The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit: Strategies For Impact Without Burnout

The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit: Strategies For Impact Without Burnout

February 13, 2017

by Upma Kapoor

On Friday, February 10, co-authors Aliza Sherman and Beth Kanter joined Georgetown University’s Center for Social Impact Communication for a discussion on their new book, The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit: Strategies for Impact Without Burnout. The conversation, moderated by Managing Director John Trybus, featured candid, eye-opening insight on the burnout fueled by nonprofit culture, and offered long-term strategies on how to flip the switch from burnout to healthier, more sustainable structures.

Kanter declared the current state of nonprofit culture: “Nonprofits are passion driven. But there’s always a scarcity of resources.” Historically, employees in the nonprofit and social impact sectors have been overworked for decades. Mission-driven work is inherently difficult, and between budget constraints and board oversight, nonprofit employees are regularly balancing a limited amount of time and resources to make ends meet, meet a budget, and make an impact. The unforeseen results? A more overworked nonprofit staff with less morale, more absenteeism, and more burnout.

Again, nonprofits are passion driven. The people behind them often give so much of themselves because of their compassion. Sherman continued, “We wear self-sacrifice as a badge of honor. We value inward instead of external.” Often, our choices set a precedent for other employees, which defines an organization’s habits and culture. We can care, but we care at the expense of our own personal health and well-being. Beyond self-care, Sherman and Kanter call for “we-care” and selective self-care to shift nonprofit culture. Aside from less turnover and more morale, Sherman added, we-care can help your organization “save on healthcare, absenteeism, [and employees being] more present. Less burnout.”

So how does that begin? Kanter believes “we-care” is embedded in the organization by everyone practicing self-care and maintaining awareness towards their self-care. Both authors shared 5 F’s based on Maslow’s Hierarchy towards achieving “we-care”: functioning, feelings, friendship, forward, and fulfillment.

Functioning, at the base of the pyramid, answers the question for nonprofits of whether they have the staples. Feelings, related to morale, helps nonprofit leaders ask the question, “are people happy?” Forward helps leaders and employees alike understand if there are enough opportunities for people to grow, and does the nonprofit support professional development in some form. Fulfillment, at the top of the pyramid, is what is closest and easiest for most nonprofit employees and organizations. If it is driven by passion, then fostering compassion for this culture shift can trickle down.

Obviously, a culture shift—and a personal discipline towards self-care—does not happen overnight. “Break down big pieces into tiny habits,” Sherman says, and apply these improvements and attention to programs that can redefine outcomes. On reducing burnout and compassion fatigue, look to incorporate health and wellness into the day-to-day of your work. Walking meetings, daily stretches, even incorporating an on-site gym can help refine overall strategy and process. The ongoingness in continuous improvement around culture not only helps create a happy, healthy nonprofit, but deliver effective outcomes and impact for your organization.

Both Kanter and Sherman echo the return on investment in “we-care” and fostering a happy, healthy nonprofit through well-being. Building strategies towards collective protection helps employees refresh their inner strength and take care of themselves, and ensures we have more productive and better advocates for your cause. By taking on “we-care,” our organizations are rooted in resilience.

The conversation closed with an audience question and answer session. Georgetown University’s location, just blocks away from the White House, raised questions on the pressing nature of nonprofit work under the Trump administration. How can nonprofit employees take care of themselves and their organization when civil rights and reform are being threatened?

Kanter had initially recommended starting a conversation with colleagues, but also offered strategies for these situations that included on-call shifts with colleagues to displace burden and stress on a single employee. Kanter and Sherman then recited the 4 R’s in response: “Resist. Rest. Revitalize. Repeat.”

Kanter concluded the conversation, “Our work is important now more than ever…understand that taking care of ourselves isn’t luxury, but takes us to better outcomes. Conversation precedes behavior, precedes changes. Start small, but start.”

To learn more about Kanter and Sherman’s book, visit their book website.

Upma Kapoor is a student in Georgetown University’s masters of professional studies in Public Relations & Corporate Communications and is a strategic communications professional with a passion for helping nonprofit organizations amplify their impact through digital efforts. She specializes in building brands, cross-platform storytelling, digital communications strategy, and user experience research. Whether a website, tweet, or blog post, she believes in finding the right medium, narrative, and process to help others engage with your organization. Connect with her on LinkedIn.