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Susan L. Axelrod, CFRE, FRC, CCP

About Susan

Self-Care for Nonprofit Leaders: On Balance

A series on self-care for nonprofit leaders? Isn’t that an oxymoron?

Might be. But explore it we must. The nonprofit sector rests on the shoulders of the leaders, and the shoulders are sagging under the weight of the combination of massive responsibility and lack of self-care. The balance is totally out of whack.

Balance? You mean like on a tightrope, wobbling back and forth, worried that you’ll fall without a safety net below? Or balance, like on a seesaw, up and down/up and down, back and forth, balancing the weight on both sides of every issue?

If balance is a hallmark of self-care, then it seems most nonprofit leaders fail.

We’re balancing employee attrition with donor attrition, balancing board and staff meetings with donor meetings, balancing community events, professional education, marketing, financials, data, and metrics, all with just the most recent equipment failure (computers, cars, furnace).

Where on that list are you? Where in The Balancing Act do you interject time for self or family, full healthy meals, a workout, a mind-clearing meditation, or even a quick walk outside?

Founder Syndrome Lacks Balance

This litany of lack used to describe Susan Shifrin, Founder and Executive Director of Artz Philadelphia. When I called to ask if I could interview her for this CharityChannel series on self-care, she laughed. Here's what she told me:

It’s funny that I'm the person you thought of to call for an article about self-care. When we first met, I know I was a mess. But I'm not anymore, and I'm happy to tell you about the one tool that changed everything for me. It’s meditation.

When I learned finally to create time and space to meditate, and I learned the benefits of meditation, I got clearer and calmer. I try to never miss a day. It helps me think more clearly and do better in my work and be better at my job. But most importantly, it really does help me feel more balanced.

When we first met, I can acknowledge how totally out of balance I was. I was a typical founding director – the mission was so important to me, it was so personal, that I allowed the work to become more important than my personal life. Balance and self-care were elusive; I have to admit I’m still not that great on the self-care part. It’s something I want to get better at. One thing that is still out of balance is finding sustained funding and this is on my mind most of the time. I am committed to finding those lifelong loyal donors you talked about when I first met you, the ones who become partners in our mission.

Fundraising? That’s another thing altogether. It’s the single thing I have found that creates the most imbalance in nonprofit leaders due to growing need, growing cutbacks, growing competition for philanthropic dollars, fear, and lack of skill-integration. ‘I could manage everything else if I just didn’t have to ask for money.’ But let us not digress.

Founders may be the most out-of-balance nonprofit leaders because every single thing is deeply personal. Organizations are created from a passion-point that keeps these dedicated leaders ‘doing whatever it takes’ for the organization. One person, who started an organization in memory of her beloved son who passed away from cancer, confided in me that she would like to close the organization, but she simply could not because it felt like she would be ‘closing’ on her son’s memory. She could easily articulate the overwhelm, fear, and lack of balance, but she would never stop.

Nerves of Steel and Buns of Steel

About balance, Andy Gilpin, Associate Executive Director of CAPTAIN Community Human Services (Saratoga County, New York), told me he does extreme rock climbing and literally balances while resting on a portable cot on the mountain. He said that when he is sitting there quietly, the vast expansiveness of nature below and the need for acute focus on safety and security is one of the only things that frees his mind from the day-to-day juggling act.

I asked him, “Isn't that a little extreme?”

His answer: “Yes. The life of a nonprofit leader is extreme. Extremely important, extremely chaotic, extremely vital – so many people counting on you to do your job and make a difference in their lives. My rock climbing isn’t the only extreme sport I engage in; life as a nonprofit executive is an extreme sport.”

Always ready to roll up the sleeves and help out where needed, these leaders will put off their own work until after hours in order to support a stretched staff member or a consumer in need. This leads to the twelve-hour day that is bookended with external meetings or events and then followed by late-night hours finally having time to focus on necessary tasks such as strategic thinking, board planning, financial statements, employee evaluations and, on a good day, some envisioning for a strong future.

Exaggeration? No, reality.

Laura Marx, newly appointed Executive Director of Capital Region Sponsor-A-Scholar was brave enough to share that she really didn’t know what ‘self-care’ meant. As the former director of a chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, how could she not do just a little more?

What does self-care mean? And, how do you do it continually? I honestly didn’t know. As the director working from a home office with a volunteer workforce, I felt like I was always on duty. I didn’t give myself permission to stop. And, when you know the stories and get close to survivors, well, there just is no stopping.

I realized how out-of-balance my life had become. I wasn’t living according to my values. I wasn’t feeling good about myself, family, or work.

The turning point for me was the summer I turned forty-five. I felt tired and wasn’t sleeping well. I had always thought to myself that this was midlife, I would just be in my forties feeling fluffy and plump and that’s that. But then I realized that doesn’t have to be me! When I received an invitation to join a friend on a fitness journey, I said yes. Joining this group changed everything for me. I committed to just thirty-minutes a day for me, for my health. I noticed a difference within a couple of weeks.

