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Enhancing Grantee Well-Being Leads to Long-Term Impact

Date: June 11, 2024

Linda Bell Grdina

Research Elder, The Wellbeing Project

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People working for social change operate in chronically stressful, under-resourced environments. Constant pressure can take a toll on the mental and emotional well-being of nonprofit staff, who can identify so strongly with their organization’s mission that they ignore signs of burnout and neglect to tend their well-being.

Organizational well-being is a growing concern across the nonprofit sector. Numerous studies indicate that the incidence of burnout in the social sector is on the rise with little or no support currently available for addressing these concerns. The Center for Effective Philanthropy’s 2024 State of Nonprofits report indicates growing, widespread concern about burnout for nonprofit staff and the impact on nonprofits — and, by extension, foundations’ — ability to achieve their missions.

These findings are consonant with key learnings from a four-year, exploratory research study, supported by The Wellbeing Project and conducted by the Center for Healthy Minds and the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations, to learn about the state of organizational well-being within the social change sector. The researchers engaged with sector leaders interested in creating a new norm and expectation about organizational well-being informed by their participation in a model program intended to enhance organizational well-being in the sector.

Study participants were provided with a realistic, multi-perspective view of their organizational health and actionable insights aiming to enhance workplace well-being. Then, over the duration of the program, participants implemented a wide range of well-being approaches tailored to their specific needs and drawing on internal strengths and ways of working. The following five key learnings emerged across the eight organizations.

1. Organizational Leadership Plays a Crucial Role in Well-Being

It’s essential that leaders demonstrate a commitment to individual wellbeing, including self-knowledge and self-care, and engage directly with staff over time to create a healthier, more effective organization. Leaders communicating explicitly about prioritizing organizational well-being and developing policies and strategies that reflect an organizational commitment ‘give permission’ to staff teams to participate in well-being.

2. Authentic, Co-Created Strategies Are More Likely to Succeed

Well-being initiatives that are developed and delivered from the top down are less likely to be sustainable and more likely to be perceived as an additional demand on staff time. Drawing on the insights and capacities of staff, organizations can implement well-being activities and policies that feel authentic, are more resource efficient, and are more likely to be embraced and sustained as they resonate with internal values and culture. This is a particular consideration for larger, intercultural, or international organizations where different teams may require approaches tailored to local needs.

3. Well-Being Should Be Part of Daily Workflow

Micro-shifts — small, incremental changes to structure, policy, and practice that require no or little added cost — are key to supporting the emergence of healthy, human-centric organizations. Transparent and timely communication about shifting organizational circumstances is essential, as is creating a supportive environment for frank and timely discussions about workplace concerns to foster a healthier workplace culture.

4. Make Inner Well-Being Tangible — and Accessible

Providing leaders and staff with a personal experience of the benefits of inner well-being transforms a concept that may be abstract into an experience that’s valued and understood experientially. Encouraging staff, in a sensitive and consensual way, to develop capacities such as self-examination, reflection, and emotional awareness can enhance resilience and protect well-being. Furthermore, inner work can motivate staff to drive changes within their work environments and better differentiate between workplace and personal circumstances that impact well-being.

5. Funding is Key to Sustained Well-Being

Nonprofits operate in a competitive funding environment and can exert pressure to deliver more results with less funding. Funders can make micro-shifts to support nonprofit well-being, too, including recognizing the strains placed on nonprofit staff by existing funding and reporting models, streamlining funding requirements, and providing flexible and comprehensive funding that allows nonprofits to respond to changing, on-the-ground circumstances. Providing direct support for organizational well-being activities could increase workplace well-being and organizational sustainability.

Foundations and grantees share a growing concern about well-being and the importance of shifting how funders and nonprofits perceive and support wellbeing. Currently, per CEP’s new research, few foundations provide wellbeing support across the board to their grantees. Compounded by the demands of the last few years, when nonprofits have been asked to do more with less, the finding that burnout is a growing concern for nonprofits underscores the importance of directing well-being funding to nonprofits. Without it, they won’t be able to accomplish their critical objectives in the face of ever-increasing global challenges.

For nonprofits in general, a shift toward well-being begins with recognizing the importance of developing a culture of care for those who care for others. For funders, it may require making the case for the relationship between staff well-being, performance, and the sustainability of the grantees they support.

Viewing change through the lens of well-being encourages organizations to consider the implications of their decisions, policies, and practices on the well-being of their employees and to foster a work environment that promotes the overall health and success of their staff. But, critically, when nonprofits are supported by their funders to operationalize a well-being model, tailored to their needs and culture, they can enhance individual resilience and organizational sustainability, as well as impact.

Linda Bell Grdina is research elder for The Wellbeing Project. For three decades she worked in philanthropy, developing initiatives that examined how inner well-being supports individuals and communities and informs collective action for the common good.

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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