3 Ways to Cultivate Compassion Among Nonprofit Leaders

BL00 - A Case for Cultivating More Compassion in Nonprofit Leaders

By Wendy Saunders, guest contributor

Nonprofit leaders want to make a difference in the world, and, in many cases, are willing to make less money and get fewer perks than they would receive in the private sector. They often work long hours, carry excessive workloads, and endeavor to meet community needs with limited staffing and other resources.  (For a deeper examination, check out “The Plight of the Overworked Nonprofit Employee” in The Atlantic).  

Nonprofit leaders also often work closely with people who have experienced trauma or struggle with other vulnerabilities in their lives, which can add “empathic distress fatigue” (as opposed to compassion, which goes beyond feeling with the other to feeling for the other. Compassion never causes fatigue but is actually neurologically rejuvenating and generates positive emotions.) or emotional exhaustion to their list of professional demands.  (This can even result in cases of secondary trauma in nonprofit employees.)  All these factors can certainly take a toll on individual and collective well-being and can lead to high levels of stress, worry, anxiety, and burnout.

In a 2011 study of more than 2,000 nonprofit employees, conducted by the human resources organization, Opportunity Knocks, and University of Nevada, Las Vegas, it was found that while staff engagement at nonprofits is often high, “as many as 30% of nonprofit employees may be burned out, with another 20% (those in the middle) in danger of burnout.”  This same study also suggests that this may lead to higher employee turnover rates.

How might cultivating compassion among stressed nonprofit leaders actually help? The stress and burnout described above can impact the level of compassion a person has the capacity to extend to others, which can clearly be problematic in nonprofit work, and nonprofit leaders and their organizations may suffer from an absence of compassion in other ways as well, including (but not limited to) the way organizational decisions are made and operating with “compassion blindspots” where harm is inflicted unintentionally.  

Here are three ways to cultivate compassion among nonprofit leaders:

1. Other-Centeredness 

Stress and burnout can limit a leader’s capacity to feel and express compassion for others.  When a person feels stressed or confronted with emotional (e.g. empathic) distress or exhaustion, their attention typically turns inward.  They become understandably preoccupied or “self-absorbed,” so to speak, as they heighten their focus on their own struggles.  

As emotional intelligence expert Daniel Goleman says in his book Social Intelligence, “[S]elf-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion.”  In other words, when people are focused on their own issues and concerns, they are less attuned to the needs of others.  Just as a mother is likely to become less attuned to the needs of her children if she is consumed by her own worries and stresses, a leader in a nonprofit is more likely to be less tuned in to the needs of staff, stakeholders (e.g. volunteers, donors, partners), clients, and even the community-at-large, when consumed with self-oriented thoughts and emotions.  

In turn, feeling less connection and compassion for others may leave them feeling disconnected from the purpose that initially inspired them to choose this line of work. When stress and burnout are present, cultivating more other-centeredness through training in compassion and self-compassion, may enliven their sense of purpose, serve as an antidote for these self-absorptive states, and help them fully attend to the needs of those who rely on their support.  

2. Resisting a Selective Compassion Mindset

Some nonprofit leaders may not struggle with feeling disconnected from others due to preoccupation with particular stressors; however, they may feel (and, more often, be perceived by others to feel) a lack of empathy and compassion because of the ways they approach organizational decisions, where they exhibit what I’ll call “selective compassion.”  In these situations, leaders appear to operate either with little awareness or little concern for the ways their decisions impact their staff or other stakeholders.  

For example, new nonprofit CEOs, COOs, and Executive Directors may hold the belief that it is a “given” or expectation (or an expectation of their boards) that they reorganize their staffing structure, without apology, at the beginning of their leadership tenure or at a time of change in strategic direction.  As a result, this often involves layoffs and creates conditions where people may experience great suffering as a result of job loss and unemployment (for those who leave the organization), or as a result of empathic distress and loss of friendships (for those who stay), among other deleterious effects.  

While it would be unrealistic to suggest that these changes could be avoided altogether, nonprofit leaders responsible for making organizational decisions that could inflict suffering, and who consider themselves to be compassionate (or aspire to be), might consider to what degree they are aware and mindful of the harm that may be done (and not ignore it or write it off as a “necessarily evil”) and reflect on how to bring more compassion—and compassionate actions—into the decision-making and planning process.

In other cases, selective compassion may become evident when a focus on bottom-line results and growth in program revenues or philanthropic dollars results in repercussions for staff who make mistakes or are unable to meet goals due to external forces beyond their control.  It may also become apparent when an organization advocates for a strong compassionate orientation toward community members but extends far less compassion and care to its own staff—an indication that the organization’s internal/external compassion levels are out of balance. Still yet, some nonprofit leaders see their employees only as a means to an end, depersonalizing their view of them and failing to recognize them as full human beings with needs, strengths, limitations, successes and failings—and not extending them the same understanding they extend to themselves.   

