Destressed: Teaching Nonprofits Self-care as a Capacity Building Tool

Destressed: Teaching Nonprofits Self-care as a Capacity Building Tool

By Christina Ramos Palau, Director of Membership Services, Hispanic Federation

For some, the phrase “self-care” conjures images that include an incense-filled room and someone in a yoga pose engaged in a hypnotic hum of “Namaste” or “Ohm".  It elicits eye-rolls for some. They scoff at the idea and assume that employees advocating for self-care lack ability or endurance.  Many nonprofit professionals, however, increasingly understand that the opposite of self-care is “burnout,” and it can seriously affect productivity.  Working in the nonprofit sector, one quickly learns practically everyone is under-resourced and under-staffed. In fact, a 2017 study of 614 human resources leaders indicated that 20-50% percent of employee turnover is due to burnout.

Christina Maslach, professor emerita of psychology at the UC-Berkeley, studied this phenomenon in the 1970s through a series of extensive interviews with employees in service organizations.  She discovered that many of the symptoms of burnout overlap with the hallmarks of depression, including extreme fatigue, insomnia, loss of passion, and intensifying cynicism and negativity.  Her research made clear that a lack of self-care could have serious health implications.  At Hispanic Federation, we recognized this issue affected our member agencies, so we set out to see what we could do for them them to help mitigate the effects of stress and burnout.  

Rich Rivera talks to  Entre Familia  attendees about what they can do to help their own nonprofit stafss destress.

Rich Rivera talks to Entre Familia attendees about what they can do to help their own nonprofit stafss destress.

A few years ago, Hispanic Federation established a professional development program, Entre Familia, which interprets as “within community,” to support nonprofits that serve communities of color.  Attending no less than three workshops in the series was a mandate to the leadership and staff of organizations who were recipients of the Communities of Color Nonprofit Stabilization Fund grant.  With support from the city of New York, Hispanic Federation promised to be a leader in providing the learning and to identify experts to address community need from practitioners who look like us and understand the cultural and socioeconomic struggle. We would essentially support professionals by sharpening their skillset. Since creating Entre Familia, we have provided workshops ranging from media training, event planning, fundraising, and more. 

Getting back to “self-care,” the topic wasn’t initially embraced under our workshop offerings. Some held that workshops should correspond with increasing deliverables and resources.  Luckily, we had the support of Rich Rivera of RR Consulting & Associates, a social worker turned organizational development consultant with 17 years of experience, who helped put together a dynamic and utile presentation.

Rivera’s session featured self-assessment and organizational assessment tools that attendees could tailor to their need.  It provided examples for how to change the overtasking culture that is prevalent in the nonprofit sector. Some solutions called for a dedicated quiet space in the office, doing wellness check-ins with staff, or hosting informal walking meetings. Larger solutions, however, required a budgetary commitment and a shift in office culture. 

The truth is, sacrificing one’s health in service of “la causa” does not align to the mission of equity and social change, in fact it’s counterproductive. We should be asking ourselves how we can support the individual to retain talent.  It is essential for organizations to ensure they are building capacity in the right ways, which includes being attentive to what is happening within their own house, in the same ways they are attentive to what’s happening at City Hall, the State Capital, or on The Hill.  

Hispanic Federation is deeply devoted to the Latino community, and while there is a great deal of work to be done, we are tackling “burnout” and several other important issues one workshop at a time.  Our motto is “Taking Hispanic Causes to Heart”, but the reality is we take human causes to heart. Wellness is at the foundation of that mission.

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