10 Things Every Nonprofit Professional Should Do (To Stay Sane)

Adapted from "The Giving Way to Happiness: Stories & Science Behind the Life-Changing Power of Giving," by Jenny Santi. (Tarcher Penguin Random House, 2016)

People who choose to work in the social sector start out with at least one advantage: they are motivated by their idealism - as opposed to many others work simply to make a living. Many nonprofit professional are deeply devoted to their organization's mission, and they feel the rewards of a career that "makes a difference." But while nonprofit professionals benefit from a very natural energy source, how do they sustain their motivation, commitment, and passion in the long haul when what they do for a living barely makes a living and the grind never stops?

As I gradually discovered, too many people in the nonprofit sector lose their spark and succumb to burnout. Always selling hope and trying to convince others to take action can be emotionally draining. Many of the issues that nonprofits deal with on a daily basis have no surefire solution. Working towards the seemingly intractable (such as ending poverty or achieving world peace) and not knowing whether their efforts are making any difference at all also leads to frustration and burnout.

Indeed, there are some nonprofit job descriptions, such as undersea "explorer-in-residence" at the National Geographic Society, that make deskbound corporate drones seethe with envy. But most nonprofit jobs read more like "development director" or "research manager." Worse, many nonprofit professionals end up doing everything because their organizations are understaffed. Sylvia Earle, who actually held the explorer-in-residence title, has implied in interviews that her scientific expeditions may have led to the dissolution of her first marriage. "It's hard to have a traditional kind of relationship when you are as motivated as I have been," she says. And the ever-smiling and ebullient Nick Vujicic, who was born without limbs and who uses his story to spread the message of hope to other disabled people, says, "I've got my issues. I've got things in my nonprofit I have to deal with and in my for-profit that I've got to deal with . . . and I have back pain too. I don't always wake up in the morning with a smile on my face--no way!"

Just because activists are mission driven doesn't mean they're happy all the time. Just because they love a cause doesn't mean they love their jobs too. It's not a constant state of happiness from saving the world. So how do nonprofit professionals keep their sanity? Here are some things I learned from having interviewed hundreds of them over the years:

1. They renew their energy by going deeper into the cause.

This is the most surprising thing I have noticed among nonprofit leaders who stay happy doing what they do. Distracting themselves by watching TV or playing a round of golf is only a temporary option. They find more "hands-on" opportunities that allow them to directly experience the positive outcomes of their work, or that bring them back to the very reason they got involved in the first place.

Animals Asia founder Jill Robinson, the bear rescuer whose calm demeanor belies the gruesome scenes she has faced and chased in defense of animals all around the world nearly all her adult life, says that the greatest source of strength for her is the bears themselves. "I always say that the bears rescue us every bit as much as we rescue them." Jill will sometimes flee emotionally wrought scenarios and say she has to run to a meeting. "I'll just tell a lie and say, 'I have a meeting with Jasper.'" Jasper is one of the bears at the sanctuary, where every bear takes on anthropomorphic characteristics and has a name. "I'll just go off, and I just absorb all this amazing energy from a bear that was crushed in a cage for fifteen years with a catheter. I'll just suck up the bears' happiness as they lie on their backs in the sun in their enclosures and just look at them, and understand why we're here. They rescue us. They tell us why we're here."

2. They take care of themselves first.

Happy activists take a break from work, exercise, do breathing exercises, and participate in other recreational activities that help them reduce stress.

Jill says that at the end of each day, she winds down by watching TV, having a beer, and simply relaxing. "Frankly, I don't want to watch another Animal Planet or National Geographic. I don't want to see more animal stuff, animal cruelty, or animals being eaten by other animals. I want to watch Simon Cowell shouting at people on X Factor, or Downton Abbey!" Animals are never really absent from her life, however, and her relaxation time is spent with Muppet and To Zhai, two dogs she rescued from the hellish dogmeat markets in southern China. "They're utterly gorgeous, and they make me laugh every single day."

Model Christy Turlington Burns, who has been an anti-smoking as well as a maternal health activist, says, "There's also the other side of giving and being in service, which is that it can be very depleting. People are attracted to this field because of a desire to help others, and yet they're very depleted by the system. I don't tend to feel depleted often. I mostly feel really energized, but I am conscious of what the impact of giving could have physically without knowing it. You just need to pay extra attention to caring for yourself to be able to do more."

3. They know how to say no.

One of my mentors once taught me to learn to say no to the things that don't matter, so that I can say yes to the things that do. I have also observed among nonprofit leaders that saying no helps them do better with the things that are already on their plate. Saying yes too often not only affects the quality of their current projects but also adds a level of stress not worth taking on. They don't do more; rather, they do better. This safeguards their sanity and the level of passion they are able to sustain for the work that they choose to do. Do-gooders often feel the pressure to do more and more--there are invitations to get involved in this project or that movement, etc. Knowing how much need there is in the world, and how much opportunity there is to make things better, it can be hard to say no. The ones who keep their sanity choose to stay in their niche and do what is within their power, so that they can actually follow through and know what happens as a result.

