Self-care illustration

Self-care for Nonprofits

Curious? Skeptical? Gagging at the thought of another article on “self-care?” If I’m being honest, I’m with you on all three of those reactions. But I needed something provocative to get you to read.

Self-care IS probably one of the most overused and misappropriated terms out there right now. On the most surface and performative level (thanks, social media influencers), it’s all about massages and candles. Clean eating and meditation. Sleep and water. And of course, those things are important. But if we look at the actual meaning of care—or one that I find to be most attuned, anyway—the Macmillan Dictionary defines caring as “to be interested in someone and want them to be well and happy.”

If we think about this in terms of individuals, self-care, by definition, runs deeper than external or physical pampering. Wellness and happiness have to be nurtured and cultivated from within. Learning acceptance and self-love. Letting go of judgment. Recognizing what inspires us and what holds us back. Knowing our desires. Honoring our needs and energy patterns. Cultivating compassion for ourselves and others. Living in a way that aligns with WHO we want to be, and HOW we want to move through the world, rather than WHAT we want to accomplish. 

Whether you’re nodding your head along with this, or throwing me some new-agey side-eye shade, you’re probably still wondering: 

What does any of this have to do with my nonprofit? 

Just as we do as individuals, our organizations tend to get caught up in external pursuits or “fixes” that may seem right at the surface level, but often leave our inner workings to fend for themselves. We set audacious fundraising goals because more is always better. We develop long-term marketing plans to have concrete steps for what’s next. We hold team retreats or virtual offsites to “give our teams a break,” while simultaneously developing strategic roadmaps and OKRs around a campfire. These are the professional equivalents of making resolutions to exercise more, follow our career maps, and plan more spa days for our NPOs. 

And sure, all of these things are important on some level. But that level is an external one. Because in the same way we need to nurture our individual wellness and happiness from within, we need to nurture our organizational wellness and happiness from within, too. 

Look back to move forward

One of the things that many successful teams and companies do at the end of a project is hold a Retrospective Meeting. Someone with an objective role in the organization, often a Project Manager, serves as a facilitator and helps the team discuss what went right, what could have been done better, and what they might do differently next time. Blame, judgment, and finger-pointing are off-limits. Everyone is encouraged to be open and honest, rank and title are left outside the room, and there’s a shared agreement that the conversation is for the greater good of everyone, so egos are not allowed. 

Much of what we focus on in Retrospectives tends to be about outcomes or processes, which are completely valid things to reflect on. We can often learn a lot about our effectiveness and team dynamics this way, and gather important qualitative data to inform our next project. If you’re not familiar with Retros, you can check out this overview to get you up-to-speed. Despite all the benefits of this standard approach, I have a hunch that we could gain even more value and insight by turning our RETROspectives into INTROspectives: not just focusing on “what” happened during a project (or even a fiscal year), but “how” and “why,” as well. 

What was our goal, and why did we set it? 

What was our motivation? Were we sparked by fear? (What if COVID never ends?!) A scarcity mindset? (There aren’t enough donors/supporters/email subscribers to go around.) Comparison? (Look how well that other org is doing, we need to catch up.)

How did the process feel? Was it inspiring? Draining? Supportive? Overwhelming? Why did it feel that way?

Did we reach our goal? What helped us get there? What got in our way?

How can we do better next time? 

Beyond these being practical questions, they’re also heart-centered questions. 90% of them can’t be answered by data or metrics. They’re answered by getting in tune with your team’s—and your organization’s—feelings, fears, needs, energy states, mindsets, beliefs, etc. It’s easy to lose sight of these more amorphous (and dare I say, spiritual?) aspects of our work because we’re so focused on what’s concrete and measurable: growth, visibility, program delivery. But we can’t achieve any of those things if our teams are burned out, overwhelmed, or more tuned-in to metrics than meaning.

Ask HOW, not WHAT

I am a huge fan of Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why” philosophy, putting purpose at the core of everything we do. WHY is the north star; the truth that everything needs to come back to. But the second ring of his concentric circle, the HOW, isn’t given nearly as much attention. 

Why How What Graphic

Source: SimonSinek.com

Traditionally, the HOW is explained as ‘how you do what you do, in pursuit of your why.’ But if you’ve ever worked with a coach, or taken any kind of personal development courses, you may have run across HOW questions framed a little differently:

How do you want to show up in the world?

How do you want to feel? 

How do you want to spend your time?

These may seem squishy and woo-woo, but they’re actually incredibly valuable in learning about ourselves as individuals and organizations. Asking HOW tunes us into what’s below the surface. The “feeling tone” of our dreams, goals, or ambitions. 

For example, a personal goal may be to get a promotion. WHY? Because we want to be successful and make more money, of course. But what’s the feeling we’re hoping to experience by reaching that goal—our HOW?

Do we want to feel proud? Worthy? Accepted? Valued? It’s super interesting (and sometimes uncomfortable) to ask ourselves these questions because there are SO many more ways to feel proud, worthy, accepted, and valued than getting a promotion. But that’s where we’ve been conditioned to place our attention.

