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In a Nutshell: Striving for healthy nonprofit work environments

| May 21, 2024 11:05 AM

Earlier this month, Land to Hand MT, in partnership with the North Valley Food Bank (NVFB), hosted the Let's Be Bold event organized by the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce. Over 60 women attended to network and learn about creating healthy work environments in our respective organizations. They inspired me to share our lessons learned with a wider audience through my monthly column.

The past four years have been challenging for nonprofit workers nationwide. A recent study by the Stanford Social Innovation Review indicates that nearly 50% of nonprofit employees have experienced burnout. While burnout is not a new phenomenon, it has become increasingly prevalent within food banks since the start of the pandemic. At NVFB, we have witnessed this firsthand. With food bank visits more than doubling in the last two years, our staff and volunteers have worked tirelessly to maintain smooth operations. These demands have led to physical and mental exhaustion. Although supporting and assisting our community is deeply fulfilling, it can also take an emotional toll, eventually leading to compassion fatigue and burnout.

When I returned to work after my maternity leave in 2022, it became apparent that we needed to make changes to prevent the ongoing stress from becoming chronic. We embarked on a journey towards a mission-driven, healthy work environment. The biggest lesson learned was that we can’t put the burden of fixing burn-out on our employees. We can’t meditate ourselves out of the cycles of stress and exhaustion. Instead, we recognized the need for organizational-level changes.

We began by assessing the key stressors for each team member and then collaborated with a coach to brainstorm strategies for achieving balance between serving the community and taking care of ourselves. We then conducted a comprehensive team survey to determine which organizational changes would have the greatest impact. These changes included increasing staff capacity, reevaluating job descriptions and workloads, providing additional time off, setting boundaries, improving communication structure, and enhancing safety-related professional development. We hired a warehouse coordinator and expanded the hours of our database coordinator. We subsequently revised job descriptions, established a fair and transparent wage policy, implemented a communication structure that prioritized collaboration through a project management platform, and redefined our values. We also streamlined programs and set boundaries, such as reducing public office hours to allow for more focused work. Our team and volunteers participated in various safety trainings, including mental health first aid, CPR andAED, and active shooter response. One of the most significant changes has been closing the food bank for two weeks each year, one for additional time off after the busy holiday season and one for annual planning and training.

Furthermore, we conducted a team enneagram assessment to better understand each team member's work style and personality. It wasn’t surprising that 50% of our team identified as an enneagram type two, also known as 'the helper.' This meant that we needed to put additional efforts on setting healthy boundaries, monitor workloads and foster crucial conversations. To enhance team communication, we initiated a monthly book discussion. Moving forward, our goals for this year include developing each team member's expertise within their respective roles, completing an organizational capacity assessment, and implementing a staff well-being survey for regular check-ins.

However, our journey is far from over. To foster lasting, sustainable change in the nonprofit sector, we must transform the narrative surrounding wages and benefits for nonprofit employees. The reality is that even after salary increases, our staff members can only afford to live in our communities by sharing major household expenses with a partner or roommates. Let’s think about how we can collectively ensure that individuals working in nonprofits can improve the world for everyone, while also receiving appropriate compensation for their hard work, expertise and vision of a better future.

Sophie Albert is director of North Valley Food Bank in Whitefish. Albert provides insights into happenings at the food bank, rural food insecurity, stories of the community and more in the Whitefish Pilot column 'In a Nutshell.'