Burnout is all too common in organizations working for social change. How can the social sector put self-care into practice?

The nonprofit sector’s turnover rate is 19 percent annually, while the average annual turnover in the private sector is about 4 percent. There are, of course, a number of structural reasons for this – lower salaries, fewer benefits, etc. – but the role of exhaustion and burnout cannot be overlooked as we examine why social sector organizations have a hard time retaining their employees.

Our Integration Initiative Director for San Francisco, Theodore Miller, calls this phenomenon the “I’m tired” effect, and Tawanna Black, Initiative Director for Minneapolis and St. Paul, refers to the solution as “radical self-care.” Other city leaders echoed these sentiments when we met with them in September, so we designed our recent convening in Albuquerque with this feedback in mind. Four universal lessons emerged about encouraging self-care among practitioners of social change work during our two days together.

turnover in the nonprofit sector

19% According to the Results of the 2016 Nonprofit Employment Practices Survey

1. Empower people to tell their own stories.

Too often, meetings with grantees revert into the nitty-gritty of reporting and compliance. This doesn’t leverage the true power of having everyone in the room together – dry data and details are far better shared over email, but stories have an ability to bring the work to life and unlock our ability to co-create solutions, especially with everyone in the same space.

This spring, we asked the Initiative Directors of each of our cities to tell the story of their work in ten minutes. We provided no content or format requirements; the stories were theirs to craft and relate.

The result? Each city’s story was rich, unique, and a journey that only they could describe. We all sat in connection, humor, and empathy – over the struggle of striving for social justice, over how long it takes to embed change, over how inefficient city systems can be – as a collective, truly listening. Each city’s evolution and journey over the time they have been working with us – six years in some cases – came vividly to life like never before, and our city leaders reported that they felt that they and their cities were truly being seen and heard.

2. Highlight art & culture as alternate ways of approaching social change work.

Most people in the social change field have a powerful, visceral reason for coming to work each day. Imbuing our two-day meeting with local art and culture allowed attendees to connect to the universal – the undercurrent of struggle and oppression that we so deeply grapple with on a daily basis – that cannot be described in words.

Art provides a lens through which to approach and connect with social change work at an emotional level.

On our first evening, we were treated to performances by students from the National Institute of Flamenco, based in Albuquerque. In between breathtaking performances, the founders and administrators of the school spoke to us about Flamenco’s birth as a reaction to oppression, a creative form born as an act of defiance. They spoke about the role of making art in healing, in expression, and in students being able to “go to school every day to create beauty and be happy, even when the world around them is ugly.”

Students Jillian Martinez and Mario Febres perform at Tablao Flamenco in Albuquerque. Source: National Institute of Flamenco

On our second day in Albuquerque, the city’s first Poet Laureate, Hakim Bellamy, presented his poem City Alive about the work of the Albuquerque Integration Initiative. Describing the work of collective impact initiatives in poetry was a striking way to remind us what the word “collective” means – of the challenges and triumohs that are universal, and felt by all regardless of place.

Art is extremely important for providing welcome “interstitials” for individuals to think about the issues we work on from a regenerative place of reflection, to simultaneously increase the emotional connection and lessen the emotional burden that come from working for social change.

3. Listen and learn about racial equity with a place-based perspective.

While art was crucial in highlighting the similarities felt across places in the work, a panel presented on the racial landscape in Albuquerque reminded us that our work does not look the same everywhere. Albuquerque Initiative Director Robin Brule invited a number of her partners, leaders, and activists from the city to speak to us about the specific challenges that Albuquerque faces around racial equity, given the large Native American and Hispanic population in Albuquerque, as well as the unique set of challenges present for the immigrant population in the city.

We heard from representatives of the University of New Mexico, the Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce, the Small Business Resource Collaborative, the Native American Community Academy, and United We Dream. The panel gave our staff the opportunity to listen and learn from a place of humility about the landscape of Albuquerque from residents of the community rather than working on solutions without understanding the cultural context of the city. This was important in validating lived experiences and personal stories alongside quantitative data and statistics.

Robert DelCampo, Synthia Jaramillo, Professor Gabriel Sanchez, Vanessa Roanhorse, Kara Bobroff, Eli Cuna, and Professor Frank Mirabal presented at our racial equity panel in Albuquerque. Source: Albuquerque Integration Initiative

4. Pause and intentionally focus on wellness.

After our two days, we had the privilege of participating in a Native Healing Ceremony, facilitated by Kara Bobroff and two of her colleagues from the Native American Community Academy. These members of the Native community in Albuquerque opened their hearts to us as they shared they way in which they think about holistic health in their community and teach well-rounded wellness to students of the Academy.

They wove together their history and personal stories and created a space for us to do the same, in the spirit of healing, self-care, and rejuvenation. Our Initiative Directors participated in this experience as a group, and the Living Cities staff members present were able to have a conversation with Kara, Leroy, and Anpaoduta afterward. The experience allowed us a space to reflect on our own personal histories and motivations for working on social change, and reminded us of the importance of taking care of ourselves as we work to improve the lives of others.

As actors working on justice and equity in today’s climate, it is crucial that we emphasize the importance of self-care in sustaining social change.

After this conversation, the Initiative Directors headed to a local spa where we offered them the rest of the day to themselves to reflect, relax, and unwind.

By lifting up city voices, focusing on arts and culture, examining racial equity through a place-based lens, and experiencing community-based approaches to healing and wellness, we structured this spring’s meeting of our TII leaders around self-care. While these measures are by no means exhaustive in tackling the burnout and turnover present in the social sector, as actors working on justice and equity in today’s climate, it is crucial that we remain cognizant of the importance of self-care in sustaining social change.