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Combating Nonprofit Burnout with Mindfulness

Combating Nonprofit Burnout with Mindfulness

Combating Nonprofit Burnout with Mindfulness is Beth Kanter and Aliza Sherman’s take on the importance of self-care when working for a charitable organization. Here’s what they have to say:

Burnout is a condition often found in the nonprofit world. What is burnout? Burnout can be defined as a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion that occurs when we feel overwhelmed by too many demands, too few resources, and too little recovery time. Sound familiar?

A person’s state of mind or mindset can affect their health, motivation, energy levels, and cognitive ability. What are some of the causes of burnout, particularly in the nonprofit sector? A common nonprofit mindset is the “Nonprofit Starvation Cycle that makes nonprofits so hungry for adequate infrastructure that they can barely function as organizations—let alone serve others or deliver programs.

Then there’s the scarcity mindset, related to the Nonprofit Starvation Cycle, that is defined as the belief that everything is limited. The scarcity assumption is based on the thinking that there’s not enough of what our nonprofit needs to go around, and there’s more out there that our organization needs, but we don’t have it.

When we function under a scarcity mindset, we perceive, manage, and deal with problems differently and often poorly. Using self-care techniques, mindfulness practices, and attention to organizational well-being, individuals can shift their thinking from scarcity to abundance.

Combating Nonprofit Burnout with Mindfulness

A Focus on Mindfulness

Changing one’s mindset can be bolstered through the practice of mindfulness. A clinical definition of mindfulness is: “Attending to ongoing events and experiences in a receptive and nonjudgmental way.” You can train your brain to pay more attention, to be aware, and be more attentive through mindfulness practices. Some benefits of mindfulness—regardless of the techniques you use to be more mindful—include:

  • Regulating your moods
  • Reducing emotional exhaustion
  • Increasing your job satisfaction

How effective is mindfulness? A 2014 study, “Mindfulness Goes to Work: Impact of an Online Workplace Intervention” published in the Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine, showed employees who simply took online courses in mindfulness were less stressed, more resilient, and more energetic. Clearly, those benefits could be useful in all aspects of life, not just work.

There are many ways to be more mindful. Meditation is often the first thing that comes to people’s minds. To be clear: mindfulness is not meditation. But if you were to meditate, you’d be stretching and training your mindfulness muscles. A simple way to get started with training your attention is the following exercise:

  1. Bring gentle and consistent attention to your breath for two minutes. Every time your attention wanders, bring it back.
  2. Sit without an agenda for two minutes. Shift from doing to being.
  3. Shift between the two methods for two minutes.

The above practice gets you to the essence of mindfulness. If you practice it enough, it deepens the calm and clarity of your mind. Use this technique when you are overwhelmed at home or work.

Sara Beesley, center director at Mitchell Lake Audubon Center, meditates in the morning before heading off to work. “As my coffee brews, I sit down and clear my brain. I don’t know if everyone else’s brain is always mentally adding and reordering things on the to-do list, but mine rarely stops. So now I take four minutes and stop. I listen to and smell the coffee brewing and just breathe.” This mini-mindfulness moment also helps Beesley later in the day to be more focused at work, tackling her never ending to-do list.

“Long-term, contemplative practices could help reduce anxiety, enhance creativity, improve attention and memory, help you become less reactive in situations with people, and when practiced in groups, can help lead to greater understanding of people from diverse backgrounds and belief systems,” says Sharon Parkinson, senior analyst of prospect development and research at Vassar College, who led a workshop on contemplative practices at the college. Parkinson also engages in other forms of contemplative practice like storytelling, prayer, singing, playing music, dancing, working, and volunteering. “Overall, people report just feeling much better emotionally and physically compared to when they began [the practices].”

According to a growing body of research, taking nature walks can soothe your mind and improve your mood, something that Danielle Brigida, Deputy Director of Digital Strategy at U.S. Department of the Interior, knows firsthand. Hiking, trail running, and birding are hobbies that help keep her focused and inspired for her work. Taking part in activities in nature also helps her foster friendships with people who value wildlife.

“Any weekend that I make time to explore the outdoors leaves me feeling ready to tackle the week with a healthy bit of optimism. I find that spending time uncovering the natural world, flipping over logs, or watching a bird, helps bring perspective to my day job,” says Brigida.

Reflective practice—taking time to sit quietly and reflect on your day—gives you the time to process a situation to keep stress at bay. For further help with taking mindful minutes, meditating, or to learn longer mindful exercises, check out the list of guided meditation apps under Book Resources at A trusted source of meditation for well-being is the website for the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Incorporating a self-care technique such as Mindfulness into your day and your nonprofit work reinforces good habits that help fortify you against stress. A whole, well person is better able to tackle challenges with more focus, vibrancy and perseverance.

Combating Nonprofit Burnout with Mindfulness was adapted from the book The Happy, Health Nonprofit by Beth Kanter and Aliza Sherman

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