Chief of Staff at UT Southwestern Medical Center.
Many individuals and leaders thrive in what is commonly adopted as a “mission first” culture for nonprofit organizations. The heightened sense of urgency for your cause can create an environment where excellence becomes the expectation, and the continual push for the next new, innovative $100-million-dollar fundraising campaign is the norm. While constant innovation and a drive for continual improvement are admirable in order to meet the growing needs of those you serve, the pace of urgency day after day, year after year, can lead to employee burnout and mission fatigue, including among leadership.
So how can we, as nonprofit leaders, sustain the necessary energy and enthusiasm to keep ourselves—and our teams—going?
Below are a few ideas to maintain your own energy, motivation and wellness so that you can bring your best self to work each day for you, your team, your organization and the constituents you serve.
1. Pick yourself first.
As leaders, we’re taught to practice servant leadership, but sustaining momentum and being able to inspire your team begins with your own attitude and well-being. Too often, I see leaders confuse servant leadership with being completely selfless, including not setting boundaries with others and taking the time needed to recharge.
Numerous studies show that without a break, productivity can decline, your mental health can suffer and even your work product can falter. While affording a vacation these days can be challenging due to the rising costs of, well, everything, taking time away from work is what matters. Even if that means turning on your out-of-office for a staycation to work on your garden, taking some time can have a positive impact for yourself, your team and your organization.
2. Be curious.
Sometimes reigniting your curiosity and interest in learning can help to reignite your passion for work and spark new energy that your team will pick up on as well. For example, make a list of the areas of your organization that you know the least about. Ask to shadow a team member or two in that area for a project or even a day. Ask questions, learn more about the subject and find new ways to collaborate to serve your mission. Studies also show that a lifelong learning mindset enhances career success.
As I shared in another recent Forbes Nonprofit Council post, a hunger for learning and personal growth can also be contagious on a team. If you are motivated to learn even within your own organization, others can be inspired. It is important for leaders to model learning mindset behaviors with our teams, as this can have a positive impact on the culture and outcomes of our organizations.
3. Be honest.
Sustaining a positive outlook and maintaining the level of energy required to meet and exceed goals each year is hard. While there is not a magic trick for each person, being honest with your team and acknowledging their own struggles can help to bring a team closer together, drive engagement and present new opportunities to discuss work-life balance.
We also know that opening lines of communication among your team can help reinforce a network of peer support. This can be especially important if some people are not willing to share their challenges directly with leadership. While we always want our teams to feel comfortable speaking up, we have to meet people where they are. As leaders, we cannot force employees to share with us, but we can create a safe environment rich with opportunities for feedback and discussion by acknowledging challenges and modeling communication, which promotes transparency.
4. Seek out mission moments.
One of the things we can grow callous to is seeing the impact of our work in the nonprofit space. Sometimes that is because we don’t directly interact with the constituents we serve; other times it may just be a matter of not taking the time to celebrate your organization’s impact or accomplishments. Mission moments are those opportunities where you are privileged to see the impact of your work firsthand. Seeking out mission moments for you and your team can serve as a reminder of the “why” behind your work and can make a huge difference in your own morale and that of your team.
5. Practice gratitude and mindfulness.
Finally, learning to practice gratitude and mindfulness can help develop life-long skills benefitting a multitude of factors in your life. One of the ways that my organization, UT Southwestern Medical Center, promotes wellness is by holding workshops, webinars, lectures and mindfulness experiences that span personal, professional and institutional well-being. For example, leadership workshops help leaders learn how to identify and support those in distress, and free yoga lessons are taught over Zoom so even employees in areas of the business who cannot leave their site of service, such as those in patient care, can participate. Look for ways to get everyone involved.
While these are just a few ideas to get your wheels turning, it’s important to recognize that what motivates you is deeply personal. As a takeaway, consider making your own well-being a priority and hold yourself accountable, just as you do with your team’s performance, professional development and growth. And in case you haven’t heard it in a while, thanks for all that you do to help the nonprofit sector contribute to the well-being of society. We need you here.