The dictionary defines stress as “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.” Nowhere could ‘adverse or very demanding circumstances’ exist more consistently than in the nonprofit community!

Of course it is a given that leaders in the corporate workplace regularly face critical challenges involving complicated and complex financial, managerial and operational situations. But those who have opted for a role of authority in a nonprofit also face obstacles that are inherent when interacting with vulnerable communities. Leaders of social service organizations with missions to address the daily needs of the poor, the homeless, the battered, the hungry, the young, the old, the ailing, the abandon, and all those (people and animals!) who have no one to speak or act on their behalf, can burn out as quickly, or even more quickly, than their colleagues at for-profit companies. Along with the ongoing effort to raise up the communities they serve, another key contributor to increasing stress levels occurs when leaders of mission-driven organizations are forced to juggle discouragement, disappointment or disillusionment when they fail to attain the goals they’ve hoped to reach. And that is exactly why it is so critical for them to make time to ensure their own emotional health as well as to ensure the well-being of their staff.

Examples of exhaustion in nonprofit leaders have become all too plentiful. For example, after years of working in the nonprofit sector helping children with mental and behavioral health issues, Traci Blank, Certified Medical Support Clinical Hypnotherapist, Founder of Tracing Your Path Hypnotherapy, found herself experiencing symptoms that were reflective of multiple sclerosis (MS).  After extensive examinations her doctors came to the conclusion that she was actually experiencing anxiety from on-the-job worry. This time their diagnosis was accurate. Traci’s body was actively rebelling, seeking to get her attention and trying to tell her to ease up. She needed to slow down her pace or deal with potentially dire consequences. While no one can eliminate the long hours and passionate commitment that is expected of nonprofit leaders like Traci, there are ways to alleviate, or minimize, some of the constant pressure and the sense of being under duress that accompanies it.

Making the decision to set boundaries and impose limits on oneself is the first, essential step to taking control. After all, there is a reason that airline attendants always issue the pre-flight warning that, in the event of a problem, each person traveling with someone who needs assistance should put his or her own oxygen mask on first before attempting to help others. This simple instruction provides a clear metaphor for life. If you do not take care of yourself first, you will be in no condition to help anyone else. As Traci learned the hard way, when she was struggling with her own health, she was unable, or incapable, of providing her clients with the level of care that was vital for them. 

After taking ownership of consciously making a shift in your existing life pattern, physical exercise is the next step to embrace when developing a healthier, less anxious, life style.  The regime doesn’t have to be elaborate, nor does it necessarily require membership fees for a fitness center or a private instructor. A walk at lunch time, a bike ride on a Sunday morning or simple stretching exercises done in the office or at home, can quickly contribute to lifting your spirits and making you feel less hassled.

There are other tips that nonprofit leaders have shared over the years that support a safer, less stressful culture for everyone in the organization.

  • Institute flexible schedules that can contribute significantly to raising the staff’s level of satisfaction
  • Host Lunch ’N Learns on interesting topics to break up the day and bring a welcome change of pace
  • Suggest working with a life coach who can provide one-on-one advice leading to greater balance or offer a mentoring program, drawing on resources within the organization
  • Observe summer hours (consider leaving early on Friday, or closing on Friday) to provide a lift for harried employees who want to get a jump on a weekend with their family
  • Eliminate answering emails after hours or on the weekends; establish a hot line for emergency calls or take turns being ‘on call’ when the office is closed so that the burden is less onerous
  • Close the office early one or two days a month in order to allow the staff time for visionary planning or other future-focused discussions, taking them out of the task mode and putting them into a strategic state of mind
  • Encourage the staff to participate in mindfulness-based initiatives (including breathing routines) that enable them to turn their attention to current tasks instead of anticipating future problems by changing their mindset and their approach to problems





While studies indicate that 47% of the time we are not focusing on the present, this list of practical suggestions can provide a great starting point for nonprofit leaders who are committed to being more effective, enriching their personal work routine and their organization’s culture by integrating specific opportunities to relax and reflect without feeling guilty.