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Susan L. Axelrod, CFRE, FRC, CCP

About Susan

Self-Care for Nonprofit Leaders: A Spring Frame of Mind

Spring is in the air!

Over the winter, seeds hibernate, the outer shell protecting the inner seed. Then in the spring, the shell breaks apart and a new shoot is sent up toward the sun. Everywhere you look, blossoms are bursting forth.

Your life as a nonprofit leader is too often being all things to all people — team, board, consumers, community, family. It’s also needing to have all skills for all things —managing, supervising, budgeting, fundraising, relationship building, networking, speaking, organizing, and on and on.

What Seeds about Self-care Have Been Hibernating in You?

Have you had something percolating in your mind for months about what you want to do or how you want to change your habits? Do you desire a healthier physical or spiritual life? Have you had thoughts of wanting to feel better, get better, and do better for yourself, your family, your team? Perhaps you’ve had a desire to create new habits or patterns for how you want to be.

Now is the time! Spring has sprung!

As I have been writing this series, the common thread in conversations with nonprofit leaders is ‘too much.’ It all feels like too much, trying to weave it all together with a healthy frame of mind and self-care balance.

Now is the time! As the weather yields to sunny warmth, and as summer vacation is on your horizon, now is the time to cultivate that self-care garden to help it grow.

Is this analogy working for you? Do you get what I'm going for here? I ask because I believe these are life-saving and life-altering questions that nonprofit leaders should ask themselves: “How can I feel better?” “How can I feel more in control?” “How can I practice good self-care and be a good role model for those around me both at home and at work?” My goal in this series is to inspire you to think about these questions and earnestly seek the answers. What is your spring self-care shoot waiting to blossom?

What Is Your Spring?

Spring for one person I spoke with, Kirk Adams, CEO of the American Foundation for the Blind, came in the form of an admonishment from his wife. “I feel like I'm third on your list,” he said. “Your work is first, your PhD is second, and I'm third.”

Kirk did not hesitate to share something so personal with me on behalf of this article. He told me:

That was a rude awakening for me, and I took action right away. I made a lot of changes that included working toward a more mindful and present way of being. I started listening to inspirational and motivational podcasts to find a more balanced and inspired way to be personally as well as professionally. I sought out the services of a coach, a spiritual coach really, to help me on that journey. It is interesting to note that the podcasts and material I listened to seem to be geared more toward women. I did not let that dissuade me; my commitment was deep to changing the priority order in my life.

I had always been a high achiever. As a blind person, I had to work even harder. People without this disability have no idea of the additional work, commitment, and energy it takes. Everything that comes to you needs to be translated. You need to hear and listen more deeply because of the lack of the eye sense.

I started out doing this for my wife, but quickly realized the benefit of changing myself, my outlook, and my attitude, and becoming a new person. The resources I sought were extremely helpful, and I still use them to keep me on track because of my busy life. I feel my work and management has improved, too.

I asked if he would encourage others to access similar spiritual and inspirational resources and teaching. “Absolutely,” he said. “I have felt calmer and more confident, and even when things happen that are significant and out of my control, I know I can better manage a balance, even with my busy life.”

How Do You See Yourself?

A further interesting phenomenon blossomed during my research for this article. Many executives see themselves as having a good self-care practice of identifying activities of health and wellness. But when asked for an overall rating on a “how balanced do you feel your life is” scale, the rating was not consistent with the practices. They were usually lower than the actual practices would indicate, an interesting self-reflection picture.

This happened with Linda Rozell-Shannon, PhD, founder and president of the Vascular Birthmarks Foundation, a global organization that has networked into treatment hundreds of thousands of patients affected by a birthmark.

Since seeking and not being able to find treatment for her own daughter who developed a hemangioma, Linda pledged to God that if she found help for her daughter, she would create an army of others to help those in need, just as she had been. Over twenty-five years, the divine partnership has generated a website that is the premier resource, a vast global network of medical providers, the most active social media in this arena, thirteen international chapters, clinics around the United States and missions around the world, and an antibullying campaign.

