Working in the nonprofit world for most people is a wonderful thing – people get to go to work every day feeling like they’re making a difference in their world. But there is a downside to this great feeling of impact – the prevailing sense that putting in place solid boundaries in your nonprofit work, and finding opportunities to work less is somehow selfish or inapproriate. So often in the nonprofit world, we love to let things go because we are mission-focused.
“It’s okay we have a million and one things to do that aren’t necessarily in our job description —we’re helping people!“
(Ahem. If I had received a donation every time I heard a coworker or friend speak a slightly less sarcastic version of that phrase, I probably wouldn’t have needed to fundraise for the rest of the year!)
One of the hardest things I had to learn during my time in the nonprofit world was how to use boundaries to stay productive, happy and balanced in my work. I learned the hard way that if you don’t put clear-cut, solid-as-steel boundaries around what you “own”, working as a nonprofit professional can get very overwhelming very quickly. To be truthful, in the early days I often felt like a failure in my roles – despite achieving organizational goals and helping to make team wins happen, I felt swamped and drained. (Is it possible to be both of those things at the same time??) I learned that you have to fiercely and unapologetically guard your time (and have leadership that supports you in that!) to make things work long term.
But the idea of creating boundaries in your work to help maintain your sanity is nothing new. My real “a-ha!” moment came when I realized that, when it comes to your day-to-day responsibilities, it’s just as important to break boundaries down in nonprofit work as it is to build them up. What I mean by this is that for every activity or process you complete, you should be looking for opportunities to work double-time for you and your team. Your program management needs to funnel into your communications, which needs to funnel into your fundraising, which needs to funnel into your long-term organizational strategy. Sound confusing? I promise it isn’t!
To give you some examples:
If you aren’t looking at ways to streamline and simplify your work, you are never going to get off the hamster wheel of feeling overwhelmed.
To help you think through how this could work for you, I want to clue you into some free tools and strategies that helped break my work boundaries down where I needed them:
And anytime you are bogged down deciding between two paths forward or what to tackle first, take a look at it. Then ask yourself – which path leads me closer?
Automate, automate, automate! This nifty (free!) tool will help you to automate so many of your day-to-day tasks. It can auto-add items from your email to your to-do list, save social media captions as a word document so you have it ready to go for your next email newsletter, create to-do list items from calendar invites, and so much more. What repetitive tasks could you automate to save yourself time in the long run?
A totally free project management tool with a well-designed app so you can use it on the go. A must-have for the small team where everyone is doing a little bit of everything! The best part of asana is how easy it is to assign tasks and deadlines to team members right within the software – cuts way down on time spent emailing teammates to coordinate big team projects. (And works really well for saving links to information for future reference, as I noted above!)
If the task isn’t covering more than one function in some way, you are putting yourself needlessly behind! Look at your to-do list and see if what you will be creating or accomplishing can later be re-used in your work. A standard template for a grant narrative can not only cut your time for future grant applications, it can be used to pull future social media captions and posts. (Need more help with efficient social media content creation? Here you go!)
The trick here is getting into the habit of using the work you create in as many ways as you can down the road. To make sure I don’t recreate the wheel, I leave notes to myself on my calendar that guide me to use whatever previously developed content I have for what I’ll be working on in the future. I save a link to that content right in my calendar so I can click directly through to it and jump right in.
Do you feel like your whole day is spent in meetings – and then you get to 5 pm only to feel like you still have a whole day’s worth of work to do? Review your calendar to understand what is taking up most of your time. A few starting points to build time back into your day:
At the end of each week, in addition to mindfully wrapping all your work up at a stopping point and leaving yourself a to-do list of what to jump into next week (yes, you should have a weekend!), take some time to pinpoint a moment from the week prior that called you back to your mission. Remind yourself why you do what you do! Jot that memory down so you’ll be reminded of it first thing on Monday when you’re fighting off start-of-the-week lethargy. And then? Go enjoy your weekend!
These strategies and tools have really helped me to optimize my time as a nonprofit employee who often felt stretched too thin… How do you use boundaries in your nonprofit work (or how do you break boundaries down!) to help you accomplish your work and avoid overwhelm? I’d love to hear!
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