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Susan L. Axelrod, CFRE, FRC, CCP

About Susan

Self-Care for Nonprofit Leaders: Bracing Yourself for the Busiest Season

Labor Day, a day to celebrate workers. Year-end looms and a race begins for what is unarguably the busiest season for any nonprofit. Whether or not your fiscal year-end is on December 31, this date is the taxpayer’s year-end. It affects you.

No matter where you live, there’s one thing that’s undeniable about the autumn: the colors of the season. Bold hues of gold, orange, and red. You do not have to live in New England to see in your mind’s eye the beauty of the season.

For nonprofit leaders, the glory of autumn brings on something else: the madness and mayhem of the busiest season for any nonprofit. Yes, you would be living under a rock to not know that year-end is the giving-est time of year. Filled with galas, “athons,” appeals, mailings, and endless review of LYBUNT lists and donor files.

How on earth to take care of yourself when you are taking care of business?

One executive director knows how. Molly Ola Pinney, Founder and CEO of the Global Autism Project, has created a method to ensure good self-care practice even while she leads a global organization.

Traveling internationally does not stop her from doing what she knows is the right thing not just for herself or her own welfare, but also for her team. She said that she “used to think self-care was a bath and a glass of wine,” but now she realizes that it is a much bigger picture about personal balance, life, and relationships.

I have to be honest, after a thirty-plus-year career working with nonprofits, I was skeptical that this nonprofit leader really got the idea of the importance of self in self-care. Too many leaders tell their teams to “do what I say, not what I do.” I pushed a bit, asking multiple questions in various ways, but she did not flinch.

“I refuse to be one of those nonprofit CEOs who goes down in flames, burned out and ragged from wear and tear,” she said. “I did it for years. It did not go well.”

I asked Molly what had changed for her to give her this new work-view? She said that she watched peers get burned out and had felt herself burning out. “I made a decision that this was not going to be me, that this was not going to be how I was going to run my organization.”

Molly now believes that not taking care of yourself is as bad as stealing from the organization. That comment was an eye-opener for me. What a refreshingly unconventional view.

“I have worked too hard, and this work is too important, to allow it to fail,” she said. “So, the question is, how do we do this better? If someone is here working until midnight, something is wrong. How do we fix that?”

This CEO doesn't just talk a good game. She walks it, too. Using the trauma-based Self-Care Wheel, she created a Focus Guide and reviews/updates it annually with her team. It includes her annual plan and actually embeds a values system. Even in the annual writing of the focus guide, she uses her collaborative leadership approach. “We do things with, not for, people,” she said.

I asked Molly for an example of a way she encourages her team in self-care. She said that annually they have one spontaneously announced snow day. As long as you text a picture of yourself playing outside, you get a paid snow day. Molly was inspired to do this by her days growing up in New Hampshire. She remembered when they would have a snow day and just play outside all day. She knows the importance of time off for play and has built this into her business model.

Finally, she has created a Self-Care Assessment for her team, and she said she tries to do it herself every time she does it with a team member.

When I asked Molly about her biggest challenge to her own self-care, she said she would like to take a proper long vacation. Since she travels for work, it is difficult to find the time. Instead, for now, she has created a summertime four-day workweek for herself and does not turn on her phone or do any work while she is driving to her long-weekend location. Also, she said she has accepted that she is human. “It is not that you are never going to fail. It’s that you recognize it and bounce back. The time that passes between my self-care failures and corrections is reduced. That’s my growth.”

I couldn’t agree more! The cycle of struggle will always be there because we are human. How quickly you dial the cycle forward through triggers and chaos on the way forward to the stage of calm is what matters.

I am delighted for Molly and her team at the Global Autism Project to be in such awareness of the opportunity for self-care. I would like to offer, now, the one thing that Molly had to have found for herself and now gives to her team: permission.

Tips for Getting Through the Season

The first tool that I would like to talk about here is permission, possibly the single most important thing needed for your self-care success. I know the desire is there! I hear from every executive I interview how much they want to go to the gym, start meditating, spend time hiking, taking a cooking class, or any kind of endeavor .

As the leader, what is often neglected is self-permission to do these things. There is so much else to do that it is hard to give yourself permission to do something that seems superfluous or not vital to mission impact. I beg to differ. Your good personal, physical, mental, and spiritual health is, in fact, vital to mission impact. If you burn out, mission fails.

What could work for you to give yourself permission for self-care? What might you be able to do in order to get to the gym or do whatever it is you want to do? What has to happen?

Is permission needed from someone else? Might you speak with the board president or an associate leader about this to read them in on your desire and commitment for self-care through the year-end? Or, perhaps, is permission needed at home? Might a conversation with someone at home yield permission for you to commit?

Making a Plan for Self-Care

When you are faced with a busy time for you, make thirty minutes for you. Find a quiet place and take a monthly calendar (you can print it out from your Outlook or Google calendar). Set it in front of you and do some self-care planning. Look at the whole time period at once. See it all in flow from day to week to month, all the way to the year end.

Write in the event dates you have set for work, any personal dates of importance, and other vital things you’re aware of for this time. Now consider what weekly structure you can bring to your self-care. It may be a physical, mental health, spiritual, or personal care area, or all of the above — whatever you need to do to have good, healthy self-care during this busy time.

You know what I mean, right? If you think about last year end, can you see how days turned into weeks turned into months, and suddenly it was over and you never got to the gym once? You intended to but you simply could not do it. It’s not because you were lazy or irresponsible. You were doing your job and doing the best you could and likely happy to just make it through December 31. But now, you have an opportunity to look out ahead and do it differently this year end so that you don’t end up bushed during your own holidays with your family.

What can work for you? What will feel good to you? Keep your goals modest so you can achieve and dominate! Setting overly ambitious goals and failing to achieve is damaging to your mind and soul (ask me how I know). What is possible for you? Is thirty minutes a day possible? Is one hour a week possible? Is one Saturday afternoon a month possible? Whatever is realistic for you is what you want to plan for and commit to; it’s good enough, it’s good enough, it’s good enough. And surely, it’s better than doing nothing!

Can you see what I'm doing here? Can you see how this can go for you? You plan for budget, programs, staff, and for all kinds of other things for your organization. I’m encouraging you to do the same for your own self-care during this busiest season. Create, then honor, a routine that will best serve you.

Plan for Your Team, Too

As part of your own self-care plan, considering planning in a two-hour outside retreat for your team to take advantage of the beautiful and energizing season of autumn. Even if you do not live where you see the colors of autumn as I described as the outset of this article, likely you still have clear fresh air and a crispness of the season. An outdoor outing that is fun but not too strenuous will be refreshing. And there is an added benefit that nature is one of the windows to the soul. Anyone who participates in your offered outdoor retreat will fill a soul-uplift! Everyone will be refreshed. If your organization is so large that you cannot do all together, then try it in teams or shifts. There may be much to figure out, but it will be worth it. Clarity, fun, fresh air, soul-inspiration, and a bit of envisioning for the best year-end ever will ensure. Figure it all out. Do this! Another added benefit is that you are showing them your commitment to doing it differently this year. Just around the corner is 2020, a huge thing — the start of a new decade. Use this year end to practice and 2020 may be your best year ever.

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