit, it won’t really exist.  From there, we move on to either wringing our hands about how our lack of resources precludes from doing anything constructive to doing anything that comes to mind without vetting its usefulness.  This latter usually manifests itself in manic activity.  We plan events that like most events don’t have a reasonable return on investment.  We write grants that if successful will support the one aspect of your organization that already operates in the black.

Had I acknowledged that something was wrong and taken care of myself before we left, right now I probably would be out to dinner with my husband and our friends. Instead, while he is, I imagine, having something wonderful to eat, I am feasting on strong tea and toast.

Likewise, organizations that look with gimlet eye at what is really going on and have the fortitude to  assess then plan, will become stronger and better able to push forward their mission.  Being realistic is not just smart, it is necessary.  Denial, on the other hand, is almost always the first step toward breakdown and failure.  Not places any of us want to be.

Janet Levine is a consultant who works with nonprofit and educational organizations helping to assure their success.  Learn more about her services and her classes on fundraising and grantwriting at