Self-Care for Sustainable Nonprofits

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By Michelle Basham, Executive Director

After spending more than two decades working in nonprofits, I know how dangerous burnout can be. Nonprofit employees are passionate about the causes they work for, and are often asked to take on extra workload or work longer hours for the cause. After all, issues like homelessness and hunger don’t go away just because the clock strikes 5 p.m.

Our employees care for the youth that we serve. They’re motivated to work hard so that young people don’t need to be homeless. They want to provide support, connect youth with resources, and help them start down the path to a happy adulthood.

But sometimes, the best way to do that is to go home.

In 2015, the average turnover rate for nonprofits was 19 percent. That means that almost a fifth of the staff leaves every year. Direct service positions – the people who work directly with clients – see the most turnover. People leave jobs for many reasons, but one of the most common in the world of nonprofits, especially for direct service staff, is feeling overworked.

For a nonprofit to be sustainable, they can’t operate in crisis mode. While homelessness is absolutely a crisis for every individual experiencing it, it’s day-to-day work for us. That means that if a youth walks in as we switch from day to night staff, we don’t ask the day staff to stick around an extra hour to do another intake. We expect them to walk out the door, enjoy their evening, and come back in the morning refreshed and ready to do their job.

We encourage self-care in other ways as well. We offer all of our employees 4-6 weeks of PTO annually, depending on their tenure. We allow some staff to bring their cats and dogs to the office, which has been proven to reduce stress. We recently held a mandatory all-staff training on self-care. We believe that our staff are people first.

A culture of overworking employees is all too common in the nonprofit sector, because the work we do is so consequential. I’ve learned that it’s too easy for overwork to lead to burnout, and the only way we can continue doing good work is by giving our staff the chance to take a break.

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