Nonprofit Professionals: Prone to Wellness Risks?

In her book, The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit, Beth Kanter explores the tendency of nonprofit professionals to prioritize work over their personal wellbeing.

Nonprofit professionals tend to regard their work as highly important and likewise derive immense meaning from what they do. In many cases, they have sacrificed bigger paychecks and more prestigious careers for a humble yet passion-infused living. With the incredible driving force that is their passion for the cause, allowing oneself to become overworked and under-cared-for is all too easy.

A nonprofit organization (NPO) varies considerably from the corporate or governmental entities that are normally associated with wellness programs or initiatives. Unlike a corporation, a nonprofit is legally defined as “a group organized for purposes other than generating profit and in which no part of the organization’s income is distributed to its members, directors, or officers” (Cornell Staff Lll, 2007). Like businesses, they are regulated by local, regional, and national laws. Nonprofits vary in legal form depending on the country in which they are founded.

In addition to this general definition, nonprofits are characterized by the following unique qualities, according to the consulting firm Compass Point Nonprofit Services:

  • Passion for mission
  • Atmosphere of “scarcity”
  • Bias toward informality, participation, and consensus
  • Dual bottom lines: financial and mission
  • Program outcomes are difficult to assess
  • Governing board has both oversight and supporting roles
  • Mixed skill levels of staff (management and program)
  • Participation of volunteers

Due to these special circumstances, nonprofit professionals are prone to risks that can often be avoided at larger, for-profit firms.

In many cases, leadership has had to work extremely hard to get the organization to the state that it is in. Although this is certainly admirable if leaders of the organization continue to ‘think, breathe and eat’ the cause it can lead to issues with modeling a poor work-life balance to team members. If overwork has led to high-stress levels, health issues, or interpersonal trouble for the founding team, similar symptoms can easily trickle down to employees who are eager to adopt the working habits of their mentors within the organization.

To make matters worse, Kanter also notes that many nonprofit employees tend to adopt a scarcity mindset- which can make the already characteristic lack of resources out to be a greater challenge than it very well might be. Such a mentality can contribute to feelings of stress and inability to cope with assignments and challenges.

For nonprofits who don’t know where to begin, she recommends starting with conversations- to promote both self-care and what she calls ‘we-care’ or care from the side of the organization. From there, Kanter recommends arranging a volunteer committee of employees who will work toward developing the program – one that will come at a minimal cost to the organization. At this point, it is up to the creativity of the wellness team of nonprofit professionals to determine which incentives and initiatives will be offered. While some nonprofits may have the means to provide gym memberships to their employees, others will have to make use of virtually costless yet equally effective alternatives, such as a walking group.

A final tip from Kanter’s co- author Aliza Sherman: “Organizational culture change can happen both trickle down and trickle up”. While it is commonly believed that in corporations, strong support and direction from leaders is mandatory in order to ensure a successful wellness initiative, it could be argued that due to the nature of the nonprofit organization, employees themselves can have a huge impact on the creation and success of such programs.

For more reading on the subject check out Five Myths that Perpetuate Burnout Across Nonprofits, a great piece by the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

What do you think? Have you experienced the nonprofit stress syndrome? How did you cope? Leave your ideas and comments below!





Johnson, Cat. “How to Create Happier, Healthier Nonprofits.” October 11, 2016. Accessed November 17, 2016.

Staff, LII. “Non-Profit Organizations.” August 6, 2007. Accessed November 29, 2016.
the, Regents of. “Wellness: Seven Dimensions of Wellness.” 2014. Accessed December 8, 2016.

Wellness Programs in Nonprofit Organizations. n.p., 2010.
Accessed November 20, 2016.

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