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Susan L. Axelrod, CFRE, FRC, CCP

About Susan

Leadership, Self-Care, and the Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer

Nat King Cole recorded a song in 1963 with the hook, “Roll out those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer.” As a nonprofit leader, I bet you wish it were so for you.

Unfortunately, people do not suddenly get fed, saved, healed, or educated just because it’s summertime. The waters are not suddenly clean, animals protected, or air quality improved. School may be out for the summer, but campuses still need to be cared for, funds raised, and students recruited year-round.

While others are planning summer vacations and feeling happier and a bit freer during the dog days of summer, the impassioned people who run the nonprofit sector are working as much or more, making mission happen.

They are the ones who feed children when school lunch is not available and offer camp and teen programs so young people have a place to go when there’s no structure of school and after-school activities. They are the ones who create and organize summer ocean clean-up trips, family habitat houses, or cousin mission trips for others who are able and interested in taking summer impact vacations. They hold and tend to all the details of massive summer galas to raise money when others are in a sun-induced giving frame of mind, or golf events that raise money to support the food pantry that serves families that fall through the cracks during summer when assistance programs might take a hiatus. Does a hospital shut its emergency department because the sun is shining? Do the arts close down? Quite the contrary, some museums host free summer family days, orchestras offer free music in an amphitheater, and local theater companies offer plays in the park.

What is a nonprofit leader to do?

Answer: the work! There is no choice but to show up, be on time, rally the volunteers, juggle the staff summertime schedules, even inflate the van tires to get lunches delivered on time. And this: continue to make mission happen, plan for the fall reentry and use the summer lull to design meaningful mailings or sociable posts for social media campaigns during the most giving time of year, calendar year-end.

I get crazy when I hear “no one gets any work done during summer.” Try telling that to a nonprofit executive! It’s the executive who often makes up the slack from employee summer vacations, coming in early, working late, covering events in order to let employees take that needed vacation during the precious summer months.

One executive told me that she knows enough to insist that her staff plans for some summer time off, but often it’s more of “do what I say, not what I do” as she stays behind to cover shifts while also trying to fit in budget preparation, strategic planning, and orchestrate the upcoming anniversary event. She is genuine in helping her staff get a bit of a summer break, and honest when she asks herself, “when is it my turn?”

How on earth is a nonprofit leader supposed to get a break—even a summer break—to find a self-care routine?

Answer: with thought, with commitment, and with action.

Thought

Tune in to your thoughts. How often do you hear yourself thinking something like, “I’m so busy,” “I feel overwhelmed,” “I just can’t anymore,” “This is all too much,” or “How am I going to do this?”

Does this resonate with you? Do you hear yourself having thoughts like this? Becoming aware of the thoughts that swirl through your mind is key to grabbing your own summertime moments (more on that later).

Don’t take my word for it, feel free to research any of the over five million results in the google search “mind over matter” to learn more. You can read a brief but powerful American Psychological Association Journal article (download the PDF here) out of Harvard and University of California San Francisco titled: “Mind Over Matter: Reappraising Arousal Improves Cardiovascular and Cognitive Responses to Stress ,” that discusses how simple reappraisal instructions, or thought transformation, were sufficient to positively affect both physiological and cognitive responses to stress.

Are you asking yourself if it’s possible that just changing your thoughts or changing the way I think about something could make you feel different, better, lighter, or possibly even feel good? Answer: yes. It’s not only possible, it’s absolute. IF you learn the tools of mindset reframe.

One of my clients had an epiphany in our work together. Stemming from a simple conversation we had, followed by commitment and action, she still thanks me for one single thought reframe: changing “I’m so busy” to “I like being busy, I’m better busy,” said to self in a congratulatory way, feeling on purpose and accomplished. This, then, got her to focus on what the “busy” was, coming to conscious awareness of what was keeping her so busy. If it was in mission impact, no matter how tedious, hard, or strenuous, then she was happy to be busy doing that activity. If she thought about it and realized that this has NOTHING to do ultimately with mission impact, then she started giving herself permission to say, “no.” Not even a “no, thank you” was necessary, as her life-changing work was too important for niceties to others. Just a simple “no” to herself was all it took to reframe her thoughts, commitment, and action.

Are you getting it more, now? I hope so, because this gem will also change your personal life, but of course that is just a side ‘bene’ to my article. I’m laser-focused here on your mission-impact work on behalf of our world, on you, and your self-care.

Let’s move onto commitment now. What’s THAT all about?

Commitment

Commitment is all about you. You choose. You decide. You determine. You lead. You are already a leader and you know it.

This self-leadership mastery of self-care will support your executive leadership persona. When you grow self-care as a personal value and reduce stress with commitment, you will grow fortitude and wherewithal as a leader because your employees do what you say AND do.

If you integrate this personal deep-seeded commitment into your mind as a new thought pattern, and practice it repeatedly, it will turn into a new way of thinking—not a selfish, all-about-me thing, but, rather, “I matter as the leader, and my physical and mental health matters.” Commit to yourself and the commitment will impact your employees and your organization in the now. It will support a more sustainable future from a place of executive strength.

Action

Make the calendar your friend. Time management is hardly a new tool, but I am suggesting it here, in the context of improved self-care. A bit of summertime-easy can be yours, if you think about it. Commit to it and make a plan. Way before the season starts, I would encourage you to look at your calendar, work with your board and other executive or management staff, and plan for at least a full week off sometime during the summer! Even better would be one week each in July and August. But if that is simply not possible, then at least a number of three-day weekends to give you a sense of time away and something to really look forward to.

Time away offers perspective, and a rest and refresh. You know that this applies to your team members—you tell this to them!—but I am reminding you that this also applies to you as the leader. Indeed, I could make an argument that it applies to you even more! Applying it and integrating it yourself is important. You are the visionary; you have the broad shoulders, the strong stomach, and eight octopus arms juggling and managing while also bearing the brunt of the “knowing”; knowing what’s to come with the budget/programs/people. This is especially true at this time in history with pending cuts to the nonprofit sector, the likes of which we may never have seen before.

Potent Self-Care

It is possible that your long-term lack of self-care and dearth of summertime fun have led to burnout (be honest!). This is important because it’s possible, even likely, that you are one of the ten thousand baby boomers retiring daily since 2011 and continuing until 2031, and it is your legacy that will affect your organization’s future.

I submit that thought, commitment, and action of a positive, potent self-care practice could help to shore up defenses to the normal chatter and chaos that is infused in the life of a nonprofit executive and leads to feelings of being under-valued or under-invested.

It is your responsibility to give thought, and perhaps discuss with your board president and even your board as a whole, the values they have for the organization’s strength under your leadership. If presented with this article, might they agree on the importance of a healthy self-care practice and support your attempt to grab some of that summertime fun, even, dare I say, insist that you deserve a few lazy days of summer as the hardworking executive you are?

Is it an exaggeration to say that your physical and mental health and wellness depends on the practice of taking a break from it all? Okay, so research shows that by changing the way you think about stress, you could change the way the stress affects you! But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t also grab a bit of summer while it’s here. Be a good role model while also having some fun (yes, that!).

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