7 self-care tips for nonprofit professionals


Golden-Chanterelles-on-oakToday, I was at the grocery store trying to decide whether it was worth it to buy twelve organic blueberries for five dollars, when I noticed chanterelle mushrooms. Chanterelle mushrooms! Already?! There is nothing in the world that I love more than chanterelle mushrooms, and yes, that includes my wife and new baby. With their bright orange color, sweet apricot aroma, and meaty texture, eating chanterelles is like being punched in the mouth by happiness. I eagerly anticipate them every fall, one of the few consolations for the melancholy end of summer. Delirious, I bought half a pound for seven dollars and came home, inspired to make a risotto.

Risotto can be a difficult dish to make. It involves a lot of stirring, followed by more stirring, then more stirring, and then you run to the bathroom for two minutes and come back and your risotto is burned and you’re all bitter…as bitter as your risotto.

While cooking, I thought, Dude, risotto is a delicious culinary metaphor for our work! Specifically, our pace of work. We are constantly adding broth and stirring! We talk about self-care all the time, but most of us suck at it. My staff, for example, work ridiculous hours, often late into the evening and on weekends. Last week I caught one of them sneaking into the office. He was supposed to be on vacation, and I specifically forbid him from coming to the office. “Go home,” I yelled, looking around to find some stones to throw at him, “get out of here! You’re not wanted!”

We all suck at self-care, and we burn out, and that is not good for us, our clients, our families, our organizations, or the field. Which is why, while making the risotto, I thought up these tips so we can all take better care of ourselves:

Assess what is on your plate and taking up all your time, and also what is draining your energy. Are you attending like way too many useless meetings? Are you on too many committees that meet in the evenings? Do you have annoying coworkers that you hang out with but you don’t really want to hang out with them too much, mainly because it’s fantasy football season and that’s all they can talk about? Listing these things out will be helpful, because then you can prioritize.

Make a not-to-do list: Every once a while, I make a to-do list, which I get through half-way, then other stuff get in the way, and I abandon it. Then I started making not-to-do lists, and that was much easier. You should try it. It can be a list of stuff you are currently doing that you might want to consider no longer doing, for example, do you really need to have a staff meeting every week or is biweekly ok? It can also be a list of stuff that you are currently not doing, but it’ll make you feel better to write them down and check them off. For example, on my list I have “Not sucking up to this one corporate sponsor; not attending this one management training; not attending this fundraising breakfast held by a partner organization.” Check, check, and check. I feel more productive already.

Determine what brings you energy. Make a list of stuff that makes you happy or that you enjoy. Hiking? Chocolate? Pictures of bunnies? Taking naps? Whittling small animals out of soap? Contra dancing? Self-care is about what recharges your battery. This list varies from person to person, and that’s OK. Sometimes self-care tips prescribe things that you should do, like exercise for 30 minutes each day. If those are helpful, great, but if not, they might make you feel bad because you can’t or won’t do those things. For some people, early morning yoga before downing a kale-flavored smoothie energizes them, and that’s great for them. For me, I’d rather juggle Ziploc bags full of live scorpions than do “yoga,” or drink “green smoothies,” or “shower at least once a week.” Find what works for you.

Do the crap that makes you happy: Every day, take time, even ten minutes, to do something on the list you made of things you enjoy. If you enjoy them, it shouldn’t be a chore for you to do them. Still, it may be hard at first, because habits can be difficult to develop, especially the good ones. At work, find stuff you can do while working. For example, taking a break to look at pictures of cute animals (which actually is proven to increase productivity); listening to your favorite 90’s hip-hop songs while writing that grant; or making sock puppets during meetings.

Recruit your coworkers: It’s often more fun to do things with other people. Chances are, everyone in your office is as stressed as you are. At the next staff meeting, share and brainstorm ideas for self-care. Select a couple of them to implement. Don’t be overly ambitious, or you’ll feel like crap if you are not successful. Explore a new restaurant together for lunch once a month. Go on a walk as a team once a week. Have an office talent show to display your awesome sock puppets. Of course, if your coworkers actually drain your energy, then maybe just avoid them until fantasy football season is over.

Learn to say no: Self-care is also a lot about self-protection, specifically from excessive demands. I find that the only reward for competency is more work. The more competent you are, the more people will ask you do to stuff. But, luckily most people usually understand when you say, “I’d love to help, but I can’t take on any more responsibilities at this time.” You can also preemptively buffer yourself from being approached in the first place by feigning incompetence, which I have been successfully doing for years.

Stop feeling bad about self-care: It’s amazing how many people stress out about self-care—“Eeek, I’m not doing enough self-care!” or “Eeek, I’m not doing self-care right!”—which I find to be very ironic.  Dude, self-care is about feeling good, so if thinking about how to make yourself feel good is making yourself feel bad, then knock it off for now, maybe come back to it later. Also, don’t let others make you feel bad about what brings you energy. I happen to watch probably way too much TV. At the end of each work day, I’m exhausted from hours of thinking and making decisions. What brings me energy is NOT having to think or plan or decide or be creative, and TV is awesome for that.

