Career Calisthenics for Healthier Nonprofit Workers


This is a guest post by Danielle Holly, a Nonprofiteer and CEO of Common Impact, a national nonprofit that designs corporate skills-based volunteer programs to strengthen the talents of employees and the ability of nonprofits to achieve their missions.

Danielle Holly
Danielle Holly

Before you read another word, let me put this on the table. I don’t believe in work / life balance. I never really know what people mean when they say it but, for me, it doesn’t — and shouldn’t — exist. It implies two things that I have trouble reconciling:

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First, that work and life are somehow separate. That work isn’t part of life and that you don’t bring your “life” with you to work. Most of our worlds aren’t that black and white, and if they were, they’d probably be a lot less fun.

And second, it implies that there is a specific destination at which to arrive, the mystical light at the end of the tunnel where work / life balance champions are waiting to congratulate you for finally achieving personal and professional perfection. This path to balance is often measured in steps, usually in the hours of your day and what you choose to do with them, with unspoken (or spoken) consequences of your choices: If you work late at night, you’re dedicated but also a workaholic (so take one step back). If you leave the office as soon as the clock hits five, it’s great that you want to be with family, but maybe you’re not driven enough (so you only get to take half a step forward). And then there are the larger, longer-term decisions that are measured more in leaps, but in what direction? If you choose not to have children, you’re prioritizing your career… perhaps too much? If you do choose to have kids, you’re making a choice to step off the path to success altogether… maybe?

And as much as the concept of work / life balance has always proven itself untenable to me, I spend many conversations — with my family, friends and colleagues — wrestling with how to meet the barrage of demands that we all face.

Many of those discussions are with colleagues who are working for bootstrapping nonprofit organizations. They come to the work with a readymade sense of purpose and a drive to make the world a better place. Wired towards generosity and selflessness, they’re willing to get paid less for doing it. For these folks, the daily decisions on how to “balance” work and life often feel larger than themselves — since they are so connected to keeping their organizations thriving and continuing to deliver critical services to those far less fortunate than they. The result, all too often, is significant burnout — especially at senior levels of leadership. Research that the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network conducted a few years back reflects that 45% of nonprofit professionals tend to leave the nonprofit sector largely because of this burnout factor.

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And while there is no silver bullet we can use to reverse this, one common, core challenge that I’ve heard in my conversations with these impressive nonprofiteers is a struggle to prioritize their own physical and mental health while they’re trying to support those they serve.

This is, of course, not a challenge that’s necessarily unique to the nonprofit sector. However, it is one that the sector is uniquely poised to address by modeling careers that are centered on employee sustainability and health. The nonprofit sector is nimble, creative, human-centered by design, and filled with naturally purpose-driven people who have already decided that supporting the well-being of others is a part of what they want to do with their careers. What better sector to truly dedicate itself to the health of its employees?

But how?

Well, from the collective wisdom of those many conversations, struggles and contradictions, let me highlight a few strategies that help me think about this challenge in my own world.

1) Talk about it. Whether you manage one employee or hundreds, when you’re in a leadership position, your employees take their cues on workplace health from you — not the policy that’s in the books. One of the best ways I’ve found to encourage a healthy workplace is to simply talk about my own decisions to incorporate health. If you’re taking off early to head to the yoga class you love, say it. If you’re taking a day off because you’ve been working hard and you just need a day to de-stress, tell your team that and encourage them to do the same. If you’ve let yourself say yes too many times, confess. It’ll remind them that their overall health and happiness is important to you.

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2) Calibrate your workplace. At the organization I lead, Common Impact, we have a wide range of workstyles — introverts, extroverts, those that need a traditional office space, those that are more productive working from the comfort of their home, those that need a change of scenery every few hours. A big challenge for employers has been creating a workplace that’s conducive to health and productivity for all employees. One size rarely fits all, which is why the broader cultural move towards an open office layout has been met with such mixed results.

Nonprofits, typically more nimble in their infrastructure than private or public sector organizations, have the opportunity to flex to meet the varying needs of their employees in a special way. By building questions into the interview and onboarding process around each individual’s optimal work environment, you understand early on what will make your team thrive. By seeking out mixed office space — with single offices, collective working space and comfortable nooks (beanbags optional) — you enable employees to find the environment that’s right for them.

3) Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate: Nonprofit managers are always on the lookout for ways to reward strong performance with tiny budgets for raises and professional development. So as a member of a nonprofit staff, whether you’re negotiating your salary and package as you enter into a new gig, or are reflecting on what will allow you to do your best in your current environment, suggest some sweeteners that will sustain you for the long term. A stipend for a gym membership, a weekly work-from-home day, a standing desk and sunlight (for those of us who struggle through the cold, dark Northeast winters), a delayed start time so you can bring your kids to school without tearing your hair out. Whatever it is for you, be upfront about what would make you truly happy in your role beyond the work itself — and be specific about how it’ll make you a stronger employee. Most managers already understand the business case, knowing well the impact to their business when they have tired or unmotivated employees, and will jump at the chance when you provide suggestions for specific, actionable approaches.

None of this is to say that these practices are easy to incorporate. And nonprofits, strapped for cash, don’t have the resources to roll out all the benefits that they might want to offer their employees at scale. But they do have the know-how and the motivation to make strong, meaningful shifts in the culture of their workplaces. This is the sector that pioneered the importance of building a feeling of purpose into work, so much so that an entire generation (hello Millennials!) is now demanding it. All industries and sectors are now bending to meet such demands. In fact, in 2014, 55% of Millennials who worked for private employers said they were influenced to take the job if their commitment to social causes was brought up in the interview process. That’s real influence.

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Nonprofit leaders have a critical role to play in keeping our staff members sustained and healthy enough to help those they serve, to make sure employees grab their own oxygen masks before they assist others. In the nonprofit sector, we often tell our clients to be their own advocates. We have a chance to do the same with our employees, and encourage our otherwise fearless nonprofiteers to articulate what they need to live an integrated, purposeful life, knowing that “balance” is not a destination, but rather a day-to-day choice that we each must make.

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What healthy practices have you seen in your workplace? How have you seen colleagues influence each other to prioritize their own well-being?

Danielle Holly is dedicated to creating previously unseen pathways for individuals to meaningfully contribute to making their communities thrive. She envisions a world where every person is able to bring their values and personal mission to their day jobs, integrate healthy and sustainable personal lives and, as a result, have the drive and energy to make our communities more equitable and vibrant. She is currently the CEO of Common Impact, an organization that designs corporate skills-based volunteer programs that strengthen the talents of employees and the ability of nonprofits to achieve their missions. She has served on the Board of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network and Net Impact NYC. Connect with Danielle on Twitter.

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