Phantom Impact Syndrome™
Updated: May 17
I've sat on this post for years. I think friends have seen me talk about this since 2018.
Even as I type now, I wonder: should I sit for a couple more?
And then I remember this doesn't have to be perfect. This doesn't need to be a full methodology with analysis that can be quoted by experts and cited by folks in the academy. This can just be an invitation to have a conversation or a simple: I see you. I too don't know how to talk about this but I want to name it. Let's name it.
I'm close to ten years into philanthropy and every day I wonder: how do we talk about the unspoken grief so many of us have experienced working in the philanthropic and non-profit sectors? Can we, truly? I think of anonymous twitter accounts like @nonprofitssay @ShitProgOffsSay, @Philanthro_Tea, @DisruptPhilant1, @ShitFacilitator and I feel pretty confident that the answer is no — not safely.
And if you are asking, "What grief? The grief of the inequity and systemic oppression we are up against? "
No, actually. That is its own post. That is its own book, really. Books! There are so many people doing tremendous work on that front — on the grief of doing this work fully aware and conscience of what we are up against.
I, however, want to talk about a smaller grief — or actually — not smaller. Different. I don't want to make it small when it is so big. What I am talking about is more nuanced and only whispered about in "cones of silence" over drinks amongst kindred spirits. In the darkness of dive bars on work trips where we find community, we find ways to speak of the harm — of the disillusionment and burnout so many of us have experienced at the hands of leadership who outwardly promised something different but behind closed doors perpetuate(d) the same harm their mission statements disavowed. The same harm they publicly decry. And when we see how the burnout and retention issues of the sector are covered, so often this human element of failure — of interpersonal violence, oppression and trauma — is reduced to more palatable concepts like lack of capacity, misalignment and re-organization.
So, let's start with why Phantom Impact Syndrome (PHIS — though I was tempted to just go with PIS, to be honest). I am obviously working within a play on Phantom Limb Syndrome — a condition in which patients experience sensations, whether painful or otherwise, in a limb that does not exist. One thing I know with these many years in this sector is that I know and love a lot of amazing folks who have workplace trauma that shadows them like spirits in a Tim Burton movie. I have friends who metaphorically wince like abused pups whenever they take on new work — anticipating the next inevitable hit. That's an awful, gut-wrenching visual and also: it is spot on.
This work is not safe.
And I think we need to be able to talk about it.
And to talk about it and not think that talking about organizational failures and leadership failures immediately equates attacking the work or progress. Because if we cannot talk about the ways in which the sector is failing its own, how can we possibly talk about how it shows up for others? These are interwoven realities that are reflective of each other. And we are leaving wounded soldiers behind in our sector's self-imposed silence — silence meant to keep us safe, when in reality it just leaves a long line of souls hurt by the same folks over and over and over again. And we all eventually find each other because this sector is small. And also, there has to be another way.
It is rare that I sit down with colleagues or clients where PHIS doesn't come up — and it comes up fast. We are constantly performing for each other in this work to stay safe (I am speaking directly to BIPOC and marginalized folks here) and yet in that performance, we are also always looking for allies — for an "in" that says, "I'm safe, I see you." It doesn't matter what we are talking about or working on — if an authentic in has been made, we always end up circling back to the events and people that have formed us in this work — in this sector. And almost always, these event(s) and mostly people are in alignment with the same systems they claim to be deconstructing and decolonizing as a sector.
We are haunted by experiences we cannot easily do sense-making of because to do so would be to allow ourselves to feel heartache and grief in the very work and people where we have sought refuge, agency and hope from a world of heartache and grief.
This dichotomy is at the heart of Phantom Impact Syndrome.
It is a mouthful, isn't it? And yet — if you get it, you get it.
But what do we do with it? How do we decolonize the sector-imposed silence on bad behavior?
Honestly, I don't know.
