The Quest for Work-Life Balance in a Nonprofit Job

Nonprofit employees are known for their dedication to their jobs, devotion to their organization’s missions and passion for their careers.  In the study The Voices of Nonprofit Talent, Commongood Careers found that 84 percent of nonprofit jobseekers saw work as part of their identities, not just a way to make a living.  While this level of commitment is a driving factor when it comes to working for social change, it also can be a factor in the ability for nonprofit professionals to find a healthy balance between their work life and personal life. 

As the demand for leaders in nonprofits is rapidly increasing, concerns about work-life balance are becoming more important to younger professionals.  In the study Ready to Lead? Next Generation Leaders Speak Out, CompassPoint Nonprofit Services and its partners reported that two of the top five reasons potential nonprofit leaders surveyed were wary of rising to executive positions were related to the belief that they would have to sacrifice work-life balance to be a director.  Additionally, the study’s focus group participants frequently said that being an executive director means making compromises in personal life they are not willing to make. 

Simple Steps to Balance the Work-Life Scale

With today’s expectations and norms for work, especially in the social sector, many with nonprofit careers recognize that these things may be more easily said than done.  To address this challenge, here are some simple ideas that can help those looking to balance the work-life scales:

Keep a log of a week’s worth of time.  Writing down every activity in which you participate in one week can help pinpoint opportunities to maximize your time, as well as weed out extraneous or the needlessly time-consuming activities. 

Learn to say no.  The important thing about saying “no” is being honest with yourself about the activities to which you say “yes.”  Remember that saying no can help you do more and better of what you already have on your plate; saying yes to too much not only impacts current projects, but can add a level of stress not worth taking on. In addition, turning down requests to do everything can help you better understand the capabilities of your colleagues, and what they are able to take on themselves.  If you are concerned that saying no is too much of a hassle or is going to produce a conflict you want to avoid, complimenting the person or group’s effort while saying that you’re unable to commit at this time helps to soften the blow and can keep you in good standing with your co-workers.

Communicate clearly.  Mistakes happen, but mistakes that arise from rushed communication are especially frustrating because they can be easily avoided.  Taking the time to communicate as clearly and succinctly as possible can help you avoid the time-consuming mistakes that sometimes come from miscommunications.  Clear communication can mean you are more efficient at work and give you more time for yourself. 

Take advantage of what your organization has to offer.  The best methods of striking a comfortable work-life balance are often readily available at the workplace.  Find out if your organization offers flex time or allows you to work from home.  Or explore the option of a “4 x 10,” essentially compressing your work-week to a four-day week by working ten hours a day.  And yes, use your vacation time and know how much paid and unpaid leave you have available to you. 

Additionally, the message of the importance of work-life balance needs to come from the top. One of the best things current nonprofit managers and leaders can do to attract these new leaders is set an example of positive work-life balance.  Avoiding sending e-mails at all hours, staying in the office far into the night, and keeping weekends relatively work-free are simple ways to communicate that working to help others does not mean unacceptable personal sacrifice. 

Work-life Balance as an Organizational Value: DonorsChoose.org’s Story

DonorsChoose.org is known for helping teachers fund educational projects by providing an online platform that gives donors the flexibility to choose projects to support.  What may be news is that it also applies that flexibility to the organization’s approach to work-life balance.  The organization’s culture puts an emphasis on a healthy work-life balance by encouraging employees to use their alloted vacation time, maximize their individual work time, and work on a schedule that fits with each individual’s home and work life. 

“We still work hard enough that sometimes our work load is pretty immense, but in our employee survey, flexibility of work hours was one area that scored highly.  Our employees told us how much they appreciate the flexibility of their work time,” said Charles Best, Executive Director of DonorsChoose.org

Since there are a number of parents on staff, the organization is flexible about when employees can arrive and leave.  “One of our workers makes time to take his kids to school every day and so comes in more around 9:30 or 10:00, while some of the moms on our team make an effort to walk out of the office doors at 5:00 or 5:30 to be with their kids when they’re awake,” Best said.  By being flexible to these kinds of approaches, working at DonorsChoose.org encourages healthy family life in addition to a dedicated work life.

In addition to offering flexible hours, DonorsChoose.org offers five weeks of paid vacation at every level of employment. “We encourage people to take their vacation time, and unlike some law or consulting firms that state a policy but don’t stick to it, there is an organizational expectation and allowance for our team to take that time,” Best said. 

Additionally, the organization encourages employees to evaluate their work if they feel that they have too much on their plate. “There is a standing offer between managers and their direct reports that if someone is feeling overwhelmed their manager will run a prioritization exercise to maybe eliminate some items from the bottom of the priority list or prune down a task list to what has to get done,” Best said.  The organization is committed to helping its team work at its best and one of those ways is through promoting a healthy work-life balance. 

Balancing as Best You Can

Even if your organization does not offer all of these benefits, it pays to take a look at what they do offer and see how you can best take advantage of it.  Additionally, stay aware of the other things you can do to make your work life and home life as balanced as possible.  Taking stock of the important things you do during the day and remembering to take on only the tasks you know you have time for can increase your performance and productivity at work and make your home life happier too.  Dedicated people with nonprofit careers may have put their home lives aside in the past, but as new leaders look for positive examples to encourage them to direct nonprofits, paying attention to the balance of your work and life may be one of the most important things you can do for the health of both your career and the social sector.  Finding the right work-life balance can help you do a better job, create more impact while also giving the social sector a boost in attracting the best talent that will continue to make a difference. 


This article was written by Commongood Careers and is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommerical-NoDerivs 2.5 License.

For more information about nonprofit and socially entrepreneurial careers, visit Commongood Careers at http://www.commongoodcareers.org