4. They find strength in a group.

It is incredibly helpful to surround yourself with people who can relate to your situation. Maintaining a diverse network of social support, from colleagues to pets, promotes a positive psychological state and can protect against secondary traumatic syndrome. Healthy leaders have built a community of support around them. They are connected to coaches, mentors, and colleagues who care for them and can help them stay healthy. And it's helpful to have a few role models who inspire them with how they stayed passionate and committed over the long haul.

Jill says she finds strength in her team, whom she considers not just colleagues and professionals, but very good friends. "I encourage people to talk honestly and then again if people have got problems. I always encourage open dialogue because I think that this is really very healthy for us to get things off our chest and move on stronger, and it works." She is also a great believer in crying. "When you need to, I think you have to. I encourage the team to wear their hearts on their sleeves. I'm more worried when people don't cry than when they do cry."

5. They don't suffer from "founder's syndrome," and they are not "the cause."

Many nonprofit leaders suffer from what is called "founder's syndrome," the propensity of an organization's founders (be it one person or a group) to have a deep sense of ownership over and responsibility for the organization. It's their "baby" and they don't want everybody's hands all over it. Founder's syndrome leads to a great deal of frustration and unhappiness among people working in nonprofits. Those who are happy realize this, and so develop strong teams that can function well without them. This is critical to the health of the leader and the organization. They need to maintain a sense of identity outside of work, and they know it's dangerous to completely fuse their personal and work personas. Without boundaries, people end up seeing the leaders as "the cause" and don't know how to engage with them in any other way. Thus founders maintain and invest in relationships outside of work.

6. They maintain a sense of humor.

The creators of the site When You Work at a NonProfit say: "We created it because we thought it would be funny. Of course, humor is the best way to communicate frustration, and we have a lot of that too. So we started [the site] because we wanted to highlight some of the problems we continually see, and let other nonprofit people share their experience about working in the sector. We had no idea it would take off the way it has. Clearly there's a ton of frustration, at every level. We get about two hundred submissions a week, as well as twenty to thirty e-mails each week with stories about working at their organization, and thanking us for creating the blog. Several people have told us that this blog is the only thing getting them through their day.

7. They focus on the effect they are having.

They spend time with the recipients, and see the results of their hard work.
Katie Stagliano, the young founder of Katie's Krops, says, "When I'm down, I think about all the people that I'm helping. I think about the people who don't get meals, the people who wait in lines for hours just to get food. I think about the struggles people have to go through just to have what so many of us take for granted. Knowing that I have the ability to help them keeps me going."

8. They think win-win.

Happy nonprofit professionals don't think of themselves as constantly in a state of need, but think of what they have got to offer. Kate Roberts, senior vice president at Population Services International, says: "Develop win-win ideas. Nobody will help you otherwise--what's in it for them?"

9. They know it's a job.

Like it or not, they know they will need to get up and go into the office (or out in the field) every day. Some days will be a lot of fun, and some won't be. It will never be a nonstop adventure of driving around in a 4x4. They realize that there will be office politics no matter where they go, and that even though nonprofits are run by well-intentioned people, those people have flaws, egos, and mood swings.

10. They have decided whether to sign a vow of poverty--or not.

Some of them realize that their passion for their job exceeds their desire for anything else--including the ability to have a big paycheck and to provide for a family. Some know that they're not quite willing to give it all up.

Kate Roberts, a self-confessed lover of nice shoes and expensive travel, once gave a commencement address to the graduates of the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services (now the Milken Institute School of Public Health), in which she said, "I looked down at my Gucci loafers and made a mental note that they could probably feed a family for a year. Did I really need these shoes? Probably not! It was so clear what I had to do." She says of her current job in Washington, D.C., "You can do all this and still have your shoes! They're probably not going to be Gucci, but a nonprofit career also doesn't mean that you're gonna go completely broke."

Shouldn't the satisfaction derived from working for an NGO be reward enough? "Excuse me, but that's a load of crap," says Joan Salwen, whose family downsized their upper-middle-class lifestyle so they could give more to charity. "It's all very well to do a worthwhile job in the nonprofit sector when you're forty and you've provided for your retirement and your kids' education, but it's not easy for people."

Read more on "The Giving Way to Happiness: Stories & Science Behind the Life-Changing Power of Giving" by Jenny Santi. Out in paperback this October 2016 (Tarcher Penguin Random House).