There are layers and layers here that need unpacking. Some of these layers are intersectional in their pain points. Some are just white supremacy by many a name. So perhaps instead of offering specific examples of PHIS, we could try to name some of the archetypes of leadership that are perpetual offenders. Who knows — maybe folks will see themselves reflected in these archetypes and sit in that discomfort for a bit. For those who have experienced PHIS, the hope is you will feel seen. That phantom feeling of despair, of failure, of being perpetually unsafe, of having been gaslit or used —whatever it is for you and how it shows up — is real and valid.
The Archetypes: These offenders are almost always the roadblocks to impact — impact that was gate-kept and that haunts so many still fighting hard today for both the work itself and for their healing from the work.
The Immovable Ancestor
One of the most common archetypes we come across time and time again when talking to folks with PHIS is leadership that cannot cede power because they fought so hard to get it. Not fought in the capitalistic way, but authentically did the work to get to where they are now. These are our ancestors. I don't say that lightly. They laid the foundation for me to even be able to hit publish on this post. But then the work stopped — it grew stale. They have stayed in the same lane for 20 years and have no idea why they are now constantly in internal battles with their newer staff and colleagues. They are at a loss with folks in the room who are imagining and demanding a "further" that is possible. What is possible and necessary feels unsafe for them because they see themselves as being left behind, not being asked to come along further. They may call their stalling strategy, but the truth is that the refusal to move is a trauma response. See what I mean about layers? It is rare that there are monsters in this work. But monstrous things can be done by folks who are scared and the harm done by this type of refusal to move and cede is tremendous. How many folks have we lost to this type of leadership?
The Hallway Cheerleader + Love Bomber
We have all had that leader who loved us to death behind closed doors but never moved one finger or uttered any verifiable dissent when it mattered because they were comfortable where they were. These are the love-bombers, the gift-givers, the "I see you, girl", the "thanks for taking that bullet" folks for whom the thought, "I should have said something" or "I have the power to make that thing we keep talking about happen" never rises to the top because their positionality deems the ask as not necessary for them. And for the Hallway Cheerleader, it is always about them. The Hallway Cheerleader and Love Bomber are especially dangerous as they often pass for an ally until it matters. They weaponize your care.They hoard your goodwill. They prey on your humanity. But the moment you threaten their comfort and their internal narrative about themselves, they will cut you down faster than The Clovers cut down The Toros in Bring It On.
If you know, you know. This is the leader who hasn't done their homework and uses the language and tools of liberation and decolonization in the same way a toddler quotes their favorite music lyrics: disjointed, misunderstood and embarrassingly out of context. This is the leader who says that their work is post-gender because they heard a non-binary person speak for the first time during a plenary; the leader who asks if we should denote that folks are marginalized on the staff page because it might not be obvious and they have worked hard to diversify and no one even knows it. You have your own stories. I know you do. I know I have mine.
The "Not Resentful At All" White Ally
To have the strength to really get to this one — I'm not sure I do. I once witnessed a leader tell a powerhouse woman of color that he wasn't going to apply for an open CEO position because he wanted to make room for people like her. The audacity of it. There are too many leaders in this sector who are so silently angry that their whiteness is rightfully up for critique. They talk circles around their whiteness, taking up enough space for two lifetimes in defense of how "not defensive they are about this pivotal moment in time that they totally support and do not feel the need to center themselves in". They block folks on twitter and online when they bravely point out obvious patterns of public caucasity. They stall promotions of BIPOC staff because the dissent to their own limitations is becoming too loud to ignore, so the room needs to stay quiet. Similar to The Immovable Ancestor, but usually without any of the foundational underpinnings for how they got there — because if they had them, they wouldn't see themselves reflected in this description.
