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Self-Care for Nonprofit Leaders: What About Me?

Shallow breathing, racing thoughts, tight voice, hunched shoulders. Frazzled, overwhelmed, always behind.

The nonprofit practitioner? No, this was me after just listening to war stories from and reading about the stressed lives of nonprofit leaders.

Here are quotes from several nonprofit leaders with whom I have spoken in preparation for this article:

“I found myself face up in a hospital bed, having had a massive heart attack, asking myself, is this worth it?

“I lie in bed every night, my mind racing in fear of losing one grant that is 10 percent of our entire budget. How are we going to feed the families?”

“Right now, I’m huddled in a blanket in my home because I’ve used most of my own money to pay the bills for my organization; I can’t afford heat in my own house.”

“With one government grant take-back, I lost $15 million. My entire budget was $30 million. I fell to my knees.”

How Do You Feel Every Day When You Walk Through the Doors of Your Office?

Let me ask: How do you feel every day when you walk through the doors of your office? Do you feel energized, refreshed, excited, impassioned? Do you feel ready to take on the day, knowing your resources are in place and secure, and ready to Make Mission Happen?

Or, do you cross the threshold of your office and give a deep or subtle sigh, feeling the overwhelm of your reality come over you and settle like a cloud?

Likely, you fall somewhere in between as you race in and open email, hard mail, texts, and private messages, and listen to your voicemail. In numerous conversations, I heard versions of these comments:

“I feel tied to my devices, responding all day to emails and texts.”

“Many days I look up and can't believe four hours have passed. I feel like I haven't gotten anything done.”

“My to-do list doesn't begin to get addressed until after work hours.”

“I get home, take care of everyone else, and then sit down to get my work done. I average four hours of sleep per night.”

Abigail Goldberg Spiegel, executive director of Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles, said: “My greatest challenge is that I have multiple roles in my life, executive director, mom, spouse, president, friend, etc., and I find that a need in any one area pushes self-care to the back burner.” Sound familiar?

You know better than this though. You know the many “shoulds” about self-care — breathe, create email reading hours, get outside at lunch, take breaks during the day, exercise more, eat better... and doubtless, there are “shoulds” about your personal life.

But this simply is not realistic. Teams of humans have human needs. They are often understaffed and under-resourced. Board members too-often do not want to raise money. There are too many government cutbacks in your funding. Your facilities are aging. Technology and equipment are expensive — even your phones now cross the five-figure budgetary expense.

Now, back to the title questions:

What about me? What do I want? Does it matter?

HEAR THIS: You are important. Yes, yes, yes, because you lead! If you constantly subjugate your needs, your vision and leadership will suffer.

Get clear on what you want — crystal clear, so you know you’re on track, on point, on purpose (more on this later).

It DOES matter. It matters because you must lead from a position of clarity, strength, and passion. If you’re burned out, overwhelmed, unclear, then mission impact suffers.

What Is the Picture of Your Life?

Picture this: you drive up to your office building, sit in the car for just sixty extra seconds, take a deep, cleansing breath, and set an intention for your day.

You visualize exactly how you want to feel during the day, not how you want it to go (a vital difference!), but how you want to feel: calm, in control, okay about the choices you make with your time.

Then, as you cross the threshold of your office, you affirm your intention: “I control my thoughts and my actions. I control how I feel today.”

When you sit at your desk, you affirm again and instead of going straight to email, you look at your calendar for the day and week, and mentally set up yourself for self-care success.

Only you know what “self-care success” means to you. Is it creating a checklist? Writing action items? Clearly delineating specific accomplishments that support your more balanced mindset?

Sue Catroppa, executive director of CAPTAIN Community Human Services in Saratoga County, New York, told me that she has created self-care routines in her life to help her be present and to avoid anxiety about issues in the past or concerns about the future:

I use my commute for processing, something I don't have a lot of time to do during my day. I breathe and try to wind down. When I get home, I change out of my “work clothes” and put on “home clothes.” I try to be fully present while I’m prepping dinner, just to be in the enjoyment of cooking. I love that I can create and complete something in the meal because much of my work is of long duration — big projects, strategic priorities, program outcomes — and it feels like I never complete things. I put love into my cooking, take care with it, and feel an accomplishment with a finished product.

Other things she does for her good self-care routine include reading. “I read to fill my mind so that I don’t perseverate on problems at work,” she said. She also uses weekends to recharge: “I get outside and get filled up with nature where I easily find calm and can quiet my mind.”

How does everyone around you respond when you are in better balance, confident, in control, and happy?

Imagine Starting Every Day with a Good Self-care Routine

Imagine and visualize throwing your car into park, running in, pulling up email while also listening to voicemail, taking off your coat, having a conversation with the office manager, and still having the audible book on fundraising going in the background. Is this scenario too familiar to you? Perhaps you do not have to “imagine” this, no?

Now, imagine, instead, how it would feel to start each day with a good self-care routine. Can you see why it is important that you know you are important, that you know what you want, and that you realize how much you matter?

On Competing Priorities

Let's get real. The life of a nonprofit leader is filled with multitudes of competing priorities at work. Program, staffing, funding, finances, facilities, planning, communications, and community development — “what about me?!” doesn't even seem like an appropriate thing to contemplate!

Okay, I get it. But, how is the overwhelm going for you? What if you committed this year to doing it differently? To contemplate and integrate new self-care habits to be a best role model for your employees, to feel better and more self-responsible, and to feel more in control this year? What would that feel like? Desirable? What would that do for you? How would it change your life? Think about this a LOT. The result of that self-reflection is your “Why?” Why do I want to feel more in balance and to get better at self-care? This is vital to your self-care success. It is your Why that helps you when you fall off the self-care bandwagon.

One executive revealed that she falls off that bandwagon. When faced with a big dilemma at work, she lies awakes at night with her mind racing about what to do; she simply cannot get her mind to settle down from the anxiety. Then, she loses sleep, is doubly stressed at work, and feels short patience and increased irritation. Then she feels guilty and the not- merry-go-round spins.

And what if you arrive home with young children needing to eat and get their homework done, a dog needing walking, aging parents you need to check on, and a uniform that needs cleaning again?

Here is the answer:  I have no idea.

That’s the truth. That scenario described my life for nearly two decades — and my husband cooked, cleaned, and parented!  I went down to part-time working to try to address all of this (ask me about the breakdown I eventually had while trying to do THAT),  back to full-time to make more money to pay for more things and alleviate the financial stress (that didn’t work out so well either), then finally started consulting in order to have more flexibility.

The only thing that worked was when I did a values prioritization to get really clear on who and how I wanted to be as a professional, wife, mom, person, etc. During these busy family years, I eventually had to let go of perfectionism and the picture in my mind of what I thought life should look like.

Do you have a picture in your mind of what your life should be like as the perfect leader? See that picture — what can you redesign? What might come later?

Here’s a secret: everything doesn't have to happen right now. What can you drop out of that picture, for now, in order to get, feel, and be better, more in balance?

Ultimately, the goal is not what you want to do, but how you want to feel while you are accomplishing great work today, in better self-care balance.

Please think about that. What, what, what can you do to get a little better at self-care and balance this year? What new habits can you create and keep? What will it feel like? How do you think it might affect your organizational culture if you succeed?

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