Take Care of Yourself First, So That You Can Continue to Take Care of Others
For professionals in the non-profit world, it takes a lot of effort and coordination to manage volunteers while successfully navigating your specific core job. Add to that the typical challenges that come from working in an industry where pens are generally not a budgeted item and where your pay may not match the hours and passion you put in to delivering your agency’s valuable services, and it is easy to let yourself get stressed out. Burn out can be high, especially in social service jobs that often mean coping with endless stories of people facing extremely challenging situations. Sometimes those situations are made more challenging by that spool of red tape that keeps getting its sticky self in the way.
We all choose to work in the non-profit sector for a reason, maybe because of a desire to help and serve, a love of the arts, or we have loftier goals of changing the world one saved puppy or newly-planted tree at a time. So how do we keep our wits about us and maintain good mental health while saving the world, recruiting volunteers, and reporting outcomes?
Here are a few quick ideas:
I know those are simple ideas to address a big topic. But since this is a blog post and not a novel, I get to write about brief and simple ideas!
Breathe. You don’t have to be a yogi to know that quiet time just focusing on your breathing can help you slow down and take a mental time out (my grandma use to call it “counting to ten”). Notice that when you are stressed or angry, you often sigh, harrumph, clench your teeth, or blow air out of your mouth like you are spitting out the bad ideas. Things like this tend to just help your body accumulate tension. If you can, close your door for five minutes (if you can’t close your door, just hope that no one walks by), or even just three minutes if that is all you can get. Close your eyes and take slow, deep breaths. Oxygenate your blood and your brain. Mentally focus on relaxing your muscles and picture the stress or problem leaving your body. You don’t have to call this meditation if you think that is hinky. Just think of it as letting out some pressure before you blow. It doesn’t solve the problems or make them go away, but it gives you just a few minutes to get some distance and clear your head so you can go back to dealing with the situation from a different angle.
Let it go without giving up. No matter how much we want it to be, we do not get to make all the decisions. We all have bosses who ultimately make the final decisions, and those of us who are the boss, have a board of directors that are the bigger boss. When we have great ideas, problem fixes, program concerns, or whatever, it generally has to go through a whole lot of people before action can be taken. Even then, for reasons that may or may not make sense to you, the ideas may be nixed. Sometimes the reason may not even be communicated to you. The key to keeping yourself from being discouraged and giving up is to let go of your attachment to the idea. Though it may make sense and it could potentially help a program, you’ve made your pitch, fought the fight, and a decision has been made. Holding onto it and being bitter about not being heard or your idea not be utilized only stresses you out, makes you grumpy, and as a result, makes the office a tense place to be.
The key, however, is that letting it go is not the same thing as giving up or becoming apathetic. When frustrations are high, it is easy to say, “Well forget it! I’m not going to bother trying to make things better then. I’m going to stay in my office and mind my own business.” There are a couple of problems with that. One is that hiding out is as bad for office morale as being openly grumpy in the halls. The other is that when you are unmotivated and angry, the puppies aren’t getting saved and the baby trees aren’t getting planted. You are working at your non-profit for a reason. You believe in the mission and you want to help it be delivered well. So do that! Just because your specific idea or suggestion wasn’t taken this time or even for the fifth time, that doesn’t make your mission any less worthy. You can honor the mission by working within the framework you are given. Make it as good as it can be with the tools you have, and let go of the ones you don’t. And don’t let the past “no” keep you from sharing new ideas in the here and now.
Keep your “mission moment” in mind. Things are frustrating, you’re tired, you feel like no matter how hard you work, the “to do” pile just keeps getting bigger. We all get to the point periodically that we want to put our head down on our desk and yell Uncle. Usually we get over that feeling and go on with our day and keep plugging away at our tasks (and hopefully doing them with joy knowing that our efforts are resulting in good work helping people in some way).
When your head is down and you’re getting ready to invoke the name of your old male relative, it might be a good time to think of your mission moment. Yes, that may be a cheesy thing to call it, but you get the drift. What I mean is, picture one or two of the moments you’ve had at your organization that made you say, “having that happen made everything else I do here worth the effort.”
A moment from when I worked for the American Red Cross is the one that I think will always come to my mind, no matter how long I’m in fundraising. And the funny thing is, it didn’t even happen to me directly. But the impact was the same.
Here is my moment:
In January of 2010, a devastating earthquake hit Haiti on a Tuesday afternoon. Wednesday I came in to work and the phones started ringing with people wanting to help. By 10am we’d set up a call center and a walk-in donation station, and we were preparing to have an emergency board meeting by phone. Every American Red Cross across the country, and much of the world, was going through a similar process.
We had our first briefing on a national call run by HQ in Washington, D.C., on which we got our first inside look at the destruction that had killed thousands and trapped thousands more. By early afternoon, HQ had set up an international “Safe and Well” system using phone, internet, and text. We learned that people trapped under collapsed buildings in Haiti were sometimes able to get a text out to a loved one trying to give their location. Within a few days, there was a system set up by USAID for mapping zones to determine where search and rescue teams were in relation to those texts that were coming in fewer and further in between.
But on that Wednesday, and for many days to come, so many Haitian families in our county did not know the fate of their families and loved ones. That afternoon, a volunteer that had been staffing the walk-in donation table came into my office and leaned against the wall with tears on her face. She said she just needed a minute to compose herself before going back out. What she said then is the thing I will always keep with me to fuel my fundraising motivation.
An elderly Haitian woman about 80 years old came in to the reception area with a younger woman who’d driven her to our Red Cross building. I’d seen the woman come in, and as I remember it, she had a handkerchief tying her hair back and a white shawl around her shoulders. She sat down with our volunteer, pulled money out of her pocket, handing it to the volunteer. The woman said that she’d made contact with someone in the town she came from in Haiti, and learned that her family’s house had collapsed during the quake, leaving no one inside alive. She no longer had a living family member in Haiti… not a son, not a daughter, no grandchildren, no brother. The woman said, “I’ve lost my family in this earthquake. I want to give you this money so that you can help other families live through it.” I continue to be amazed at the strength this woman had that she was able to focus on the wellbeing of others when she had just been so personally devastated.
Then, an hour or two later, an American woman in her late sixties came in. She opened her wallet and pulled out two ten dollar bills. She said she was on fixed income, but that she had already bought groceries for the month and gas for her car and had $20 left. She had a hair appointment that week and said it would cost $10, so she gave us one of her $10 bills and asked us to help the people in Haiti. As she turned to leave, she handed a volunteer the other $10 and said, “I think the people you are helping in Haiti need this money more than I need a haircut. So you take this too.”
Any job where we get to be the conduit that allows humans to help each other in such a selfless way, is a job worth dealing with a little stress for. So, when I’m doing what we talked about above, taking a five minute time out to get my head on straight, I picture those two women. Two women of different races, born in different countries, who each gave what little they had to help others survive. That is a picture worth seeing again.
Whatever your motivation, whatever your “mission moment”, remember to take the time out for yourself to keep yourself sane and healthy. At Red Cross there is a rule in disaster response: take care of yourself, or you won’t be good enough to take care of others. I think this is true of working in non-profits in general. It doesn’t matter if your mission is in education, the arts, social service, or animal welfare. Yes, there can be stress. Yes, it can be frustrating. But the reward of being a part of our organizations’ missions is worth working for.
This blog post by Tracy Vanderneck was first published on AFP Southwest Florida's Fundraiser's Cafe in 2012.