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[Review] 'The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit: Strategies for Impact Without Burnout'

November 04, 2016

Beth Kanter and Aliza Sherman are successful nonprofit tech pioneers, social media experts, in-demand trainers and speakers, and the authors of several books. Both have also experienced professional burnout and view self-care as a critical aspect of any nonprofit professional's job, especially if she or he is engaged in mission-based social change work.

Bookcover_Happy Healthy NonprofitIn The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit, Kanter and Sherman address the problem of burnout with, as blogger Vu Le writes in the book's introduction, "their signature humor, piercing insight, and concrete advice." In the process, they also present "a compelling argument for why we burn out and why it is important for all of us to take care of ourselves and each other...."

To avoid something like burnout, you have to understand its causes and symptoms. That is the focus of the book's first chapter. In addition to common problems such as general work-related stress, the ubiquity of technology, and information overload, certain aspects of nonprofit work contribute to burnout, write Kanter and Sherman. Many of them fall under the rubric of the "nonprofit starvation cycle," a "vicious" dynamic that begins with funders' unrealistic expectations about how much money it takes to staff and operate a nonprofit and results in nonprofits "misrepresenting their costs while skimping on vital systems." Other challenges unique to nonprofit work include the "scarcity mindset" (the belief that there is not enough of what your nonprofit needs to go around), the "indispensability myth" (a pronounced correlation between work and one's identity), and underinvestment in leadership development. Together, write Kanter and Sherman, these factors can lead to emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and a lack of personal effectiveness and accomplishment.

Having examined the causes of burnout, they then address the issue of self-care, which they break down into "Five Spheres of Happy, Healthy Living." Sphere 1 is the individual's relationship to him or herself — mentally, physically, and spiritually; if any aspect of this sphere is neglected, all others suffer. Sphere 2 is our relationship with others, including family, friends, acquaintances, strangers, and people in our communities (both online and off). Sphere 3 is our relationship to our environment (both indoors and out). Sphere 4 is our relationship to work and money (but also includes our relationships with co-workers). And Sphere 5 is our relationship to technology (continuous exposure to which can negatively affect your well-being).

The next step for Kanter and Sherman is self-assessment. In researching the book, they reviewed a number of existing assessment instruments and then, based on that review, developed four new tools and worksheets: the Nonprofit Burnout Assessment (to help you recognize whether you're on the path to burnout); Your Current Reactions to Stress (to help you gauge positive and negative behaviors in response to stress); a Current Self-Care Behaviors and Stress Triggers Reflection Worksheet (an addendum to the previous assessment); and Individual Self-Care Assessment and Checklists (which enable you to assess your self-care habits and practices against the "Five Spheres" framework). According to Kanter and Sherman, self-assessment, when conducted honestly, helps us identify stress triggers in our lives, negative and positive responses to those triggers, and areas where we may need to set boundaries. With that information in hand, we can then build healthier routines and habits.

"Your self-care practices are personal and particular to your needs, preferences, personality, and motivation," they write. "Some of the basics of self-care are essential, and you should not shirk them, like getting enough rest, eating healthy foods, exercising and making space for downtime. But the specific practices you integrate into your life around your relationships, spirituality, and any other areas is entirely up to you."

In addition to the "Wellness Triad" — sleep, good nutrition, and exercise — their recommended self-care practices include mindfulness (Sphere 1), social awareness (Spheres 2 and 3), energy management (Sphere 4), and tech wellness (Sphere 5), with a special nod to mindfulness; indeed, they cite a 2014 study which found that employees who "took online courses in mindfulness were less stressed, more resilient, and more energetic" than those who didn't. (To help readers integrate mindfulness into their daily work routines, they share a brief exercise: 1) Bring gentle and consistent attention to your breath for two minutes. Every time your attention wanders, bring it back. 2) Sit without an agenda for two minutes. Shift from doing to being. 3) Shift between the two methods for two minutes.)

After spending a few pages on each of the other practices, Kanter and Sherman turn to some of the things we can do to change the way we work. These include paying attention to our relationships with our co-workers, boss, and other stakeholders; being more socially aware, a discipline that includes asking questions that encourage and inspire others, paying attention to what others say (as well as how they say it and the body language they use;) and managing one's energy, which includes moving around at work, taking regular breaks, and using one's vacation time. 

In the book's second half, they then apply the concept and practices of individual self-care to the organization, with a focus on changing organizational culture and a concept they call "WE-care."

According to Kanter and Sherman, there are four steps involved in creating a healthy, happy nonprofit culture — 1) raising awareness about the very real problem of burnout and the benefits of employee self-care; 2) creating a learning process for employees that guides them in the development of their own self-care plans; 3) committing to culture change as an organizational, rather than an individual, challenge; and 4) fostering accountability with respect to tracking progress. "Don't think of the goal of WE-care as starting a traditional wellness program," they write. "WE-care is bigger than that. You are embarking on creating and implementing more than an incentive activity or a new health care benefit. You are changing entrenched attitudes, behaviors, and bad habits that are perpetuated across your entire organization and bringing down morale, energy, and productivity. WE-care is a collaborative process to develop and sustain a culture of internal well-being."

That said, nonprofit leaders shouldn't necessarily rush to implement a WE-care plan in their shops. Instead, they should focus on the value proposition of such a system for their employees, seek to understand individual employee motivations and barriers to participation, align organization-wide activities with productivity goals, and put into practice a system for measuring results. Only then should they proceed. As Kanter and Sherman write, the most successful culture-change initiatives happen when executives first find out what staff members want, then empower them to take the lead in implementing it.

It should be reassuring to nonprofit leaders and employees that the practices Kanter and Sherman describe in their book not only can be but have been implemented. For example, DonorsChoose, a nonprofit that crowdsources donations for classroom projects, enlisted a pro-bono design firm to redesign their offices to create a more effective workspace. The organization's board supported the investment because they were convinced it would lead to greater collaboration among staff and help the organization attract and retain top talent. Similarly, Do Something, a nonprofit that encourages young people to take action around social change, implemented something called Toto Tuesdays where, at five o'clock, the power pop band Toto's hit "Africa" was played loudly on the office PA system as a way to encourage employees to head home for the day.

Silly? Maybe. But "[b]eing a Happy, Healthy Nonprofit means empowering your staff to thrive in life and at work," Kanter and Sherman conclude. In doing that, "you will create a never-ending well of vibrant and self-sustaining energy, passion, and excitement for your nonprofit's work that will positively affect [its] outcomes." What nonprofit leader or professional struggling to avoid burnout wouldn't want that? Better still, all it requires is that we be "patient, persistent, and keep everyone's eyes on the prize." That's something almost everyone working in the nonprofit sector already knows how to do.

Jane Van Ingen is a nonprofit fundraising and communications professional based in New York City. For more great reviews, visit the Off the Shelf section in PND.

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