Nonprofit work and its toll on our physical health, and what we need to do about it

[A grey striped cat, lying on the grass outside, staring kind of blankly into space. They look bored or just nonchalant. Image by guvo59 on Pixabay]

Hi everyone. It’s been four years since I left being a nonprofit executive director and became “Financially Untethered” (FU), and let me tell you, it’s been amazing. I sleep better, no longer waking up in the middle of the night, whimpering “I hope we can make payroll, I hope we can make payroll.” The involuntary twitch in my left eye is still there, but it’s gradually devolving into a sly wink. And I have started reverse-aging and now only look 54!

Jokes aside, today’s topic is about the toll nonprofit work takes on our physical health, and what actions we can take. The work that many of us do in this field often comes at great costs, such as taking financial hits that leave many people unsure about their future retirement plans. There are also mental health challenges that come from being stressed out all the time. I don’t think, though, that we often stop to think about what this work does to us in terms of our physical health and the years it’s taking from us.

In the past week, I spoke to two former nonprofit leaders. One talked about having visceral psychosomatic symptoms in even thinking of her previous job, which was focused on advancing equity. The other reported feeling her health improving mere days after she resigned from her position. These are not uncommon occurrences. I remember always being sick the first three days of every vacation (during the rare times I took any long breaks). And skipping meals and being exhausted all the time.

Sure, some of these falls on our own personal responsibility. Nonprofit people are some of the worst when it comes to healthy meals, for example. Those of you reading this during your lunch time while you munch on a granola bar or some pretzels, I’m talking about you. We need to do a better job with nutrition, exercise, sleep routines, etc. Eat a balanced meal for lunch, ideally away from your desk. Go on more walking/mobile meetings. Take your vacations.

However, the field itself needs to do a better job acknowledging how damaging this work can be, and to take steps to improve the situation, instead of just placing the onus mostly on staff to take care of their own health. We’ve been neglecting the issue, or have just accepted it as par for the course, that it’s a given when we enter this profession. And over the past few years of the pandemic, it’s been getting worse; I see more and more colleagues getting sick from various ailments and for longer periods of time. Our general health problems are being magnified by long covid. No wonder fewer and fewer people want to take on nonprofit leadership. Or nonprofit work in general.

It shouldn’t be this way. No one should have to sacrifice their own health and well-being to make the world better. Here are a few things for us all to consider and act on:

Nonprofits: Have a meeting with your team and discuss wellness and what can be done to improve it for everyone. Solutions may vary from org to org, but I can imagine there are some universal things. For instance, pay everyone better! You’ll be surprised how much people’s wellbeing improves when they have more disposable income and don’t have to freak out every time there’s a sickness or car problem.

Provide better benefits, including healthcare coverage and mental health support. Offer flexible schedules and encourage your team to take the time they need for medical and wellness appointments. Start thinking about 4-day work weeks, which more and more organizations are exploring. Offer sabbaticals for all staff members, not just executive leaders, after they’ve worked at the org a certain amount of time.

I also think a lot of what has been causing health problems are the endless bullshit nonprofit staff have to deal with: horrible work environment; toxic coworkers who really should have been fired a long time ago; leaders who prioritize asshole donors and their money over doing what’s right; board members who are clueless, feckless, or micromanage-y, etc. Be on the lookout for these things.

Funders: Sorry, a lot of the stress that’s gradually destroying people’s health is caused by you. It’s been great, but also extremely grating, to see the crop of funders who over the past several years have started moving towards things like 4-day/32-hour work weeks, long hiatuses, wellness programs, etc. It’s great because these are good things everyone should be thinking about and implementing when feasible.

But it’s grating because many nonprofits just don’t have the luxury in terms of resources and time to do those things. And a significant reason is that funders are still very much stuck in archaic practices like giving one-year grants, giving restricted funds, not paying for staffing, only allowing a certain percentage for “indirect” expenses, requiring burdensome application and reports, or whatever.

Please stop to examine and acknowledge whether some of your policies and requirements are not just annoying, they’re literally damaging nonprofit staff’s health and shortening their life spans. Take actions to help improve the overall health of people in the field, including offering multi-year general operating dollars (MYGOD), funding capacity building around health and wellness, and supporting intermediary organizations as they are often the ones driving these important conversations.

And overall, just increase your annual payout rate and give out tons more money. If you give nonprofits more money, they can do things like pay their staff better, provide comprehensive benefits, offer sabbaticals, etc., things that would go a long way in improving the health and well-being of the pivotal people on the ground doing the work.

Equity reminder: As usual, remember that marginalized people are always disproportionally affected by things. The health of people of color, disabled people, LGBTQIA+ people, women, older adults, lower-income people, etc., will be affected in greater intensity and duration, compounded by the presence of factors like racism and ableism, combined with fewer resources to deal with it. All the more reason for us all to be more serious about this issue.

If you are interested in helping with Crappy Funding Practices and are free on May 14th at 10am Pacific Time, join a special meeting where we’ll update you on what’s been going on and present the different options for you to get involved. Register here.