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2018 New Year's Resolution: How to Become a Healthy, Happy Nonprofit

This time of year, resolutions abound. It will come as no surprise that more than 45% of resolutions are focused on self-care and personal well-being. Pledges to take the stairs, reduce portions, and make it to the gym on a regular basis make the list. Unfortunately, sometimes life, and particularly work get in the way.

Beth Kanter, author of "The Happy Healthy Nonprofit," believes strongly that nonprofits are particularly at the risk of unknowingly sabotaging their staff’s plan for self-care. The nonprofit culture of doing more and more with less and less can be exhausting. In a recent interview, Kanter shared her thoughts on the dilemma that nonprofits face that may chip away at the passion that once ignited their staff. Additionally, she provides some practical suggestions for providing a culture that supports your staff’s quest for a healthier lifestyle, all year long.

In what ways do nonprofits challenge their staff’s self-care and personal well-being?

“Passion is what drives nonprofits,” says Kanter, “but what begins as a personal investment in the organization's mission can quickly become the driver of stress and overwork that leads to overall lackluster performance.”

Whether the expectation setting is personal, or in part driven by leadership, the nature of the nonprofit culture can lead to a devastating, yet familiar result — burnout.

The Nonprofit cultural environment includes a number of strengths that compel people to work hard to achieve great things, but too much of those same strengths noted below can transform into detriments.

  • Passion begins to wane: Wanting and knowing you can make a difference is what drives nonprofit staff but slowly the realization hits them that the need and issues are neverending.
  • Scarcity mindset: Living in a world where human and financial resources are limited, coupled with the always-looming risk of funding loss, always has the staff on edge.
  • Myth of indispensability: Commitment becomes compulsive as staff attends to everything and can’t see the organization functioning without their vision, their oversight, and 24/7 attention.
  • Courtesy culture: Everyone is nice to each other and no one wants to rock the boat by dealing with issues, particularly in the area of work performance. An undercurrent of resentment can begin if the staff views inconsistencies and favoritism as they handle even more for the weak link in the organization.

The above detriments can then lead to Burnout: Passion begins to diminish and the drive that once propelled the organization is depleted to the point that the mountain in front of them seems more unattainable. Staff engagement falters and performance suffers.

What can Nonprofits do to nurture and drive a high-performance culture, while still supporting staff self-care?

Kanter shares her “Five Spheres of Healthy Living” as a framework to introduce some practical resolutions, especially to begin the New Year. The five intersecting spheres include Self, Technology, Work/Money, Environment, and Others. “They have an impact on not only the health of the person but the organization in total,” Kanter says. “It is a joint agreement between an employee and leadership, and the leaders must model the behavior to demonstrate the commitment.”

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  • Consider walking meetings. Exercise and possibly shorter meetings might be the benefit! Getting up and moving vs sitting can go a long way to good health.
  • Encourage staff discussion about well-being. From a simple meeting check “How are you feeling?”, to an open discussion of ways they might propose to improve their well-being as well as the organizations.
  • Serve healthy food at meetings. Consider passing up the donuts and serving alternatives such as more fresh fruit/vegetables and salads.
  • Encourage vacations. Everyone needs to detach and return refreshed and invigorated.


  • Take a break. Take a walk at lunchtime and get fresh air during the work day
  • Improve lighting. While natural light is best, a soft desk lamp to supplement the traditional overhead can brighten the mood.
  • Reduce office interruptions. Establish a policy regarding noise reduction such as where conference calls are taken and the use of headphones for music for example, to reduce disturbances in the work day.


  • Push “Pause” on Fire Drills. While a rule of no more last-minute “fire drill” actions would be ideal, next time consider pushing PAUSE to understand what caused it, is it a one-time thing or a repeat, and identify the root cause. Is it a system issue or can it be anticipated?
  • Agree on no after-hours email. Unless it is a full-fledged emergency! This takes some strong leadership modeling. One company used the word “banana” in the subject line if it was truly urgent while driving home the point that not everything is urgent — not everything is a banana!
  • Standardize scheduled meeting times. Establish standing work day meeting start and end times that are agreeable to all, such as no meetings earlier than 8 a.m. or later than 5 p.m.


  • Allow only meeting-support technology. Allow only technology required to manage a meeting to help focus all attendees on the subject at hand.
  • Set up a Digital Detox Box. Consider a box outside the meeting room where all electronics are held in safe keeping until AFTER the meeting.
  • Create a phone stack. Place all phones in a stack in the middle of the table, not to be used during the meeting.


  • Include team-building opportunities. Include regular forums for staff to engage with others both inside and outside of the work environment. Consider bike riding, yoga, mindfulness training, or hiking as an alternative to happy hours!
  • No Email day. Take one day a month or week, and reduce the team’s reliance on emails and instead, TALK TO FOLKS FACE TO FACE!

Kanter’s list provides some practical resolutions to begin the year based on what applies to your organization. Consider pacing your efforts much as anyone beginning their own self-help. Start with a walk around the block before signing up for a marathon! Too many resolutions can only serve to add more stress to an already stressful situation, so start slow and begin to build momentum along the way.

If you are interested in more from Beth Kanter and interested in her book “The Happy Healthy Nonprofit,” you can find it at here.

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