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The Happy Healthy Nonprofit: New Year’s Resolutions for Resilience

If a frog is dropped into cold water in a sauce pan and brought to a boil slowly, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. The story is used as a metaphor for the inability or unwillingness of people to react to or be aware of threats that arise gradually.

Burnout is like boiling a frog gradually. Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion that occurs when we feel overwhelmed by too many demands, too few resources, and too little recovery time.  Often, we don’t realize the symptoms before it is too late.

However, according to scientists who conducted experiments, that premise is false: a submerged frog gradually heated will jump out.  Maybe the boiling frog metaphor is better for resilience, the ability to bounce back after extreme challenges. That is if the frog has been successful incorporating self-care habits that can build resilience.

Working at a nonprofit can be a pressure cooker, often boiling slowly.  Trying to manage huge workloads with limited resources, can easily trap us into thinking that working nights and weekends after a full day at the office is the answer.  Overworking will not only steal your clarity, but ultimately zap your energy and cooking you to death.

In my new book, The Happy Healthy Nonprofit, co-authored with Aliza Sherman, we write how nonprofit professionals can practice self-care to avoid burnout and build resilience.  But it is just as important to foster an ethos of wellbeing in the workplace. This includes group undertakings in the form of activities that help your staff work together to acquire self-care habits as part of doing the work.

What if everyone in your nonprofit pledged to initiate an activity that promoted organizational wellbeing, resulted in improved resilience and more impact? Here are some ideas to help your nonprofit build resilience in 2017:

  1. Communal Meals

Eating at your desk is unhealthy and isolating, and yet so many nonprofit workers squeeze in more work by doing just that. Build community and connections amongst staff with communal meals.

Amy Sample Ward of NTEN noticed that staff was often eating at their desks. “So we decided to have a weekly communal healthy brown bag lunch on Thursdays. We have remote staff, so we bring them in via a Google Hangout, and they join us at the table.”

  1. Compete For Sleep

Sleep in the workplace may seem like an oxymoron, and sleeping on the job can be a bad thing. But without enough sleep, employees are unable to focus or perform simple tasks and lack patience.

Create a friendly competition at your organization to encourage staff to get more sleep. Meka S. Sales, Health Care Program Officer at The Duke Endowment, serves on an employee committee that oversees the Endowment’s wellbeing in the workplace initiatives. As part of the voluntary program, employees wear trackers that monitor not only fitness activity but also sleep. The organization holds monthly challenges including a sleep challenge. Participants said they gained a lot of awareness of their sleep habits and could improve them.

  1. Get FitTogether

Exercise programs are probably one of the most common initiatives or employee benefits implemented to promote workplace wellbeing. Be creative about the fitness activities and also about how you equip your office to encourage exercise.

Crisis Response Network in Tempe, Arizona transformed an old training room into an on-site workout room after employees said they would use it to “let off steam” from their stressful work. The organization’s health insurance carrier, Cigna, covered the cost of the equipment for the onsite gym under the organization’s plan.

  1. Stand Up at Work

If “sitting is the new smoking,” according to Dr. James Levine who studies the destructive health effects of sitting too much, Gina Schmeling from Hazon, did her part to combat the ill effects when she ordered a Varidesk and used it at the office in an open, shared space.

“It was often immediately noticeable to visitors and people arriving to work if I had it up,” says Schmeling. “When people were curious, I showed them how it worked, and told them how much I enjoyed it.” Whenever she travels, Gina invites fellow staff members to log in at her computer and stand at work.

  1. Walking As Work

Many workplaces consider walking a “break activity” instead of a part of the actual work. Walking provides many work-related benefits beyond fitness and energy boosting including creativity, leadership development, and relationship building.

Karen Bloom, Chief Advancement Officer for Project Kesher, realized staff behavior needed to reflect the changes they were trying to make in the world. Bloom leads a monthly walk for staff at other companies and organizations in their office building. She does this rain or shine, even in the snow.

“If we are sitting in a staff meeting and trying to tackle a problem, I get them to stop, and I say, ‘let’s put this on our hiking meeting agenda.’ We will go in the woods with our list and brainstorm ideas for campaigns or programs,” Bloom explains.

  1. Group Accolades

Bringing compassion and caring into the workplace is a valid way to increase employee wellbeing. Scientists at Stanford University actually hold a conference called “Compassion and Business” and discussed how caring about your own wellbeing and caring for the wellbeing of others is not in conflict. Giving kudos is a great way to care for co-workers.

Melanie Duppins of DonorsChoose says the number one reason why their employees have long tenures working for the organization is because of their “people-first culture.”  Her nonprofit uses ‘YouEarnedIt’ platform (http://youearnedit.com/) that allows staff to give each other shout outs and accumulate points. They can redeem those points for a cash donation to one of the DonorsChoose classrooms.

  1. Building Community

Research shows that the way employees treat each other impacts stress levels. While there are techniques that individuals can use to manage toxic relationships in the workplace there are also ways your organization can foster a positive work environment such as establishing community building and kindness rituals.

At the Cara Program, a Chicago-based nonprofit that helps adults affected by homelessness and poverty get and keep quality jobs, stakeholders engages in a daily morning ritual that evolved organically over the organization’s 25-year history. Every morning, clients, staff and guests gather in a circle in the organization’s meeting room and answer a question of the day, such as, “Who or what gives you great joy and why?” or “What has happened in your life that has motivated you to change?” Participants share inspiring stories of personal growth and change. The morning ritual is not a visual show for donors but a chance for all to reflect on what makes everyone human. Staff and visitors alike say the experience is energizing.

  1. Mindfulness as a Team

Offering an option to take a break for mindfulness activities at work can benefit everyone on your team.

The organization Idealist offers a comprehensive wellness program and employee benefits that promote wellbeing. Idealist has a staff member in New York City, Caroline Contillo, who is trained as a mindfulness instructor and leads a mindfulness break at the office on a weekly basis. They use an empty conference room, arrange chairs into a circle, and guide people through the techniques. There is time for questions and comments at the end. The whole practice takes about 30 minutes.

  1. Creativity Breaks

Getting creative at work can help get staff out of unhealthy ruts and spark fresh thinking while giving everyone’s brains some downtime to recharge. Creativity activities don’t have to be time-consuming or complicated.

Susie Bowie, executive director of the Manatee Community Foundation, says the organization she was with previously – Community Foundation of Sarasota County – put up a white board in their break room. John Annis, Senior Vice President of Community Investment at the organization, started writing the start of a story on it, and staff members were encouraged to add another three to four words to it. This simple activity continued and not only built something funny or interesting for everyone to enjoy but also encouraged collaboration in a creative activity. The cues were the whiteboard and dry erase markers.

It has been a stressful year and we, in the nonprofit sector, need to collectively build our resilience muscles to be ready for whatever 2017 might bring our way.  Are you ready to make and keep a happy healthy new year’s resolution for your nonprofit?

Beth Kanter @kanter was named one of the most influential women in technology by Fast Company and is the award-winning author of The Networked Nonprofit books and the The Happy Healthy Nonprofit: Strategies for Impact without Burnout.She is an internationally acclaimed master trainer and speaker and served a visiting scholar at the David and Lucille Packard Foundation from 2009-2013.

Aliza Sherman @alizasherman is a web and social media pioneer; founder of Cybergrrl, Inc., the first women-owned, full-service Internet company; and Webgrrls International, the first Internet networking organization for women. She is a motivational keynote speaker and the author of eleven books, including Social Media Engagement for Dummies.


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