This selective compassion can send mixed messages and create confusion and distrust within the employees of an organization, people who have joined the nonprofit to reduce harm and suffering in the world who then witness the glaring contradiction of the organization causing harm to its own staff and community.  A lack of trust in leaders can cause the perception of the organization to shift in the eyes of employees and, ultimately, may affect employee engagement, as the organization does not practice internally what it stands for externally.  Through this lens, it lacks authenticity, as do its leaders.

3. Awareness of Compassion Blindspots

Nonprofit leaders may also lack awareness of the ways they personally contribute—or their organization contributes—to the very systemic issues they aim to address in their communities.  A lack of awareness may also perpetuate systemic problems outside the scope of the organization’s mission, sometimes as an unintended consequence of their efforts. This means compassionate leaders may inadvertently perpetuate suffering despite their commitment to relieving it.  

To prevent this, leaders must develop an expanded awareness of the ways people suffer in their communities and the causes of that suffering, and examine whether it may result in any way from their own actions.  To expand awareness and reveal blindspots in care and compassion, nonprofit leaders may dedicate time to reflect deeply on these questions:

  • How might my unconscious (or even conscious) biases and the biases of other leaders in our organization (e.g. racial, gender, SES, sexual orientation bias) lead to staffing and program decisions that maintain inequities which cause suffering within our staff and/or community?   
  • How might our organization be contributing to the poverty rate in our community as a result of the salaries paid to any of our staff?  How might our own employees be experiencing hardship and suffering as a result of structural or policy decisions, like salary and wage scales or benefit plans?   
  • Is our organization accepting donations from companies that are doing harm to community members, or harming the environments in which they live and work?   Are we aware of the harm any donor—or potential donor—is inflicting in the community while hoping their tax-deductible donation to our nonprofit will offset this harm, enhance public perception of their company, and check off the box for corporate social responsibility?   What might be done to reduce suffering?
  • Is our organization prepared to “go out of business” if the social issue our organization is working to solve is actually solved?  Do the leaders of our nonprofit invest what is needed to fully examine the root cause of these issues, in order to find a sustainable solution, or do we continue only to focus on treating the symptoms?    

While identifying and implementing solutions for complex social issues is no simple task, as transforming systems requires extensive time, dedication, and engagement of various stakeholders, many nonprofit leaders simply aren’t aware or mindful of these kinds of considerations.  Or, if they are aware, they may not have cultivated the courage or found the wisdom needed to begin to approach these dilemmas and take compassionate action to relieve the associated suffering.  

In light of all of this, if nonprofits wish to provide tools for their leaders to reduce stress (including any empathic distress) they may be experiencing, help them expand their application of compassion beyond select situations, and recognize their compassion blindspots to ensure that they aren’t perpetuating or inflicting suffering inadvertently, how can they do this?  

One of the paths to intentionally expanding compassion, while there are many, is to actively cultivate it through a training program like CBCT® (Cognitively-Based Compassion Training), a program of Emory University, or Compassion Cultivation Training, a program developed at Stanford University.  These programs offer systematic approaches to cultivating self-compassion and compassion for others through various mindfulness meditations and/or reflective exercises.  Research studies conducted on both programs have shown a decrease in stress and increase in compassion in participants.  Imagine all the good nonprofit leaders might do with just a little more compassion.

“With practice, informed compassion can become a spontaneous response that permeates one’s life.” 

– Center for Contemplative Science and Compassion-Based Ethics at Emory University

Wendy Saunders is Senior Manager of Leadership Development at YMCA of the USA.  She is also a Certified Teacher in CBCT® (Cognitively-Based Compassion Training), a program of Emory University.  Wendy is completing an Executive Master in Positive Leadership & Strategy degree through IE University in Madrid this summer and lives in Los Angeles, California. 

Wendy Saunders on social: Twitter and Facebook: @wendysaundersscl

1 comment

Cliona Molloy

Excellent article thanks for sharing Wendy it has inspired me to keep focused on my goal to share Mindfulness and Self Compassion in this sector. I have worked as a Community Worker for over 20 years most of that as a Leader so, I really understand the challenges among the nonprofit leaders and their Teams. As someone who has benefited from the practice of Mindfulness and Self Compassion I truly appreciate the possibilities for learning and growth through introducing Mindfulness and Self Compassion not only to the Management Team but across the Workforce. These practices offer us a space to reflect on and increase our awareness of what is happening within and around us. This is all very useful in Self Care and in the Care/Leadership of others.

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