Getting off the runaway train: How nonprofit staff can find work-life balance

About this article

Text Size: A A

Early in the classic Stuart Maclean story, “Dave Cooks the Turkey”, Dave’s wife explains to him the pressures she feels. She says, “My life is a train. I’m a train dragging everyone from one place to another...that’s my job. I’m the train, the porter, and the conductor, and the cook and the engineer and the maintenance man. And I print the tickets and I stack the luggage and I clean the dishes and if they still had cabooses, I’d be the caboose.”

As the new year has passed and we are full swing into 2019, people working in the nonprofit sector know exactly what this feels like. Even if the holidays were full, now we fill it all the more, especially with world politics and climate change both becoming increasingly volatile.

While work-life balance for anyone is elusive — and probably even mythical — people working in the nonprofit sector may find themselves feeling more like the woman in Maclean’s story than others.

Jessica Wroblewski, associate director, annual giving at the University of Waterloo, says, “[I’m] trying to figure out those boundaries right now. What makes it hard is my belief in my organization's mission, a commitment to the nonprofit sector, and a desire to exceed expectations.”

Because Wroblewski isn’t alone, we talked with a variety of people in the sector about what makes work-life balance especially challenging in the nonprofit world, and how we can find ways to foster a complete commitment to the mission of the organization, our own career ambitions, and a rich, healthy life outside of work.

What leads us into this train(wreck)

Some factors that lead to a professional-personal imbalance are true for all sectors. This could include personality type or age and career stage. “When I was newer in my field,” reflects Bonnie Filipchuk, former nonprofit COO and director who now runs a counselling and consulting business with a special interest in nonprofit leaders, “it was a time of eagerness and energy. I was driven and willing to make sacrifices because longer term I knew what I wanted to do. I was also single and had more time that was ‘fill-able’ and I didn’t mind using my time at work. But as you get older, share life with someone, become a parent or begin to do other things in your personal life, there’s more competition for your time, and juggling act becomes different.”

Some factors, however, are a bit more particular to the nonprofit sector.


Trina Isakson, facilitator and strategist and founder of the Quiet Changemaker project, says,“One of the roots of this imbalance is a broader theme related to identity and how we identify: Is our identity wrapped up in our whole life being for our cause, or do we have an identity beyond the cause?”

For many people in the nonprofit sector, this line is blurred: An older study by Commongood Careers found that 84% of nonprofit jobseekers saw their work as part of their identities, not just a way to make a living.

Role and organization

Even within the nonprofit sector, there is a wide variety of organizations and roles. Filipchuk says, “I previously worked in a developmental service agency with residential supports. The work was 24-7 and it wasn’t a boundary violation if you got a call about a flood or a crisis on a weekend.” Similarly, Filipchuk reflects that managers are “hired for their position, not for a 40-hour workweek.”


Arguably the biggest factor leading to professional-personal imbalance is guilt. The majority of people who go to work in the nonprofit sector do so out of a desire to help make the world a better place – a not-insignificant task. Early in her career as a nonprofit program director, Kathy Archer, leadership development coach, recalls, “I felt guilt on both sides – that I wasn’t doing enough for my family or taking care of my health, but but the minute I did, I felt guilty about not giving back to the cause or organization. It was a constant battle back and forth.”

What we can do about it?

Honour your humanity

A cause might call for a superhero, but the reality is that each of us is human with human needs and limitations, as well as talents and passions.

Isakson reflects on a time when she was unable to complete her long to-do list due to changes beyond her control. What helped her was a career coach asking the question: what would it take to forgive yourself? She says, “I recognized the pressure I was putting on myself that was tied up in issues of perfectionismism and unrealistic standards for myself and others. I needed to acknowledge that I wasn’t a bad person if I didn’t do everything, and to think about what ‘good enough’ looked like.”

Further, Filipchuk refers to Stephen Covey’s concept of sharpening the saw: that if we don’t take care of the physical, mental, emotional, spiritual and relational aspects of our life, we won’t be able to do our work well. She says, “It is even for the benefit of our work if we are fresher, refreshed and take care of ourselves.” She cautions, “If you are in the field of helping people and don’t know how to do that yourself, you will be hard-pressed to be effective with clients.”

Archer says, “Everyone talks about how busy we are, but what really stops us is our mindset. Often no one stops us from structuring our time differently, but we feel guilty about doing so.” For her own part, Archer chooses to go for a short walk outside during her work day, or to take a few minutes to phone her family between conference events.

