Remember to Breathe: A Year-End Survival Guide

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When I talk about self care for nonprofit staffers, I use an airplane analogy. During the safety talk that flight attendants give before the plane takes off, they tell everyone about the oxygen masks. If the cabin pressure changes, the masks will drop down. The key is to put your own mask on before helping others around you.

So, I’m here to tell you, when year-end fundraising, holiday obligations, stress-induced meltdowns, and a host of other things make it hard to breathe, please put your own mask on first!


Get Some Perspective

I get it – the roof is leaking again, a major donor called to say that she’ll never give again because you spelled her name wrong on the appeal letter, your favorite coworker announced that she’s leaving for a better paying job, and you’re stuck with planning the holiday party. You just want to hide in the supply closet and cry. 

I’ve been there, friend. And I can help you get through this.

Let’s start by looking at the big picture. Think about the people your organization is helping. If you’re not working directly with clients, ask a colleague who does that work to share a success story. 

Better yet, take a walk through the building and notice the good things you’re helping to create. I did this a lot when I worked for an organization that served children who became wards of the State because they had been abused or neglected. We worked on a small campus, and the program magic happened in a building across the parking lot from my office. 

When I got discouraged or came down with writer’s block, I would stop by a classroom to see what the students were learning that day. Or I would walk through the residential treatment center and ask a social worker how that new resident was doing. The children under our care came from unthinkable situations. There was the seven-year-old who witnessed his father murder his mother. The girl who was locked in a closet for months. The one who was so terribly neglected that he could not attach to anyone. It was not uncommon for a five-year-old to be on suicide watch.

My coworkers had deep compassion and endless skill. Their patient and consistent care gave children a new reality and an understanding of what human relationships are supposed to be. There were retirees who volunteered as foster grandparents and offered the most beautiful unconditional love. There were the Board members who organized their friends to buy Christmas presents for the children. 

Walking through the buildings and seeing children start to trust again brought me to tears more than once. Especially when a child recognized me and ran over to say hello. Loaded with warm fuzzy feelings and inspiration, I sat at my desk and wrote appeal letters, thank you notes and grants. 

Bottom line: try to always remember the positive impact that your work is creating.


Ask for help

You’re not the only one who is struggling with year-end obligations and responsibilities. If you’re starting to think that you’re the only one, get over yourself and ask for some help. 

You wrote an inspired appeal letter and the gifts are flowing in. The trouble is, you used all of your words writing the appeal and now you’re looking at a blank screen that should have a thank you letter on it. 

There’s a grant deadline that feels like a dragon breathing down your neck. You had everything ready to enter into the online form, and then you went to a staff meeting and learned that priorities have changed and you now need to write a brand new grant for a new program. 

A pleasant and enormously generous donor is on the phone asking you to set up a tour for her close friends who are visiting from out-of-town. They’ll be on your doorstep in an hour. 


Now’s the time to call in some help. Do you have a Board member who loves to make thank you phone calls? A volunteer who is a great writer? A program staffer who is great at giving tours? A coworker who tells inspiring stories about the great work your organization does? Get someone on the phone right away, talk through the details of whatever task you’re trying to accomplish, and delegate, delegate, delegate.

Bottom line: If you feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders, it’s your own fault. Remember the fundraising motto: People won’t give unless you ask. It’s the same concept when it comes to helping — People want to help you, they just need to be asked.


Say No

Especially in small nonprofits, there are endless tasks and unexpected twists that take our attention away from the core of our work. It is tempting to chase every shiny thing. 

Your new Board chair wants you to plan another gala, even though the last one barely cleared expenses.

The Development Committee is losing members right and left and you’re under pressure to recruit a new group of people. 

There’s a holiday tree decorating contest and your organization wants you to lead the project.

Another mixer invitation just hit your email and you feel obligated to RSVP.

And on top of it all, it’s your turn to dump the bucket that’s catching the water leaking through the roof.

I’d like to say that I’ve always taken my own advice and said, “No” to lots of things. The truth is, this is the hardest self care behavior for me. 

Please, do as I say, not as I do (or did). Say no, and stand your ground. Remember that saying no does not mean you’re failing. It means that you know how to set boundaries and focus on the most important things. 


Be Realistic

I’ve told myself that the earth would stop rotating on its axis if I took a sick day. That I’m the only one who can get the narrative just right for that uber-competitive grant proposal. That the organization’s donor data would go to hell in a handbasket if I didn’t give it my special attention. That donors would stop giving altogether if I didn’t create the perfect experience for them.


Stop and remember that you are a mere mortal. Step off of the I’m-so-busy-I-barely-sleep-anymore treadmill. Let the unimportant things fall off of your to-do list. 


Have Some Fun 

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I used to be miserable for the entire month of December. I had a bah-humbug attitude and sneered like the Grinch if I was asked to do holiday things. People started to avoid me. My family wondered what happened to me. 

Then I helped my sister decorate a 13-foot monstrosity of a Christmas tree for her employer a few years ago. My heart grew three sizes that day. The second year, I really got into it and the next thing I knew, I was at the tree lot. My husband & I went to the cut-your-own tree farm where he worked as a teenager. It snowed while we were there. It was like a greeting card. Now, I put a 9-foot monstrosity of a Christmas tree in our living room every year. I insist on a strict theme of red and silver. I love sitting next to it late at night with no other lights on, having a snifter of scotch, watching “White Christmas.” It is pure joy.

My sister, niece and I go to a local nursery every December. They have gorgeous, hand painted ornaments, unique fresh wreaths, the prettiest poinsettias I’ve ever seen, and what seems like acres of succulents. It helps that they have free hot chocolate. We buy s’mores kits and roast marshmallows over a fire in the middle of their Christmas tree display. It instantly puts me in a great mood. 

Now that I’m like Ebenezer Scrooge post-ghost visits, my Mom likes to point out how big of a change this is. I’m so much more chill, I enjoy doing fun holiday things, and it feels great. 

What makes you happy in December? Or in any other month, for that matter. Make sure you’re doing fun and relaxing things. Maybe it’s as simple as sleeping in on Saturday morning. Or taking time to catch up with a friend. Or baking some cookies.

Bottom line: You’re going to do better work if you are relaxed and well rested. It’s something that only you can do for yourself, so figure it out and make plans to do something you enjoy.


Get an Accountability Buddy

To keep from getting isolated, I have learned that there’s nothing like the buddy system. Do you know people working at other nonprofits in your community? Reach out to them and commiserate. Then, ask for a weekly check-in during your most stressful times. Do you have a mentor or coach? Ask for some special help to get you through year-end. Do you have co-workers who are dealing with the same holiday stress? Ask them to have lunch with you. Even if you only take 15 minutes away from your desk, the time spent listening and sharing will feed your soul. 

Bottom line: Remember that you are worth taking care of. Don’t just take my word for it, listen to Mr. Rogers…  “There is only one like you in the whole world. There’s never been anyone exactly like you before, and there will never be again. Only you. And people can like you exactly as you are.”

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