June 20, 2017
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What’s the secret to staying motivated in the demanding nonprofit world?

This year's Renewal Awards winners share how they avoid burnout and manage day-to-day challenges

“We all get by with a little help from our friends,” says Free Minds Book Club co-founder Tara Libert. Here she is, along with the young men who participate in the program, after accepting a Renewal Award in March. Photo by Kristoffer Tripplaar

With limited resources, constant uncertainty about budgets, and a drive to always do more, the nonprofit world can be draining. At the recent Renewal Summit, Allstate and The Atlantic honored five nonprofit innovators who shared their secrets to success. During a discussion panel, The Atlantic senior editor Ron Brownstein asked: “In a field where there is a high burnout rate, how do you keep going?”

The five Renewal Awards winners shared what drives them on a daily basis and what keeps them looking ahead to improvement. Here are the main takeaways from that discussion:

1. Build a support system around you

Invoking The Beatles classic, Tara Libert, co-founder and executive director of Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop said, “We all get by with a little help from our friends.”

When someone in the team is feeling overwhelmed, stressed, or unmotivated, they know to reach out for help and get back to the grind when their feeling refreshed, she said.

“We call it the stress baton—pass it to the next person until you can get more energy,” Libert said.

Sister Tesa Fitzgerald, the founder and executive director of Hour Children, shared the root of her support system:

“I surround myself with people that believe in the mission and we support each other in that,” she said. “We keep our eye on the successes of the women and children we serve and they’re little ones but they’re significant.”

2. Remember who you fail if you fail

A nonprofit’s mission can be so powerful that that alone can be the driver for its team, said LaVonte Stewart. The Executive Director of Lost Boyz Inc. said that his promise to the boys he mentors is the biggest driver for him. Lost Boyz gives them opportunity for success, making sure they stay on a good path for their future.

“The consequences of failure in this [makes me keep going],” he said. “I don’t mind failing in life, but failure in the work that we do every day in Lost Boyz means children losing their lives or being incarcerated … It fires me up every day to push hard so we don’t lose another.”

3. Strive for incremental change and successes

Change can’t happen overnight, but you can strive to make gradual progress. As Chelina Odbert, co-founder and executive director of Kounkuey Design Initiative said, success can’t happen overnight.

“We knew from the very first day we started that we were working in places where failure was the tradition,” she told Brownstein. “We knew ourselves well enough and knew the problems were deep enough that we weren’t going to change anything overnight.”

Kate Barnhart, founder and executive director for New Alternatives for LGBT Homeless Youth, also uses patience in her approach: “The work is like planting seeds and you don’t know which ones are gonna grow or when that’s going to happen, but you give it enough time and eventually you’ll have trees.”

4. Change the way you approach challenges

Sometimes when one challenge has been resolved or tamed, another unexpected hurdle arises. Odbert said it’s important to keep looking ahead and confront challenges as they arise, recognizing there are even more to come.

“When we confront a challenge we say ‘Oh, well we’ve been waiting for that challenge to pop up, here it is. Let’s get around it so we can get to the next one.’ It’s those little victories along the way that keep you going and every time you’re able to get past one hurdle, even though you know the next one is coming, you feel like you’ve got enough momentum to carry you over.”

Watch the full conversation with Brownstein and the five winners below:

The Renewal Project is made possible by Allstate.

Anita Ferrer

Anita Ferrer is a contributor to The Renewal Project.