Strengthening capacity to navigate tragedy and support wellness in nonprofit work. Read until the end for philanthropy's role in supporting nonprofit workers.

Note: The beginning of this article discusses gun violence, policies that have resulted in harm toward marginalized people, and death. Scroll to the 💕 emoji to skip this content and read my suggestions for how nonprofit organizations could support their staff during times of crisis.

Living in the United States in 2022 can often feel like treading in a violent sea, looking for a peaceful shoreline to rest and recover. Recently in November, we once again woke to horrible headlines about the homophobic and transphobic mass shooting at Club Q in Colorado, which was the 633rd mass shootings in the United States as of December 17, 2022, according to the Gun Violence Archive. Additionally, we witnessed continuous, aggressive political attacks on women, LGBTQ people—especially targeting transgender, gender non-confirming folks, and drag performers—interracial couples, young people’s right to vote, and many more. We’ve watched society collectively ignore disability activist’s demands to continue Covid mitigation efforts that protected many from dying during the early days of Covid. Subsequently, we’re also experiencing a mass disabling event in the United States with a complicated web of social safety nets for newly disabled people living with the linger effects of Covid to navigate. We’ve lost loved ones, we’ve worried, we’ve had to survive so much violence and destruction. 

And yet, we are still expected to wake up each morning, go about our daily care rituals, and work for 8 or more hours per day. We survived a raging sea of violence, hatred, and oppression by clinging to buoys of joy, mutual aid, and community care.

Often nonprofit institutions and community spaces are among the first responders during times of tragedy. Their workers organize healing spaces, submit formal responses, and call for action from elected officials. Additionally, the people working at nonprofits often represent the historically oppressed communities they serve and are directly impacted by the violence. I can’t help but wonder how the nonprofit sector, specifically, could practice compassion during these frequent times of mourning for their stakeholders and, as this article focuses on, their staff. 

 💕 I’ve spoken with some friends and colleagues about what care practices would have helped process and manage their grief over the last couple years. The non-exhaustive list below ranges from actions that barely cost anything to implement to others that may be a significant cost to the organization. My hope is that every institution, whether a small start up or a large foundation, are able to find ways to support their staff during times of crisis.

Do This Before Tragedy Strikes

First and foremost, start with building an organizational culture and values statement, if your organization doesn’t currently have one. This statement can include the most basic concepts of social justice and inclusivity and be aligned with the mission and vision of your organization. Allow the values statement to guide the organization’s actions during times of crisis and inform when stillness or pause is appropriate. 

Once you’ve formalized your organization’s culture and values, develop a staff-led strategy. During a time of stability, ask your employees what would have helped them better process or manage during the last crisis. Use their feedback to guide your decision making and actions. 

When In Crisis

The suggestions below are intended to serve as a jumping-off point for nonprofit leaders to  build or strengthen a culture of care for their employees:

$ = no-low cost

$$ = some-moderate cost

$$ = significant cost

1. $ - Acknowledge the tragedy in a message to your team and the organization. By doing this, leaders tell their team that they’re aware of a situation that may be affecting their ability to work and take a necessary pause for a situation that may be weighing heavily on the organization’s staff. Additionally, HR should remind staff what support is available in their benefits. Ex. mental health benefits, direct link to a provider database, PTO, etc.

2. $ - Create space for staff to voice how they’re navigating yet another tragedy, on top of the ongoing pandemic and personal or professional stressors. Allow employees to name what would support their work, and give staff space to be less than their “best self” emotionally. American culture has a tendency to embrace toxic positivity as a form of comfort. Unfortunately, this will often cause those directly affected to need to console people who feel uncomfortable talking about “negative” emotions. This is also an opportunity to uplift peer support groups, affinity groups, or other existing support structures within the organization for staff to be in community with one another. Organization leaders can also research and identify local organizations that can provide additional support to the staff if there are insufficient existing structures within the organization.

3. $/$$ - Do art! Create healing art practices together by drawing, writing, singing, or dancing to process pain. Identify a staff person with capacity to lead this activity or consider bringing in an outside facilitator. If you are an arts organization, you may even have curricula that can be repurposed to support your staff. 

4. $$ - Allow time to slow down work for grief, action, rest, mourning, or community care. This may cost your organization a few hours of on the clock time, but remember that giving your staff permission to heal will ultimately support a return to normalcy. Consider allowing staff to leave work early so they may care for themselves and their community. Supervisors and organizational leadership should also advocate for modified expectations with funders and clients to allow for a reasonable recovery period. 

5. $$$ - Offer wellness hours in addition to standard PTO. This goes a step farther than just allowing staff time away when they are grieving, and could be used for mental health days or other self-care practices in the days and weeks following a tragedy. There is no way to determine how much grief and action are the appropriate amounts to give to truly be oriented toward social justice. However, what’s most important for #4 and #5, is that staff should be able to participate in healing activities knowing that they will not have to choose between their paycheck and their mental and emotional wellbeing. 

6. $$$ - Provide staff wellness stipends. Similar but separate from allowing community care hours, stipends can make it possible for staff to afford regular therapy, gym membership, bodywork, etc.  Staff would be able to determine how they want to care for themselves throughout the year. This is an investment in long-term general wellness, which better equips staff to handle hardship when it arrives unexpectedly.

While suggestions #1-4 may require some paid staff time for organizations to implement, #5 and #6 may have a substantial impact on an organization's budget. This is where philanthropy should play a role. Durfee Foundation’s Lark Awards, providing up to 10 community-centered organizations with $30,000 each for the collective care of their teams, is one example of the type of grant that provides restricted wellness funds to nonprofits. While trust based philanthropy practices generally frown at restricted funding, learnings from Luminate’s 2020 wellness stipend program indicate that restricting funding to be used for wellness purposes ensures that staff wellness will be prioritized. While there are a small handful of other funders providing wellness funding, nonprofits can and should advocate that their funders consider adding wellness stipends to their funding priorities. 

At the end of the day, prioritizing wellness and creating organizational strategies to navigate tragedy provides nonprofit staff with the support they need to continue navigating loss, the pandemic, and ongoing violence toward marginalized communities. Leaders can support their staff by asking themselves hard (but necessary) questions around capacity, normalizing a culture of community care and softness, and practicing an awareness of what would best support their work and the work of their staff. Subsequently, staff providing direct services will have additional space to care for their community.

When Tragedy Strikes in Nonprofit Work

Strengthening capacity to navigate tragedy and support wellness in nonprofit work. Read until the end for philanthropy's role in supporting nonprofit workers.

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