The Glass Cliffer
I hate this one. I don't even know how to begin. Again — things are layered and nuanced. But it is 2022 and we have a lot of folks who have been unfairly put on glass cliffs by the DEI-ification of the sector and these folks are causing harm. I think it's important to lay the responsibility here primarily on the hiring committees, funders and BODs who have pushed folks who were not equipped with the skills necessary to run organizations into positions of power and who have then not built in the support for these new leaders to be able to either grow into the position or to be moved if it wasn't a good fit and harm is being done. This isn't easy. It requires a type of commitment and engagement I haven't seen from folks in power in philanthropy. And yet the collateral damage of this specific archetype is devastating. Often it pits racialized folks against each other and then reinforces a dangerous falsehood about BIPOC leadership. Also, imagine being asked to clean up decades of white failure in a single introductory year—it is so villianously cruel it defies belief. But it is happening a lot and it is untenable, even for the best of leaders. The system is working perfectly on this one. And that's why it is so awful and one of the most traumatic — especially for BIPOC folks. This is one where the grief can barely be spoken.
This one is so nefarious. I just posted on my twitter about shadow boards and how organizations are pushing for junior boards with no voting power to infuse new ideas and ways of thinking into existing BODs. Y'all — existing leadership in this sector is extracting the wisdom, practices and voices of folks in ways that we have never encountered before. This is actually tied to the last archetype — The Peacock — but it needs to STOP. If your leadership is so stale it needs to be infused with unpaid labor and the extracted wisdom of other folks, your leadership needs to go. Your directors need to go. Instead, we are seeing a lot of now unqualified (they stopped learning and growing) and quite honestly dangerous folks holding on to power by usurping the work and voices of their junior staff. And in the work of DEI, this is more than just paying your dues. The voices of folks — especially marginalized folks in the fight — cannot be used ethically without proper attribution. Unless contracts explicitly state that ghost-leadership and ghost-writing will be paid and this type of usage is consented to, this is not about hierarchical power. This is not about it being "part of the job". It is theft and impersonation. I know of so many leaders in the field who have 2-3 BIPOC folks who have effectively shaped their voice and practice. As a DEI communications specialist, as a queer Latinx activist — as a woman writer — I just don't know how they get on stages and receive that applause for wisdom that is not theirs. Anything to be a sage on a stage, amirite?
Look — I'm going to end on The Peacock because it is the newest archetype and it is still evolving and why not end on the messiest? Also, I'd love if you shared your own archetypes as a way of showing solidarity and maybe allowing someone else to feel seen by your own experiences. I’d be happy to add them in with full attribution (or none—I meant it when I said this work is not safe and I see you). I know I've missed a lot here, but its late and as a good friend of mine says, "What is time, anyway—go rest."
We all know capitalism has its claws on philanthropy and with Bezos and Gates money just at our fingertips, a new type of toxic leader has emerged: The Peacock. You know them. We all know them. You mention needing a speaker and every single person in the room says their name. It doesn't even matter if they are relevant to the work at hand. It doesn't matter if every other gathering has also had them speak just last week. You mention a keynote, they are the go-to name. And they are everywhere because they don’t say no. And look — I don't begrudge success. But observationally, if after a while the mic never gets passed — we can safely assume we are dealing with a Peacock. Peacocks are famous for saying, "I worry that if I let someone else do it…"
So no one else ever gets the ask—to the detriment of the field and of the work.
And the bigger problem is that every single organization wants a Peacock now — they demand one. Every CEO and ED is convinced that success is in celebrity now. They demand book deals, keynotes, daily mentions, think pieces —they aspire to Harry Style's twitter numbers and Obama name-drops. I honestly don't know if there is a more embarrassing concept that a philanthropic leader investing in and obsessing over what their "brand" is and why they are or are not invited to speak (write and be loved) over other folks. There are entire organizations right now working around narcissists who have a) forgotten what their organizational missions is and b) think everyone has time to invest in this droll and self-serving endeavor. The truth is, it burns folks out. One can only perform so much before the facade cracks and you just have to walk away from being a sycophant, no matter how good it pays (and we know it usually does not even pay well) because it chips at the soul.
Pro-tip: Do the work and do it well. Openly and intentionally collaborate with others: building solidarity, community and engagement. That is how your name should embed itself across networks, sectors and hearts. The work should speak for itself, not your flocked feathers or personal PR teams that are asked to try to rival that of Kris Jenner.
