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.
In 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.