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Self-Care During Challenging Times

What nonprofit leaders can do to ensure their organizations will be able to help others for the long haul

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As we all grapple with the upheaval and uncertainty produced by COVID-19 and its impact on communities and the economy, one thing is certain: Communities will call on nonprofits – especially those working in human services – to meet rapidly growing needs as schools and businesses remain closed, unemployment rises, and healthcare needs increase. As nonprofit leaders are faced with increased demand for services and massive disruptions to funding and operations, they must grapple with the urgent dilemma of balancing short-term and long-term priorities.

Leaders across the sector have the entrepreneurial spirit and skill that it takes to respond to the short term and ensure that their organizations are well-positioned for the long haul. However, nonprofits are facing potential challenges such as disruptions that impact service delivery, periods of negative cash flow, and burned-out and overwhelmed staff. These pressures can leave many leaders feeling that their organizations’ very existence is threatened, and managing these challenges can feel scary, isolating, and exhausting.

To lead effectively during a crisis, Bill Shore, founder and executive chairman of Share Our Strength and chair of Community Wealth Partners, advises “putting your own oxygen mask on before trying to assist others.” Although by now we’ve likely all heard the value of self-care to promote mental health and avoid burnout, for nonprofit leaders who place great value in serving others, self-care often takes a back seat – especially in times of crisis. It can feel almost impossible to lead others when at the same time you’re trying to figure out how to tend the health and safety of yourself and your loved ones.

Now more than ever we need strong leaders at the helm of nonprofits to guide teams through the challenges they confront. Leaders cannot provide strong leadership if they are not feeling strong and healthy themselves.

Self-Care for Nonprofit Leaders

Self-care will look different for different individuals, and there are a variety of resources that offer recommendations for nonprofit leaders. (For example, here are some questions to ask yourself, tips for nonprofit professionals, and 21 self-care resources.) From the conversations we’ve had with leaders over the past couple weeks, there are a few key practices I’d recommend.

  • Accept that this is not business as usual. We don’t know what our world will look like three months or three years from now, but we do know that we are likely to come out on the other side of this changed in some way. Some leaders we’ve spoken with have felt pressure to push forward plans they set weeks, months, or years ago without pausing to reassess whether to continue the work. Acknowledge that times are different and ask yourself, does this still feel like the right thing to do right now? Accept that the answer may be no.
  • Give grace to yourself and others. None of us has lived through something like this before. We may make bad decisions. We may be unable to follow through on commitments. We may let people down. Leaders who model patience and grace with themselves and others will be the ones who are able to rally their teams and pull through.
  • Lean on others for connection and support. Remember that you are not alone. While we may not be able to come together physically for connection and support, there are a variety of tools available to facilitate virtual connection. Lean on your colleagues and networks for support, solidarity, and help navigating thorny challenges.

Self-Care for Nonprofit Organizations

Just as personal self-care will look different for different individuals, organizational self-care could take many forms. As you prioritize the well-being of your organization, here are four places you can start:

  • Prioritize your people. Does your staff have what they need to take care of themselves and their loved ones and continue to work as best they can? What adjustments can you make to help them cope with change and uncertainty, so that they have what they need to help your beneficiaries?
  • Bolster and adapt your processes and systems. The chaos of the past few weeks has shown limitations and flaws in the systems, policies, and processes in governments, businesses, and nonprofits around the globe. For example, at a systems level, the current crisis has shown the limitations of U.S. policies on healthcare and nutrition. For some nonprofits, transitioning staff to telework may have surfaced gaps in the organization’s IT systems or inequities in personnel policies. In the short term, you may need to adapt your policies and processes in order to continue to deliver your services; this has been especially true for organizations that distribute food to children, senior citizens, and other food-insecure populations. Balance short-term adjustments needed to address current challenges with long-term considerations of the policies, processes, and systems that may be required for new ways of working in the months ahead.
  • Invest in yourself. Some funders are releasing restrictions on funding to give nonprofits the flexibility they need to respond to rapidly changing circumstances, and some organizations may receive unexpected gifts in recognition of the critical services they provide. Don’t hesitate to invest some of these resources in your own organization. Consider what your organization needs to stay strong for the long haul. If you have the resources to invest in what you need, use them.
  • Stay focused on your true purpose. During a time of crisis, a nonprofit’s first instinct may be to do whatever is needed to be of service. It can feel difficult to say no. But stretching your organization too thin can drain resources from core services and hamper the organization’s overall impact. While many organizations will likely need to evolve and adapt to changing circumstances, you can help ensure long-term sustainability by keeping an eye on the organization’s true purpose and not being afraid to say no at times.

We don’t know what lies ahead, but we know the coming weeks and months will be tough. Through this difficult period, Community Wealth Partners remains committed to supporting the nonprofits and foundations who are doing critical work in our communities. We want to help you address the challenges keeping you up at night by offering resources, connections, and support.

You can let us know how we can best help you by commenting below or reaching me directly at In the weeks ahead, we will develop resources and offerings to support leaders with the challenges that we keep hearing are top-of-mind right now.


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