And pass the mic. Pass all the mics. The smartest person in the room is the one surrounded by folks more brilliant than them. Revel in the shared glow. I promise its a breathtaking feeling.
These few archetypes are just the tip of the iceberg when trying to speak to the harm within, but for now it will have to do.
As we continue to try and do good work — and as we ourselves fight the good fight to not become that which we have borne — there is so much more work to be done. And there is also so much healing to be found.
I will close with this, my philanthro-friends: I see you and the heaviness of this work and say, "Thank you for still being here."
It is no small thing.
Communal Additions to the Archetypes:
The ”Both Sides Now”
The ”Both Sides Now” leader refuses to take a stand on anything — particularly when it comes to organizational stances on justice and liberation. In the wild they can always be heard musing about how both sides will receive something (both sides usually meaning white folks and something meaning a stance on any basic human right that does not center cis-het white able-bodied folks). Like the song, they walk around in wonder of how they’ve “looked at life from both sides now, from win and lose and still somehow it’s life's illusions they recall—they really don't know life at all." And thats the problem — we know they don't know. (Archetype submitted by Anonymous)
The "Jesus Walks"
The victim. This type of leader is never short on excuses for why lack of strategy, design, management skills and capacity building keeps getting in the way of the work. They will do anything but look inward. They will cry. They will throw tantrums. They will balloon portfolios and then verbalize betrayal when staff leaves or advocates for better working conditions and organizational health. For them, the devil is always trying to bring them down. And they will tell anyone who will listen (literally anyone) their tale of woe— but they will not ask for actual help. No — the suffering is part of the work. It is the entire shtick. (Archetype submitted by Anonymous)
My god, how did I miss this one? Sometimes the ones closest to us are the hardest to name. The Savior is by far one of the most common forms of toxic leadership in this sector. As our submitter so aptly put, they "likely came out of retirement from their 'for profit' job to 'help' and they use “my team” a lot." That they do. They are perpetually Tom Cruise on a mission. Sure, people will get hurt (RIP, Goose), but we are a family and this work is about absolute sacrifice — did you not hear them say that in their tenth inspirational team call this week? These folks haven't seen their friends and families in years and openly wonder how truly committed you are to the mission since you seem to still remember your partner's name. For them, this work is a calling — it is a vocation. Wait, whats that? You need pay equity and work/life balance? Are you even committed to this work? Do you even go here? (Archetype submitted by @themollycox).
I've spoken openly about having had my body brought into a hiring discussion, so its not surprising to see this one come up — its just hard to write about. Philanthropy is a strange world of travel, amex cards and drinking (so much drinking). It is work full of late nights, networking in dive bars, crowded ubers and transgressions in HR practices that most folks would side-eye. I know a lot of us have stories: of the BOD member who hugs too tight and for way too long; of the funder who makes those underhanded comments about our partners or our assumed sex life (I wish I could say I was joking); of the CEO who gets too comfortable and says the quiet parts out loud where no one can hear them. The unwanted sexualization of folks in this sector by those in power is prevalent, protected and NOT gendered. Unfortunately, The Predator is an equal opportunist. They live for the thrill of how far they can push that power line — and no line is more vulnerable than that of our bodies and how they are spoken about and for. (Archetype submitted by @Philanthro_Tea)
The Rachel Berry
This one is self-explanatory, but let me indulge you if you are less of a pop-culture fanatic than I am. This leader cannot share the spotlight. PERIOD. No one else gets solos. No one gets acknowledgements. No one gets to rain on their parade. Even if you or your teammate nail something — you didn't nail it. They did. Your Rachel Berry nailed it. Those were their words; that was their idea; that was their note. Except — inevitably other stars do shine through in a good ensemble. And an audience always takes note. A good ensemble will always have plenty of soloists who round out the chorus AND who can and should eventually take on certain roles/solos when they are putting in the work and when it is time to let them fly. A leader who functions from scarcity instead of abundance and whose insecurity leaves everyone in the wings eventually finds themselves onstage alone (or tragically not cast in Funny Girl). (Archetype submitted by Theresa F.)