When I asked what motivated her to keep going, the answer came easily:

The program was online, affordable, offered a challenge, had flexibility but most of all, held me accountable. Soon it became a habit, one which I now build into my day. I don’t let myself miss it. It’s my time.

App/Accountability & My Time

Laura Langley, Executive Director of ArtWorks (New Jersey) also uses an app to keep her self-care on track.

I made changes in my self-care routine with the support of a wonderful woman boss. I ended up changing my commute and my family time, but I had not been able to crack the code on fitness or personal time. I used to love to run when I could do it at my leisure but stopped due to all of my commitments. This year I signed up for a 5k race with a friend. I now have an app connected to my calendar to track my progress and a friend to whom I’m accountable. We’re both in it together. I worked with my husband to select the dates, so he knows how important this is to me. I’ve built in both fitness-time and my-time together.

“‘My time’ came from regular weekly hours that I committed to myself,” Executive Director Elana Silber told me. She explained:

After sixteen years with Sharsheret (a national organization supporting Jewish women facing breast and ovarian cancer) and growing into the ED position from joining the founder in a start-up, I find it impossible to separate my work and personal life; work is even more personal for me since our founder passed away. I am constantly working to ensure that we continue to meet the evolving needs of women dealing with cancer. Despite that, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 9 to 11 a.m., I am not in the office and I am doing whatever I need to do. My staff and board know these are my hours.

When I asked how much she really sticks to this self-care practice, she admitted that it was only about 85 percent of the time. But her fitness workouts and Sabbath observance are non-negotiable and vital to her mental health and self-care. And one of the greatest things she did was work with a coach for two years. This offered accountability and a trusted source of support when facing the types of issues that kept her up at night.

It is interesting to note that most of the people I have spoken with have shared a desire for or a concern about lack of physical activity or fitness in their lives. This seems to be the thing that makes people feel the guiltiest. When combined with “an egg McMuffin for breakfast, skipped lunch, and had cereal for dinner” or “two sleeves of thin mints at midnight while writing evaluations,” the troublesome feelings weigh heavily (sorry about that!) on nonprofit leaders and detract from an overall healthy mental outlook and productivity.

Learning from and Teaching the next Generation

“I think the next gen is better at this than we are,” Amy Klein, executive director for twenty-three years at Capital Roots, told me. She feels that she lost the opportunity for creating good habits when she started. She has been working full out for so long that she doesn’t feel it’s possible to change.

Her younger employees tell her to take better care of herself, encourage her to leave earlier, and work less. But she feels on her shoulders the weight of the organization’s success and resulting mission impact.

“I’ve been watching them and trying to learn,” she said.

Other executives are committed to teaching the next gen to “do it better than I did,” or to “do what I say, not what I do.” Encouraging them to take lunch, use the gym or EAP benefits offered, incorporate mindfulness; there are many strategies the leaders suggest to their employees. And yes, most are fully aware they do not do these things themselves.

As a coach, it was hard for me not to slip into my coach hat briefly during most of my conversations, gently asking questions to encourage a new lens, a new thought, or a tangible action to create even just a subtle shift towards feeling better about this aspect of one’s world.

In fact, truth to tell, my coaching brain was screaming during the calls. And my heart was truly moved by the dedication of these leaders to the people served by mission, to their employees, and to their families who might suffer a bit due to their overwhelm.


As I coach, I have learned the benefit of creating a go-to toolbox to support my clients. I want to share a few simple, easy, free tools that I hope will bring a bit of ease and improve mental outlook.

Breathing Stop to Break Stress

When you feel the stress in your back and shoulders or through a headache, or if you feel yourself getting irritable, try this tool. It can also be inserted hourly to help you greatly throughout your day:

  • Sit up very straight and tall, shoulders down and back.
  • Take a deep breath in and exhale.
  • Roll your shoulders, stretch your arms out and back, do a good back stretch.
  • Gently look to one side then the other to stretch your neck, gently bring your head all the way back to center.
  • Look up at the ceiling (visualize the sky), then gently look down to the floor (visualize the earth).
  • Take another good back stretch, another deep breath and exhale.

I start most of my coaching calls with this tool, and I have been known to start my speaking programs doing this with the entire audience to bring them to center.

Lunch Walks — Easy, Free, Effective!

Organize a weekly lunch walk and you lead the way. Getting outside, exercise, and social engagement will all help with team bonding, too. Look at your calendar and pick one regular day a week that becomes the lunch-walk day. Try to commit to it to show your employees that you’re serious about self-care and you’ll be amazed at the results that come from this simple tool.

Create Inspirational and Beautiful Visuals Around the Office

Look around your workspace. Does it serve to uplift – or overwhelm? Putting up motivational posters, beautiful hangings, and reminders to breathe or get outside will serve as important cues to help people get to a better mental place so vital to self-care.

Let’s Make It Happen

What can you do to get a little better at self-care and balance this year? What new habits can you create and keep? What will it feel like? How do you think it might affect your organizational culture if you succeed? Give it thought and I hope that you will consider using this series to support your healthier life in 2019.


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