Seven Ways to Make 2017 To Help Your Nonprofit Build Resilience

Beth Kanter and Aliza Sherman are our guest authors today, giving us some useful advice on how techies (and everyone else!) can manage stress and build resilience in the workplace by creating good self-care habits and practices as an organization. They recently released the book The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit to provide organizations with a manifesto for a culture shift in the nonprofit sector, starting conversations about the importance of individual self-care and WE-care in the workplace.

Seven Ways to Make 2017 To Help Your Nonprofit Build Resilience
By Beth Kanter and Aliza Sherman

Book cover of The Happy Healthy NonprofitWorking at a nonprofit can be a pressure cooker of stress and unhealthy habits that can lead to burnout. Burnout is defined as a “state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion that occurs when we feel overwhelmed by too many demands, too few resources, and too little recovery time.” Sounds like conditions at many nonprofits, doesn’t it?

An antidote to burnout is self-care. According to the World Health Organization, “self-care” is “what people do for themselves to establish and maintain health, and to prevent and deal with illness.” Engaging in appropriate and effective self-care at your organization requires a culture shift from self-sacrifice to self-care.

As we write in our book, The Happy Healthy Nonprofit, workplace activities that foster an ethos of “WE-care,” the organizational version of “Self-Care,” are typically group undertakings in the form of activities that help your staff work together to acquire self-care habits and practices.

Here are some ideas to help your nonprofit build resilience in 2017:

Communal Meals

Eating at your desk is unhealthy and isolating, and yet so many nonprofit workers squeeze in more work by doing just that. Build community and connections amongst staff with communal meals.Amy Sample Ward of NTEN noticed that staff was often eating at their desks. “So we decided to have a weekly communal healthy brown bag lunch on Thursdays. We have remote staff, so we bring them in via a Google Hangout, and they join us at the table.”

Get Fit Together

Exercise programs are probably one of the most common initiatives or employee benefits implemented to promote workplace wellbeing. Be creative about the fitness activities and also about how you equip your office to encourage exercise.Crisis Response Network in Tempe, Arizona transformed an old training room into an on-site workout room after employees said they would use it to “let off steam” from their stressful work. The organization’s health insurance carrier, Cigna, covered the cost of the equipment for the onsite gym under the organization’s plan.

Stand Up at Work

If “sitting is the new smoking,” according to Dr. James Levine who studies the destructive health effects of sitting too much, Gina Schmeling from Hazon, did her part to combat the ill effects when she ordered a Varidesk and used it at the office in an open, shared space.“It was often immediately noticeable to visitors and people arriving to work if I had it up,” says Schmeling. “When people were curious, I showed them how it worked, and told them how much I enjoyed it.” Whenever she travels, Gina invites fellow staff members to log in at her computer and stand at work.

Compete For Sleep

Sleep in the workplace may seem like an oxymoron, and sleeping on the job can be a bad thing. But without enough sleep, employees are unable to focus or perform simple tasks and lack patience.Create a friendly competition at your organization to encourage staff to get more sleep.

Meka S. Sales, Health Care Program Officer at The Duke Endowment, serves on an employee committee that oversees the Endowment’s wellbeing in the workplace initiatives. As part of the voluntary program, employees wear trackers that monitor not only fitness activity but also sleep. The organization holds monthly challenges including a sleep challenge. Participants said they gained a lot of awareness of their sleep habits and could improve them.

Group Accolades

Bringing compassion and caring into the workplace is a valid way to increase employee wellbeing. Scientists at Stanford University actually hold a conference called “Compassion and Business” and discussed how caring about your own wellbeing and caring for the wellbeing of others is not in conflict.

Giving kudos is a great way to care for co-workers. Taryn Degnan, former communications staff for Common Sense Media, said staff there did something in their office they called “SURPRAISE!” 50 to 75 colleagues write your praises all over Post-It notes that are stuck to an employee’s desk and computer. Degnan recalls. “It was an awesome way to have your spirits lifted and feel good about your place in the office — especially coming from many [people] you never talk to.”

Melanie Duppins of DonorsChoose says the number one reason why their employees have long tenures working for the organization is because of their “people-first culture.”  Her nonprofit uses ‘YouEarnedIt’ platform ( that allows staff to give each other shout outs and accumulate points. They can redeem those points for a cash donation to one of the DonorsChoose classrooms.

Building Community

Research shows that the way employees treat each other impacts stress levels. While there are techniques that individuals can use to manage toxic relationships in the workplace there are also ways your organization can foster a positive work environment such as establishing community building and kindness rituals.

At the Cara Program, a Chicago-based nonprofit that helps adults affected by homelessness and poverty get and keep quality jobs, stakeholders engages in a daily morning ritual that evolved organically over the organization’s 25-year history. Every morning, clients, staff and guests gather in a circle in the organization’s meeting room and answer a question of the day, such as, “Who or what gives you great joy and why?” or “What has happened in your life that has motivated you to change?” Participants share inspiring stories of personal growth and change. The morning ritual is not a visual show for donors but a chance for all to reflect on what makes everyone human. Staff and visitors alike say the experience is energizing.

Henry Tims, Executive Director of 92nd Street Y and co-founder of GivingTuesday, says a staff member, Rabbi Peter Rubenstein, leads a weekly Kiddush every Friday. His role is to oversee Jewish Life at the Y, something clearly at the core of their work. The weekly staff ritual is an opportunity to step back and connect with colleagues. Tims, who is not Jewish, says, “It provides such a simple but meaningful moment and has attracted not just Jewish colleagues but those of a range of faiths. Many look forward to it all week, just to take the chance to stop and be together. It reminded me of how powerful these rituals can be.

Mindfulness as a Team

Offering an option to take a break for mindfulness activities at work can benefit everyone on your team.The organization Idealist offers a comprehensive wellness program and employee benefits that promote wellbeing. Idealist has a staff member in New York City, Caroline Contillo, who is trained as a mindfulness instructor and leads a mindfulness break at the office on a weekly basis. They use an empty conference room, arrange chairs into a circle, and guide people through the techniques. There is time for questions and comments at the end. The whole practice takes about 30 minutes.

It has been a stressful year and we, in the nonprofit sector, need to collectively build our resilience muscles to be ready for whatever 2017 might bring our way. Are you ready to make and keep a happy healthy new year’s resolution for your nonprofit? Come join us and other nonprofit professionals who sharing ways to become more resilient in 2017.

Beth Kanter and Aliza Sherman are the co-authors of The Happy Healthy Nonprofit: Strategies for Impact without Burnout.

Beth KanterBeth Kanter (@kanter) was named one of the most influential women in technology by Fast Company and is the award-winning author of The Networked Nonprofit books. She is an internationally acclaimed master trainer and speaker.


Aliza ShermanAliza Sherman (@alizasherman) is a web and social media pioneer; founder of Cybergrrl, Inc., the first women-owned, full-service Internet company; and Webgrrls International, the first Internet networking organization for women. She is a motivational keynote speaker and the author of eleven books, including Social Media Engagement for Dummies.