Managing your stress in a charity role

I was running a strategic planning course recently and invited everyone to introduce themselves. One attendee described the organisation she chaired, which was a place for relaxing, stress-free, simple holidays.

The entire room of stressed-out, overworked and tired charity staff and Trustees sighed in unison. Then we all laughed.

Perhaps the biggest misconception the private sector has is that a charity job is a stress-free doddle. Many of those I’ve met hoping to make the cross-over identify the lower levels of stress that a charity career offers, and it’s hard not to bite through my tongue entirely.

I’ve taken on three charities in times of serious crisis as an interim CEO (and another that was heading firmly in that direction) and the stress felt across the organisation at every level was intense.

I personally believe that those who work for charities (whether paid or voluntary) have a tendency to burn themselves out because they genuinely care about what they do and have a personal stake in the ongoing health of the charity. That commitment leads them to give more than they should. Their commitment is a wonder to behold, but is also something that can be problematic when things get really tough.

Stress in a charity may come from different sources, but it’s real, and it tends to have an enormous impact on staff, trustees and volunteers.

Stress can arise from:

  • losing a major funding stream, or having a run of poor results on your fundraising efforts
  • worrying about what will happen to your beneficiaries if the money doesn’t come through
  • worrying about your beneficiaries even if the money comes through, because you’ve connected with them, care about them, and know you can’t do everything you wish you could
  • being expected to do more for less as funders cut their budgets in this era of austerity…then watching the most vulnerable people take the brunt of it
  • long hours ‘volunteering’ in addition to your day job, such as hosting a stall at an event, working on that project document late into the evening, helping a beneficiary in a time of crisis, or helping or showing up to various fundraising events run in the charity’s honour (always paying for your own ticket – and returning the raffle prize if you happen to win, I might add…)
  • facing the potential closure of the charity, or other major crisis, and feeling personally responsible for keeping the place afloat (check out if you’re in crisis)
  • problems with communication and relationships with the Board or management, which often get worse when things head downhill
  • feeling undervalued – a major issue that happens in many charities due to the bizarre structure of the charity sector whereby paid workers are ultimately responsible to unpaid volunteers (Trustees). Both sides have a tendency to feel undervalued – the staff, because they may not be getting the praise and recognition a more traditional management structure would provide, and the Trustees, because their voluntary contribution is so often resented rather than applauded by the team.

Suggestions for managing charity-related stress

Goodness knows I don’t have all the answers to this. I am (definitely) not a zen master and I experience stress like anyone else does. I do thrive on getting stuck in to the tougher cases, but I too believe strongly in what I do and can sometimes have work/life boundary issues and struggle with saying ‘no’. But, I have found some of these pointers have helped me and/or the people I’ve worked with, and set them out as suggestions only!

1.   Book your holidays in advance – as far in advance as you can. Then take them.

This piece of advice came from a course for small charity CEOs that I did with Ella Foundations some years back and it changed my life. There will always be a reason that you shouldn’t take a holiday, but you must. It’s essential for your mental health and your productivity. I now book all my holidays at the beginning of the year, and I’m upfront with my clients about when those weeks are going to happen. I see so many staff – particularly CEOs – never taking their leave as it’s never the right time.

If you book leave in advance, it doesn’t matter whether it’s the right time or not, you are going. Believe it or not, the charity will survive a week or two without you. And, while you’re away, put the out of office reply on and don’t check your emails or answer calls. I know you care, but looking after yourself is the best way to look after your charity.

2. Talk to your Manager, your Chair or another trusted person about your stress levels

It’s ok to not be ok. Your Board or your Manager is not going to want to see you burnt out and should provide you with support of some kind or another. This might be to look at your workload, make sure you actually get evenings and weekends off for a while, get you access to some kind of support (such as counselling, etc) or something else entirely.

If you’re the Chair, speak up to your Board about how you’re feeling. Maybe a Vice-Chair or some more Trustees could help you to be able to delegate.

And, if you don’t get the support you need, it might be time to think about whether this charity is the right place to be.

3. Remember to celebrate with your team

When things get tough, it can be easy to forget to celebrate the wins. At one charity I worked in, we did a silly dance every time a cheque came in the post, and we would have a special cake and coffee when we won a major grant or donation, or achieved a big milestone. I also seem to remember giving a rather surprised – but pleased, I think – supporter a gigantic and gleeful hug when he informed me that his fundraising dinner had raised exactly the amount that I had just lost from a disappointed corporate donor commitment. Those moments were important to keep the team bonded and to celebrate the good times in the midst of a significant challenge.

Take a moment to look at what you do, what you achieve, and the difference you make, and give yourself a well-deserved pat on the back. Imagine what society would be like without people like you and your team, and celebrate your awesomeness.

4. Get help if you need it

We no longer live in a world where mental health is a taboo concept, or where counselling is an area of shame. Counsellors and doctors are there to help, so ask for it if you need it, and be proud of your commitment to looking after yourself.

5. You are allowed to move on

It is surprising how often I find charity workers and volunteers in a state of utter misery, yet not feeling capable of leaving the organisation as they feel that everything depends on them. While key departures, particularly in a crisis, can be tough for the charity, pressuring someone to stay who is desperately unhappy is never going to be the answer.

So, I’ll say it. It is ok to leave. Whether you’re the CEO, the Chair, the Founder, the best Operational Worker the organisation has ever seen, the Administrator who organises the entire place and without whom things might just collapse, or the general dogsbody volunteer who keeps everyone else efficient and effective…it is ok if you can’t do it anymore. Hand in your notice and spend the time writing the best handover manual you’ve ever seen and move onto your next challenge with a light heart.

There’s more…

Other common stress management techniques can also be very useful – eat well, exercise, do something creative, meditate, go for a walk in the woods and get some fresh air, spend some time with your friends. Do whatever you can to keep yourself healthy as that is a priority, not matter what other challenges your charity is going through.

What do you do to manage your charity-related stress?