Linda is the general of this army, often personally responding to hundreds of emails a week from parents desperately seeking support. Linda’s command central is a home office, so she struggles, as most do when working from home.

Linda has established clear practices which she sees as self-care success. These include working out daily, getting ready for work each day as if she was leaving the house for a meeting, creating downtime like watching television and walking in the nice weather to unwind, often speaking on the phone at that time. And she reads scripture nightly before going to sleep, helping her to stay grounded, humble, and clear on her purpose. She has a housekeeper and buys healthy cooked food which frees her. And she has a glass of wine at night!

As I reviewed her response to my survey — and in full disclosure, I have personally known this remarkable nonprofit leader since shortly after she established this organization — I had to laugh. With all of those great self-care practices, she gave herself just a 5 or 6 out of 10 on the scale on the “overall balance” scale. Had I been asked, I would have rated those practices at least an 8! But, as I also know that she is one of the most prolific nonprofit leaders I have met in my thirty-four-year career in this business, it brought even greater awareness to the topic at hand!

When you are “changing lives and saving lives” (credit the late Jerold Panas for always reminding us of this, our greater purpose), how much is enough? When are you done? When is it okay to call it quits for the day — before you’ve checked on your team, completed a grant application, finished your board report, thanked the latest donor, written your CEO newsletter article, or updated the financials?

Creating a Meditative Space

Back to spring.

I find that spring and summer are good seasons to start something new. To continue with my analogy, think of the work it takes to clean out a garden. Getting in the dirt, raking, digging, pulling out weeds, cutting back, tilling. Then, planting, feeding, watering, pruning — attentively cultivating the beauty to come forth.

Ironically, I am not a gardener. I have dabbled over the years, enough to be able to create this analogy, but it’s not something I love to do. Yet, as I read my own words, I can feel the raking and clearing, the pulling and thinning, of the dense weeds of clutter in the mind that have taken hold over the long winter.

Gardening has an almost meditative quality — one of the tools an executive said changed her life (see my earlier article in this series) and one of the tools I have found to be in use by many nonprofit leaders. Meditating helps you keep calm and focused, which leads to feeling more in control.

However, the more typical response I get to the question, “Do you meditate?” is this: “Meditate? You’re kidding, right?! Sometimes I can’t focus enough to remember what I needed from downstairs to upstairs, I certainly don’t have time to meditate even though I know I should.” Ah, another should. As a coach, I work with clients to help lift off the should.

I suggest a new concept that I created for myself that was a game changer for me. I call it creating a meditative space. Not space as in physical space, but rather a mental clearing, a breath, a moment of focus, an intentional moment of calm — seeking moments to close your eyes, take a few deep breaths to clear your mind, and then just being. Just being. Not doing, the famous nonprofit-leader pastime. This is how I came up with the name of my first book, Your Job is To Be. But I digress.

What can this look like for you? When might the moment or opportunity appear? And if a moment does appear, do you even know how to take that first, clear, breath? This might be a funny question to you, but at that time in my life, I just didn’t realize how shallow I was breathing. As part of my own work and journey, I learned to breathe. It’s not hard: take a moment, stop your body, shake out your body a bit, then take a deep, intentional breath in, hold it for a few-count, then let it out for a few-count longer.

If you want, you can visualize breathing in the good and exhaling, in a whoosh, the bad. Or whatever you want to do and can do to serve your lungs, body, and brain through cleansing breaths. That’s it, try it. Try breathing deeply instead of being in the shallow breath space that most of us reside. It centers you. It is grounding. You feel balanced in that moment. And — mindfulness, right? — this moment is all there is.

From my own place of overwhelm, I started with my breath, my journey over a decade blossomed, and we’re back to spring! Again, after the winter, how refreshing to clear the mind a bit, to declutter the senses, and restore the soul. Taking that breath, becoming centered, going outside, activating your body, and engaging with others who are doing the same. This is my simple prescription for starting new self-care habits this spring.


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