Learning to say ‘no’ and other tips for managing your stress

Alyce Lee Stansbury, CFRE, Notes on Nonprofits

Last year, Kelly and I wrote a column about the importance of self-care for nonprofit leaders. Eighteen months later, including seven months living and working amidst a global pandemic, putting the oxygen mask on first is more important than ever.

I talk with nonprofits EDs every day and am so impressed with their work ethic, leadership skills, and passion for what they do. But I also hear the stress and exhaustion in their voices. I know they are working harder than ever and in ways they never imagined.

Here is a look back at last year’s column with the hope more nonprofit leaders will make self-care a priority.

Working in nonprofits is hard work. There is always 10 times the demand for your time than you could ever meet. There are never enough resources. People are in crisis. Funders want reports. The board wants attention. Colleagues call in sick. It is like working with your finger in the proverbial dike while running on a treadmill and juggling with your free hand.

It is a problem when your family is surprised to see you come home before dark. Or when your kids stop asking if you will be home when they get home from school and instead ask if you will be home before they go to bed. Or when someone cuts you off while driving and you suddenly understand what road rage means. All good indications that your stress level is too high.

Keep reminding yourself your job is not your entire life. Yes, people are sleeping in fields and you are trying to help them. Animals are starving and need to be rescued. People want access to your museum 24/7, the ozone is burning up, people are losing their homes, going into debt, not able to afford healthcare, and being victimized. But you aren’t going to be able to help anyone if you are so stressed out and burnt out you aren’t as effective as you could be.

Pick up your hobbies or find a new one. Take a minimum of two consecutive weeks off every year. One-week is not enough when you’re burning out. Just about the time you stop thinking about work you start thinking about going back. Stay at home and shut down but tell them you are in Mongolia and can’t make or take calls.

Remember your family and friends come first. Always. Think about who will be there with you in the darkest and most joyous days of your life. Put as much energy into being wholly present with your family and friends as you do for the people you work with or serve.

Hang out with people who have no idea what you are talking about when you talk about work. If it takes too much time to catch them up to speed with the trauma and drama of your job you won’t do it. Which means you’ll have to talk about something else.

Budget “me” time into your calendar. Go out for the next 12 months and schedule time off for afternoon shopping or playing golf at random times. One of my friends likes to go to a local bookstore and curl up in a chair with a book for several hours. Another likes to sneak away about every 3 months for a movie in the afternoon. I am taking a day off to ride my horse.

Limit the number of events you do in the evening and weekends. Stay strong about that. There are volunteers and board members that would love the chance to make presentations, pick up checks, attend fundraisers, etc. It’s nice when they want you, but it’s not realistic for you to do everything by yourself.

Learn how to say NO. A nonprofit professional’s biggest downfall is not knowing how to appropriately pronounce the word NO. Repeat after me. NO NO NO. No I can’t join that committee. No I can’t squeeze in one more meeting.

Sing loudly. In your car. In the shower. In your office. With people. By yourself. Even if you can’t carry a tune at all it makes you feel good. Take care of yourself physically. Go to the doctor when something hurts. Get enough sleep. Eat your vegetables. Exercise.

There is never going to be enough people to do the work in nonprofits. Remember that working yourself into the ground does not get more work done; it creates more for everyone else. Like doctors, ice cream scoopers, bartenders, and mental health facilities.

Notes on Nonprofits is produced by Alyce Lee Stansbury, CFRE and Kelly Otte, MPA, who is on sabbatical. Send your feedback and column ideas to notesonnonprofits@gmail.com.

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