Hell, if work brings you energy and hasn’t been negatively impacting other areas of your life, like your romantic relationship, then don’t feel bad about working too much either. I love my work, and for a long while it energized me with the feeling that the efforts may in some ways contribute to making the world better. The hours flew by. Work WAS my self-care. Now I have a baby, and priorities changed, and a lot of my energy comes from being a good father. But still, this work, with all its craziness and frustrations, is fun and important, and a huge part of taking care of myself is doing a good job at my work, including working evenings and weekends on occasion.

I hope those tips are helpful. Our work never ends. There is always more stuff to do, more grants to write, more donors to cultivate, more research to study, more management concepts to learn, more relationships to build, more program elements to improve, more meetings to attend. And since this work is so critical, with real people being affected, finding down-time can be challenging, sometimes even guilt-inducing. If we stop stirring, we feel like the risotto may burn. But if we don’t stop stirring to take care of ourselves, we will all burn out. And then who the hell is going to make the delicious wild mushroom risotto of equity and justice for our community?

What do you do for self-care? Please add your tips in the comment section. See you later. I’m going to go enjoy my slightly-burned chanterelle risotto while watching “Under the Dome,” an enjoyably awful TV show.

PS: @AllAmericaCity on Twitter pointed out something obvious that I missed: Laughter. Duh! This was one of the reasons why this blog was started in the first place. We must be able to laugh at ourselves, and we should find other things that make us laugh. Poorly-organized panels? That’s funny. Applying to a grant and being called in thinking you are advancing to the next stage only to get kicked in the groin, that’s hilarious!

  • Since it has rained recently, the chantrelles are popping up in the forests already. Our family has hunted for them in the same woods year after year. I was planning to hunt for them next weekend.

    • Vu

      What? You…you know where they are growing wild? Claire, you are my new BFF. Please take me with you when you go hunt for chanterelles!!

  • Dan

    Ironically enough, Fantasy Football is a big part of my self-care.

    But I promise not to talk about it in the office.

    • Vu

      Thank you, Dan. That’s very thoughtful of you. One of my staff is having a FF drafting meeting tonight at the VFA office, so I am finishing all my work (ha!) so I can get out of here

  • Karina O’Malley

    Risotto made in a pressure cooker needs no stirring and doesn’t burn. Discovering this was like getting an unsolicited grant that could be used for “general operating expenses”.

    • Vu

      Risotto in a pressure cooker?! That IS like getting a gen op grant. You may have changed my life.

      • Kat


      • Vu

        Thank you, Kat, for adding to this conversation. You are literally a fount of wisdom.

  • Jaime

    Eating while reading your blog is the best self-care I can provide myself. Now excuse me while I install a burner in my office so I can make risotto while calling donors…

    • Vu

      Aw, Jaime, that’s so sweet. Your comment just made my day.

  • Merry

    When I got my first non-profit job, I escaped the stress by spending 10-20 minutes a day reading Guindon cartoon books. He is funny and twisted — a good combo.

    Now that I’ve been an ED for 21 years, I escape by playing music (what I was trained to do) and by volunteering at someone else’s NPO. Currently it is a place where I overhaul bicycles that are sold to benefit the NPO or earned by people who need them as daily transportation. (They earn a bike by volunteering.) This is a fairly new NPO and needs support, so (big surprise) I’m also helping them with fundraising.

    I don’t think it matters what you do for self care as long as you take your mind somewhere else by doing it.

    • Vu

      Merry, that sounds like an enjoyable and productive way to spend some down time. I’ll have to check out Guidon.

  • I gained some valuable tips about risotto here. Thank you. I will think about this issue while knitting and riding my bike. I don’t do those things at the same time, in case you’re wondering.

    • Vu

      Thanks, Nancy, for commenting and following! I discovered how to make “lazy risotto gruel,” where you just add all the broth in at once and stir just once a while. It has the consistency of gruel and is not as good as risotto, but it’s edible, and I can watch more TV that way.

      • We had an amazing mushroom plus fresh corn (creative use of leftovers) risotto Saturday. My boyfriend made it, which meant I got to relax while he cooked. How great is that!?

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  • The chuckles and “Totally!” moments I enjoy while reading your awesome blog do as much for me in the self-care department as the yoga I’ve just started doing again after taking too long of a break while overworking myself. I will share this post with great delight.

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  • Dana Jaehnert

    VU I’m PASSING OUT from laughter in my office, as I make a list of all the people I want to share this with. Such a blast. So true. My officemates have no idea what I’m doing, and that gives me joy. But really, they know I’m totally blowing my time on your blog, because I’m sending all your posts to them. Yay for self-care.

  • Sabrina Bowman

    I swing dance, and go to adult dance camp and desperately try to encourage office dance parties. One year I also recharged by going to Burning Man. I came back and demanded to know what everyone’s spirit animal was (mine was the quiet but elegant naked mole rat).

  • Rita Ulrich

    Vu, I’m totally with you on TV. There’s nothing like a good murder mystery to stop rehashing the day or worrying about tomorrow. Makes for better dreams too. As for risotto, I might consider trying it again if it had chanterelle mushrooms.