The Myth and Reality of Nonprofit Work-Life Balance

by Alex Carter

Nonprofit leaders are a different breed. Until very recently, few of them had management backgrounds or MBAs. They founded or joined organizations not to get ahead or make money, but to change the world. They willingly work longer hours for lower pay than their talents would bring in the private sector. And, very importantly, they frequently don't think of "work" as separate from "life."

When your work is your passion, the idea of "balance" has to be redefined.

This is particularly important in 2012, when the stress of nonprofit leadership is greater than ever. Leaders of smaller nonprofits are faced with reduced support and increasing demand for services. They are deciding how many staff to cut, determining which programs or activities can be postponed or cancelled, and working with their boards to fill funding gaps.

Given these realities, how can we help our nonprofit clients find balance? What skills and attitudes characterize nonprofit leaders who feel they have a good work-life balance?

For many of my clients, balance is not a scale, with equal weight placed on work and life. It's more like a pendulum. On any given day, or during any given week, the amount of time or energy spent on work or on life will vary. Mental health can be found at many points along the pendulum's path.

The best leaders don't leave balance to chance. They plan. Rather than mostly reacting to events, good nonprofit executives look ahead and are proactive. It's a key skill for keeping one's sanity. While they can't anticipate everything, they schedule regular planning sessions—daily, weekly and monthly.

For my clients, there are three important questions in the planning matrix:

First, how can you maximize time on things that feed your energy, and minimize what saps it? Energy boosters usually include the things that propelled nonprofit leaders into service in the first place—spending time with clients or developing a new program—but that often get lost in the day-to-day details. I encourage clients to plan to engage in more of those activities. As for the things that sap their energy, they can decide which of these can be delegated or deferred. Whatever can be done by someone else should be done by someone else.

Second, how can you ask for help? One of my clients has asked board members to attend meetings she cannot make. To make sure she keeps abreast of important issues, she has provided them with a simple form on which they can note important questions or decisions that came from the meeting. She has freed several hours per week with this step. As an added bonus, her board members feel more engaged in the work.

Sometimes, though, there is no substitute for a mental and physical break.

So the third planning question is when was the last time you took a vacation? I once worked with an executive director who hadn't taken significant time off in 10 years, and his health and happiness were suffering. We worked on a plan that prioritized a vacation. After some time away, he had renewed focus and passion for his work. He has since taken regular vacations, and insists his staff do the same.

How does the ideal of work-life balance play out in your clients' lives? What have you found works best for them?


Alex Carter, Your Nonprofit Coach, specializes in helping new Executive Directors become outstanding managers and leaders, while keeping their sanity. She can be reached through her web site,

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