How Nonprofits Can Tackle a Marathon

For over four hours earlier this week, I went for a nice little jog on the streets of Lincoln, Neb. I had plenty of time to think during the 26.2-mile jaunt, and I tried to think about as many things as possible to distract myself from the muscle cramps and physical fatigue. Naturally, my mind drifted to life at Nonprofit Hub and my own experiences with nonprofits and how they related to my training and the race itself.

As I slowly recover to walking without a hobble, here are some lessons I learned from running a marathon that you can apply to your nonprofit life.

Challenge Yourself

Why run a marathon? The best answers: you really like running, you have a screw loose or you need a hobby. I made a deal with my sister that if she would run her first half marathon, then I would run a full marathon. I had run three half marathons before so signing up for another wouldn’t have been anything new. By going outside my comfort zone, I could go through the same difficulties and relate to her experience as well.

In the nonprofit world, never quit challenging yourself. Learn about new trends and possibilities to make your nonprofit more effective. Whether it is a new software program, writing grant proposals or figuring out how to make a better fundraising pitch, if you don’t go outside your comfort zone then you’re losing an opportunity to make yourself a better person.

More Than Just Race Day

I didn’t just show up at the starting line and run 26 miles. I began my training in earnest in January, plus a good program in the fall.

When you are starting a nonprofit, a lot of work needs to be put in ahead of time to make sure the big day is going to be a success. Yes, not all of the training runs were fun. (It’s is cold and snowy in Nebraska in January and February), but by persevering through the early work, the later runs were much easier to handle.

So while it may not be fun to stuff envelopes or fill out governmental tax forms, it’s all part of the process and will pay off down the road. You’ll need to put in the necessary preparation to take care of business and make everything appear like smooth sailing. Accepting that you need to work ahead of time will make everything less trouble down the road.

Remember, it’s a Marathon

As my training progressed, my speed increased and I could run faster over a longer distance. However, on race day, I knew that it was going to be a long run (a marathon, to be specific) so I started out much slower than I was capable of and tried to go at a comfortable pace.

For nonprofiteers, it’s easy to let your mission and task take over your whole life. However, it is important to pace yourself. If you manage your workflow better you can make everything a better experience. Sometimes you need to pick up the pace (like when you are trying to squeeze through two runners or for the finishing kick) and work a little harder, but know that a little extra effort is needed to finish the job.

Also, remember that you’re in this for the long haul. Fixing a community issue or making an impact won’t happen right away. Keep with it. Take advantage of the aid stations along the way to refuel and recover for a while, but keep moving forward.

Have Fun and Appreciate the Experience

Sure running a marathon is hard work. It’s putting your body through a great deal of stress for several hours, but that doesn’t mean it has to be unpleasant. I tried to soak up the atmosphere of the crowds that lined the streets cheering on the throngs of runners. Whenever a child extended their arm outward, I tried to oblige and give them a high five. A lot of kids held up signs that said, “Touch here for a power boost,” and surprisingly it all helped. I also documented each mile I ran by taking a selfie of myself. By keeping a positive attitude, I had a pleasant experience and wasn’t worried about all the minor aches and pains that popped up.

In the nonprofit world, it can be easy to focus on the task at hand. Whether it’s putting together a marketing plan, preparing for a board of directors meeting or figuring out the perfect wording for your next tweet, details can be all consuming. Keep in mind that you get to make a difference in this world and have a lasting impact. That doesn’t mean that it should be just fun and games, but keep fighting the good fight and carrying on.

Fight Through Adversity

Running 26 miles can take a toll on your body. You also have to fight the natural elements. The race started at 7 a.m. and the temperature was already 62 degrees. It wasn’t ideal running conditions, but I couldn’t control it. I could just hydrate a lot, apply an extra layer of sunscreen and keep moving. Also, don’t think of it as a 26-mile race. It’s just a series of 26 one-mile runs. Breaking down the large task can make it seem more manageable.

Not everything will go your way while running a nonprofit. You might not get the funding you want or a program might be a flop, but if you learn from shortcomings and make changes, the next go-round will be a better experience. Keep in mind what you can change and what is outside of your control. Much like the weather, you just have to deal with it and move forward.


When it’s all over, be sure to enjoy what you did. Running that far is a big challenge. In the words of the great philosophers Donna Meagle and Tom Haverford, “Treat yo self.” My version of treating myself included eating a Baconator from Wendy’s. Also, after four months of not drinking pop (or soda for our non-Midwest friends), I also plan on enjoying a can of Surge.

After you pull off a big event or complete a project, remember to celebrate the victory. It doesn’t have to involve food, clothing shopping sprees or spending any money at all, but just take time to relax and reflect upon the journey. Write thank-you notes to those who helped make it possible and give yourself a break.

A day later, my hamstrings are still tight and my knees are sore. Stairs are my greatest enemy, but I feel an immense sense of pride and accomplishment. While you might not feel the same way physically after completing a big nonprofit project, hopefully your emotions match.

Nonprofits can learn many lessons from marathon runners. Heck, they can even put on a marathon to raise funds (or just a 5K for the less ambitious). Whatever you choose, get out there and go for greatness.


Lincoln Arneal

Lincoln Arneal was a Senior Editor at Nonprofit Hub who brought loads of real-world nonprofit experience to the team. He was the past executive director of a nonprofit that provided leadership development to junior high and high school students. He looked to bring the insights from his time forming, developing, and running a nonprofit to help others in their quest to do good. Lincoln also had a legal background and had written for various newspapers (covering high school sports) for the past 15 years. He could be followed on Twitter at @NPLNK.

May 5, 2015

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