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Spotlighting Mental Health in the Nonprofit Sector

By May 20, 2022

Let’s talk about nonprofits and mental health. I’ll start with myself: I’ve been working for nearly 30 years in the nonprofit sector, and I have struggled with anxiety my entire life.

My nonprofit work started with my family of origin and then grew into a career as a fundraising professional for many of the most remarkable nonprofits on the planet. During my career journey I’ve worked with incredible people wholly dedicated to mission delivery in support of communities across the globe, learned from the incredible generosity I was able to witness first hand while working with donors, and have lived the good, the bad, and the ugly of antiquated business systems and the promise of transformation time and again.

The work required stamina, focus, perspective, gumption, and, I would argue, a sense of humor to see it all through. And that was on the good days. The bad days brought frustration, burnout, politics, lack of resources, and a feeling of hopelessness.

But we kept going. We all keep going.

We keep going because the very definition of philanthropy, perhaps even of the nonprofit sector, is love of humankind — people helping people. And as long as there are people walking this planet, we will help each other. I believe this is true because even in the worst of times, from caring comes courage. Courage is what helps us persevere. It’s why we can keep going.

Now, let’s take a minute to pause and consider the global trauma we have all just experienced over the last two years: the COVID-19 pandemic, continued racial injustice, wars, natural disasters, increasing hunger and inequity, a spike in homelessnes, and more. In our examination, we can’t help but recognize that we are, in fact, one global community of people, dependent on each other not only for survival, but that we need each other to thrive. Acknowledging that very notion is the beginning of caring for one another. It’s the beginning of courage.

And what the nonprofit sector has done throughout history — and in particularly unprecedented and remarkable ways over the last two years — is demonstrate courage in the unrelenting care they have provided people and communities across the world. All of that requires stamina, focus, perspective, gumption, and a sense of humor on the good days, but it also comes with frustration, burnout, lack of resources, and a feeling of hopelessness on the bad days.

But we keep going. We all keep going.

So, here’s the mental health part.

As Walter Anderson said, “Nothing diminishes anxiety faster than action.”

As we were all forced to shelter in place, we had to become really good at keeping our own company while watching the events around the world unfold through the news and social media. Of course this was rife with stress, confusion, and immense pressure as we learned to navigate this ‘new normal’ of blurred lines between our work lives and our home lives.

For the lucky ones, we had excellent Wi-Fi, supportive employers, extended family to help with childcare, and money in the bank to have groceries delivered. We binged on Netflix and suddenly had time to learn to bake bread or play guitar. We all know that that wasn’t true, however, for many of our community members and for those around the globe. It still isn’t true.

We saw hunger, homelessness, broken healthcare systems, exhausted teachers, and mental health issues explode in front of our eyes — and we felt it all. Good, bad, and ugly. And in many cases, we were spurred into action. Giving during the pandemic exploded for the organizations that were “issue-relevant” and we saw front line workers and people throughout the nonprofit sector, once again, rise to the occasion and meet the needs of the people most in need during a terrible crisis. A global trauma. Often anxiety is born from trauma.

The bottom line is that the heroes working in the nonprofit sector do so with a commitment to community and a fearless dedication to humankind. They are humans, they are heroes, and they, too, went through this trauma with us, carrying their own stories. They continue to demonstrate, day in and day out, incredible resilience. They keep going. So we can all keep going. That’s courage. There are more than 12 million people in our country working in the nonprofit sector. Health, education, and social assistance account for 81% of nonprofit jobs. So at least 81% of the nonprofit workforce showed up when we needed them the most and they keep showing up, because the support is needed and the recovery of our communities depends on them. And as all of us struggle with making sense of what happened and what keeps on happening, let’s remember that while action is a great diminisher of anxiety, gratitude is the great equalizer. Take a moment today to express your gratitude to one of the more than 12 million people in this country working tirelessly — sometimes in less than optimal conditions — while carrying their own stories and their own anxieties. These real life heroes are giving of themselves to provide hope to people who need it the most. They are living examples of courage. Do it so they can keep going. So we can all keep going.

About the Author

Sterrin Bird, Industry Advisor at SalesforceSterrin Bird
Industry Advisor, Salesforce
Sterrin is a nationally recognized leader in the nonprofit community, with nearly three decades spent working with some of the most prestigious organizations in the country, including UCSF Medicine, Duke Medicine, American Red Cross, United Way and the March of Dimes. In addition, she founded her own consulting practice in 2010.
Sterrin partners with organizations to ensure they can access the affordable creative support and counsel necessary to scale their operations — and their impact. She’s conducted more than two dozen capital campaigns throughout the United States with combined fundraising goals in excess of $5.5 billion. In 2020, she joined Salesforce as a Nonprofit Industry Expert.