Holidays around a nonprofit can get pretty stressful!
There are year-end fundraisers, volunteer parties, donor thank-you letters, and last-minute appeals to send out.
Some nonprofits programs’ rev up around the holidays, providing meals and gifts, keeping the homeless warm, or preparing for an influx of post-holiday pets that need homes.
Add to that the fact that almost everyone involved in your organization, donors, volunteers, staff and, of course, you, have quite a few more obligations outside of work than normal. You’re planning family meals, shopping for gifts, figuring out whose mother’s house to go to, helping out with church programs, and seeing relatives that you only meet once a year (and that’s more than enough!) Whew!
We’re supposed to start counting our blessings around Thanksgiving and work our way up to joy by New Year’s Eve. But honestly, this time of year seems harder. Forget a sense of peace and happiness, you’re just wondering if you can muddle through until the new year!
So, what’s the remedy for all the stress and anxiety we’re all dealing with?
Believe it or not, it’s quite simple: personal gratitude.
What personal gratitude is
G.K. Chesterton once said, “When it comes to life, the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or with gratitude.”
Stress keeps us anxious about the future; gratitude brings us into the moment and allows us to feel peace.
Studies on people who mindfully practice personal gratitude show that they have more positive emotions, less stress, fewer sick days and health complaints, a greater sense of optimism about goals, and higher satisfaction with their jobs and co-workers!
That sounds great, right?
So how do you go about creating a culture of personal gratitude for yourself and maybe for your whole organization?
It might seem impossible to achieve this time of year when you’re already in a dead sprint to the finish line but taking a little time to practice gratitude might very well help you get past the stress and enjoy the season.
As a nonprofit director, you probably already have your organization on your heart and mind 24/7. It’s an extension of yourself and fulfilling the mission is a personal calling.
Because of that, the first thing you need to do is establish your own personal gratitude practice.
Gratitude is a lens that you can use to see the world a little differently. It means changing your focus to the things you do have rather than stressing about all the things you don’t have.
There are some simple things you can do to help change your focus and improve your mental health in the process. When you experience these changes, your organization will benefit.
Your own personal gratitude practice
- Gratitude journal. Depending on your status as an early bird or a night owl, choose a time to write in a gratitude journal. It can be at night just before you go to bed, or when you get up in the morning (after you have coffee, of course). Write down three things you are grateful for. If you’re stuck in stress and anxiety, you might have a tough time thinking of things you’re thankful for. That’s okay. Do you have running water? Did you get enough to eat today? Do you have a warm puppy sitting in your lap? Those are all things you can feel thankful for. No matter how big or how small, don’t be afraid to add things to your journal. Don’t worry about putting the same thing twice.
If you come across a quote about gratitude that you like, add that to the journal. When you’re feeling stressed or down, take out the journal and look at it. It may feel a little forced at first, but gratitude is a muscle that needs exercise and you’ll find it gets easier the more you do it.
- Gratitude and complaint boxes. On your desk, on your kitchen table, or by your entry door, place two boxes. Label one ‘Complaints’ and one ‘Gratitude.’ Next time you are stressed or have something you want to complain about write your complaint on a piece of paper and put it in the ‘Complaint’ box. Then write something that you’re grateful for as well and place it in the ‘Gratitude’ box. Make yourself write the gratitude piece if you have to, so that the ‘Complaint’ box never outweighs the ‘Gratitude’ box.
- Five minutes of gratitude mindfulness. Set a timer for 5 minutes. Take deep breaths and let negative thoughts go, concentrating on something positive: your kids, grandkids, your spouse, your garden, chirping birds, the feeling of the sun on your arms – whatever makes you feel good.
Use this exercise daily to keep your head in the right place or use it when you are feeling stressed before a big meeting, you just heard bad news, or after a run-in with a Board member or donor!
If you don’t have time for 5 minutes, take ten deep breaths, letting negative thoughts go out with each exhale and one gratitude thought come in when you inhale.
- Replace negative thoughts with more positive ones. Do you often find yourself thinking negative thoughts about yourself and others? I sure do. If you have time, write down the negative thought and next to it, write a more positive thought that flips the situation.For example, if you’re afraid to ask a big donor for money (for whatever reason), write down your fear then remember that this donor loves your cause and write down how this donation will allow that donor to become a hero.
If you have a staff member who sometimes seems disorganized write that down and next to it, write her best qualities and talents. Maybe she’s very creative and especially passionate. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t still a problem you need to solve, but it does mean that you can go forward with a positive take on the situation.
After a while, this attitude will become second nature.
- Stop playing the comparison game. Comparing yourself or your organization to others make us feel bad about ourselves because focusing on someone else’s achievements and skills by definition means we’re not concentrating on the unique talents and gifts that make us special. It’s okay to appreciate and incorporate good ideas from others, but as Dr. Seuss said, “Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.”