When we focus too much on the WHAT––the tactical execution, the end game, the goal—we oftentimes end up pursuing something that’s a product of our culture, our systems, our families of origin, etc., rather than pursuing something that’s more true to ourselves. It’s the same with our organizations. 

Imagine that our goal is to expand our services to three more cities this year. Our WHY is to help as many people as possible. Our WHAT is expansion. But what’s our HOW? I’m not talking about the executional tasks of expansion, like hiring 20 new people, adding to our website, finding real estate, etc. Those are all just micro-actions of our WHAT. The HOWs I’m referring to are:

How do we want our organization to show up in the world?

How do we want to feel every day about our work? 

How can we be most aligned with our WHY?

If you want your organization to show up as focused, compassionate, considerate, and reliable, for example–you need your people to be able to show up in the same ways. Would expanding to three more cities compromise these qualities at all? Would your teams be stretched so thin that they’re not able to be focused or reliable? Would taking on additional work strip your team of the time and space they need to be compassionate and considerate in what they’re already doing? Would it shift their daily work from program delivery to fundraising, because you need capital for the expansion? Will they feel like productivity is being valued over purpose? Will you still be able to support your current constituents as fully as you do now? 

I’m not saying that these things are always the case. But I am saying that HOW questions are worth asking. In this particular example, you might find that while expanding is still a valid long-term goal, it’s not what’s most caring for you, your team, your organization, or your constituents at this particular moment in time. Always being in pursuit of “what’s next” can often prevent us from being fully present and at our best in “what’s now.”

Practice Appreciation 

OK, fine. Appreciation, and its cousin, gratitude, rank right up there with self-care as rampantly overused social media buzzword fodder. But there’s scientific proof from the world of Positive Psychology that appreciation practices can have a profound impact on people’s well-being and happiness, which, if you recall, is part of the definition of care itself.  

Before getting in too deep here, I want to explore the difference between appreciation and gratitude. In this article, Reb Rebele, the research manager for people analytics at The Wharton School, summarizes that: 

  • Appreciation is about acknowledging the perceived value of something or someone. Appreciation is more of a cognitive act.
  • Gratitude is more affective. It is about feeling thankful, either as a direct beneficiary or on behalf of someone else.

So while I can be thankful for the vegetables on my table (gratitude), I’ll feel a much deeper sense of meaning if I also recognize the value of their nourishment, and the effort that the growers, farmers, pickers, distributors, truck drivers, and store clerks contributed in order to bring them to my family (appreciation). 

The same is true with how appreciation can have a profound impact on our teams’ and organizations’ well-being—both as recipients, and as givers. 

If you can, try to recall a time when a peer or manager said “thank you” for your work. “You did a great job on that report. Really well done.” It felt good, right? But now imagine, if in that same instance, they had said “You did a great job on that report, thank you. I really appreciate all of the time you dedicated to it. Your thoughtfulness and attention to detail were amazing, especially the way you explained the process. This is really going to help our team get the support we need next year.” 

Can you feel the difference that second example makes in your heart? Did your smile just unconsciously get a little bit brighter? Did your warm fuzzies get a little bit warmer? Not only was someone grateful, but they recognized the value of your effort and the impact of your contribution….and actually TOLD you about it. THAT’S the power of appreciation.

Another beautiful thing about appreciation is that it can be just as nourishing for the giver as it is for the receiver. By being specific about why we’re grateful for someone or something—appreciating their efforts, their qualities, their contributions—we’re elevating our own perception of the things that matter most to us. By telling your peer how much you appreciated his/her/their work, you’re telling yourself that thoughtfulness and attention to detail are important to you. You’re becoming more specific about what you value in yourself and in those around you. Maybe you’re even answering your own questions about HOW you want to show up in the world, which can help us determine as individuals, and organizations, what our priorities really are.

If you’re still feeling like this is too mushy, psychologists and neurologists have proven that being appreciative of others also elevates our own serotonin levels, and “contributes to feelings of well-being, stabilizes our mood, and helps us feel more relaxed.” So there. Science FTW 🙂

Self-Care as an Organizational Value 

The three practices I explored above are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to engaging in self-care for your nonprofit (or for any company, for that matter). There’s so much more we can adapt from the world of empathy, mindfulness, energy mapping, self-compassion, mental health…the list goes on…that we can also apply to the work we do as organizations—and the people who make our work possible. 

I firmly believe that by making real self-care (not just the Instagram kind) a priority, and a value, within all of our cultures, we can work toward a better world with a sense of greater wholeness, ease, and meaning. 

A friend of mine, Shelton Davis, recently talked about the difference between “hard work” and “heart work.” Heart work can definitely be challenging, but when we take the time to understand and align our efforts with what nourishes us on the inside—not just what’s expected or normative on the outside—we’ll be in a much better position to help ourselves, and others, thrive.