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Adopting a Mental Health Mindset Will Help Both Funders and Nonprofits Thrive

Date: June 20, 2024

Beth Brown

Managing Director, Mental Health and Well-Being, Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation

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You are exhausted, a next-level fatigue.

Your body is so tired, but your mind can’t stop. It pings from what is right in front of you — grant deadlines, board meetings and two staff members who have just given notice — to the larger issues. Polarization and inequities are dark clouds disrupting your news feed and the headlines replaying in your mind. Always there, even in your restless sleep. With your words, you rally, but your heart is racing.

You are overwhelmed and overworked. You need much more than friends suggest — a long weekend, a long nap, a healthy snack, an unhealthy snack. Your bones ache. You find yourself constantly among people but lonely. You know you need support, but you’re not sure who and how to ask. You wish you had time for a doctor or a therapist or any number of behavior changes that are too daunting to take on. Not now.

You have heard “put on your oxygen mask first” so many times. What you really want is not an oxygen mask but a steadier plane.


Through CEP’s State of Nonprofits 2024 Report, nonprofit leaders tell us they and their teams are “burned out,” perhaps feeling some version of the description above. Though burnout is not classified as a medical diagnosis, it can both contribute to and be caused by depression and anxiety.

Nonprofit leaders are confirming what the mental health field, including the growing mental health philanthropy field, led by organizations like Mindful Philanthropy, already know: we are in a mental health crisis and a loneliness epidemic. According to the National Alliance for Mental Health, one in five people are experiencing a mental health challenge. The U.S. Surgeon General has called out loneliness as a public health crisis, stating that half of all Americans are experiencing loneliness and that this poses as much of a physical health risk as smoking.

This report has implications for philanthropy that challenge our current funding priorities, listening methods and mindset. Our funding strategies are only as strong as the collective well-being of our nonprofit partners, so let’s consider a new version of nonprofit capacity, one that considers the sustainability of nonprofit staff in their roles. This version of well-being includes not only a competitive wage and reasonable working hours but also supporting the mental health of nonprofit staff.

Funding Nonprofit Well-Being

Funders can consider this report in their near-term grantmaking in several ways. First, given how much financial anxiety and short staffing contribute to burnout, we can follow the best practices of funding general operating support and providing multi-year funding. In addition, we can help build a stronger, more resilient bench of leaders by funding interim leadership support during organizational transitions, executive search consultants, executive coaches, and sabbaticals.

Peer support programs such as the RISE program at the Institute for Nonprofit Practice are evidence-based programs that provide professional development, peer support, and coaching at the start of a career, encouraging younger employees to consider and stay in nonprofit roles.

We can also fund critical research, tools, and best practices that are being developed for well-being in the workplace through organizations like One Mind at Work.

Finally, we can learn from — and be inspired by — youth about better regulating our collective dysregulated nervous system, like the model Inner Explorer uses in schools. We can support similar and new programs designed for the workplace.

Listening for Well-Being

The urgent next steps also require deeper listening if we are going to truly change the conditions of the nonprofit workplace. CEP’s report gives us a snapshot of the problem, but in the spirit of “doing nothing about us without us,” philanthropy should fund the solutions but not design them.

What if we could bring the voices in the State of Nonprofits Report together with other nonprofit staff at all levels for a well-being summit that would take a design thinking approach to address this sector-wide need? Gen Z can and should be co-leaders in this design, given their leadership in demanding mental health resources from employers and their leadership in technology, including AI, which can be part of the solution. This could be an in-person summit modeling the type of support needed in times of burnout: on-site clinicians and coaches, spaciousness in the agenda, peer support models, time in nature, and funding for participant time.

Adopting a Mental Health Mindset

In addition to funding a new model of nonprofit workplace well-being, I’d encourage my fellow funders to consider a mental health mindset in their funding and engagement with grantees.

Imagine you are in a room of nonprofit leaders, and half of the people feel lonely; 20 percent are experiencing a mental health challenge, and 95 percent are concerned about burnout in the organization. For leaders who identify as people of color and anyone who has experienced discrimination, these numbers are likely to be higher. Would knowing this change your practice, your perspective, and your conversation?

Adopting a mental health mindset means that a nonprofit organization’s well-being and mental health support for staff is a central part of its capacity.

A mental health mindset includes demonstrating the same level of care for our foundation teams as the nonprofits we fund and becoming trained in mental health literacy through efforts such as Mental Health First Aid Training.

A mental health mindset acknowledges that with the funder/nonprofit power dynamic, we can be the cause of burnout and anxiety.

A mental health mindset centers love — the love of humanity that is both the meaning of the word philanthropy and the aspiration of what we can contribute when we listen deeply and offer support in our interactions with individuals, organizations, and the sector as a whole. The evolving field of mental health philanthropy, growing swiftly in both numbers and dollars, gives me hope. We’re making progress on working collaboratively to address stigma and use a mental health and well-being lens in the communities we serve. Now, let’s build on that momentum to take care of all of our colleagues and partners, too. 

Beth Brown is managing director, Mental Health and Well-Being at the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation. Find her on LinkedIn.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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