Your unique gifts and talents mean that your path will be different. Envy achieves nothing. Believe me, I know this one is hard, but run your own race.
You should also extend this courtesy to staff, volunteers, and board members. Don’t compare your new Board president to the one you loved five years ago. Learn to appreciate people for the unique skills they bring to the table.
Establish a culture of personal gratitude in your nonprofit
As you become more aware of the positive effects of gratitude in your own life, you will be more able to establish the same attitude with your staff and volunteers.
Remember that an organization-wide positive outlook starts with leadership. That’s you!
Start by modeling the behavior you want to see more of, then use these ideas to further instill the new culture of personal gratitude.
Put up a gratitude board or box and ask staff and volunteers to contribute. It may seem silly or forced at first, but this exercise makes everyone involved in your organization take a minute to think about the positive things that your nonprofit is accomplishing and find the best in the people they work with. This doesn’t mean that you are pretending that everything is sunshine and roses, but it does allow everyone to see that there are good things happening and might head off some negativity!
Thank your staff and volunteers for a job well done. This may seem like a no-brainer but think about it: in the rush of doing the million and one things that need to get done every day, how often do you simply thank people?
A generic thank you to everyone is better than nothing, but a specific thank you to someone describing exactly what they did that you’re grateful for is powerful. For example, if someone wrote an excellent, detailed report, thank them for that…specifically. If a volunteer served extra hours to cover for someone else, be specific and send them a text or a card noting the special effort.
The upside of being precise is that the person receiving the thanks knows exactly what went well and they’re much more likely to do it again in the future!
Encourage team participation in thanking donors. You already know that thanking donors is critical to building relationships and getting repeat donations. Get your staff, volunteers, and Board members involved, too, so that donors get thanked by someone they aren’t used to hearing from – which is a pleasant surprise and gives your team a wonderful opportunity to experience gratitude first-hand. Invite them to help with handwritten cards or make phone calls. Or better yet, get them to participate in a Thank You video!
Donors will be love your heartfelt acknowledgement and engaging the entire team shows that thanking donors is a top priority.
Make sure your staff, volunteers, and Board members receive thanks. Every person on staff, all your volunteers, and every Board member should know that their efforts are appreciated. Just as you thank donors for their part in making the world a better place, you should remind every person working for your organization that there are people who are grateful for their efforts, people who are no longer hungry or homeless, lonely people who now have pets, or tutoring students who have achieved their dream of college.
Gratitude from others goes a long way towards soothing the everyday challenges and heartaches of running a nonprofit. So be sure to write thank-you notes or shoot thank-you videos for your team to let them know how much you appreciate them. Share notes from the front lines to let them know how much good they are helping to create. Get creative to find ways to appreciate your team.
Establish team personal gratitude practices. Find specific small ways to encourage your staff to share their gratitude for their colleagues. Give everyone in the office five index cards and ask them to write a little thank you to someone who was kind that week. Take 15 minutes once a week to have everyone send you ‘thank you’ texts or tweets. There are lots of small ways to get everyone to stop and think of what they’re grateful for in their teammates. This exercise not only strengthens your culture of personal gratitude but also builds cohesion on your team.
Remind everyone what your organization has overcome. From time to time, your nonprofit may go through a rough patch. After you come through it, take a few minutes at a staff meeting or send out an email to remind everyone of what you’ve achieved through the hard times. When you express gratitude for meeting challenges, it makes the future seem brighter and more doable.
- Spend time on the positive at the beginning and ending of staff and Board meetings. You don’t have to get preachy or even use the word “gratitude” but dwelling on the positive aspects of your organization, your accomplishments, and your vision will help keep people focused on the positive.
Even if you have a tough meeting ahead, talking about the good things your organization has accomplished can’t help but put a more positive spin on the discussion and subsequent solutions. You should never have a meeting that doesn’t have some form of appreciation on the agenda.
The Bottom Line
You have a lot of responsibility when you’re running a nonprofit and there’s no doubt that sometimes you will feel stress and anxiety, particularly in the very season when you’re meant to be carefree and merry.
But you don’t have to stay on the treadmill of worry, exhausting yourself about what could happen to your organization down the road. You can choose the path of gratitude and ground yourself in the present.
Gratitude starts with you and then works its way outwards towards your staff, your volunteers, your beneficiaries, and your donors. A few small changes in perspective can lead to seeing the world, and the holidays, in a whole new light.
7 Scientifically Proven Benefits of Gratitude https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/what-mentally-strong-people-dont-do/201504/7-scientifically-proven-benefits-gratitude
How Gratitude Changes You and Your Brain https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_gratitude_changes_you_and_your_brain