Use your brain

Because nonprofit work often arises out of a sense of calling or passion, it is too easy, says Filipchuk, to only use our heart when making decisions. “Use all of yourself to figure out what your unique boundaries need to be for your long-term health.” Archer concurs. “We have to think about this rationally rather than emotionally. Guilt has to be replaced with intelligence.” This is especially challenging, says Isakson, for empathetic people who feel deeply, invest in the emotions of others and focus on serving others - but the risk is burnout. Isakson suggests a practice called polarity management, which allows you to balance seemingly opposite needs, such as mission focus and self-care.

Set boundaries

One of the key practices is that of setting boundaries. Filipchuk describes this as being like margins around the edge of a piece of paper, and recalls a coworker who kept her door three-quarters closed when she was engaged in deep concentrating work, with a sign on the door that said, “Can it wait?”

In fact, when approached mid-August for this article, both Isakson and Archer had auto-reply messages that demonstrated this principle. Archer’s explained, “It's summer again! As such, I am enjoying a more relaxed schedule. Some days I am coaching, doing group calls or writing. Other days I am in my garden or at the just might take me a bit longer to get back to your email.”

While often, as Archer says, “we are afraid to demonstrate our boundaries because we think it will impact our ability to develop our career,” Isakson says that response to her auto-reply was actually a deeper sense of respect as well as congratulations. Archer adds, “If I demonstrate I can work hard and have boundaries, people will have more respect for me, and I will be more effective.” Isakson notes that this strategy requires clear expectations around outcomes and strategic thinking about how work is done. She recommends the Manager Tools podcast as a way an employee can learn how to do and talk about this, even if their manager hasn’t invested time in the process.

Isakson counsels new employees in this way: “One of most difficult but important things to do is to begin as you mean to continue. If you start at a job and want to impress others by working ten hours a day, you set standards for your work life and it’s hard to pull back. Start working reasonable hours and then in crunch times or when a big thing happens, you can put in extra hours but then you pull back so that working regular hours is the norm.”

Isakson also cautions that setting boundaries can be a particular challenge for introverts who are less likely to talk about their work and so are often perceived as less busy. “It’s important for introverts to communicate with their supervisors, even with a weekly email, about what you are doing so that when you explain that you aren’t able to take on additional work, people will see this as valid because they know what is going on for you.

Schedule commitments

“For young parents,” Isakson says, “often they have to put boundaries on their work in order to pick up their children.” That doesn’t mean that those without young kids can’t do likewise. Filipchuk says, “Claim inflexible time at times. Build activities for yourself into your schedule and keep those commitments as though they were an appointment or a meeting. If you need to leave a meeting that has run over time in order to do so, you don’t have to say what your commitment is.” Isakson says, “It can be hard to leave work if you’re just going home to leftovers and housework.” At times she has deliberately planned interest-based activities for right after work in order to ensure she cultivates passions outside of work.

Paul Nazareth, vice president, education and development, Canadian Association of Gift Planners, has learned to schedule in non-negotiable, non-interrupted holidays. He says, “I took a long overdue vacation this summer and reminded myself daily to disconnect, not to have sector networking meetings and to stop seeing the fundraising angles in everything.”

Make technology your friend

Probably one of the biggest challenges to living well with this tension lives in our pockets or on our bedside tables at night, but a wide variety of nonprofit professionals have found ways of using technology wisely in order to not allow work to seep into all of their life:

  • Tim Good, director of Camp Kadesh, says, “Even though I use shared devices for work and personal, I keep work and personal stuff separate on those devices.” Good uses separate email programs and browsers for work and personal life. He also silences notifications when he is off work and uses a watch so that he doesn’t always have to check his phone for the time.
  • Fundraiser Lee Pigeau says, “Twitter is a mix of work and professional. LinkedIn is professional, Facebook is exclusively personal.”
  • Sharon Schmidt, program director of Welcome Home Refugee House, says, “I mute my phone from 10 at night until 7 a.m.”
  • Filipchuk’s colleague puts an auto-reply on his email each night saying he will be out of the office until 8:30 the next morning and not likely to respond before that.

Think macro and micro

Holding professional and personal passions in a healthy tension is a challenge for many people, says Filipchuk. She advises clients to think for the long haul rather than just plodding along while struggling with this. She also encourages clients not to look at this issue so much on a day-to-day basis, but rather to take inventory (on their own or with the help of a friend, coach or counsellor) over a season: did I get a good balance over the course of the summer?

At the same time, balance doesn’t always have to mean taking a long holiday. Archer strongly urges clients to jump on small windows of time throughout their days — in fact she says, “It’s a misconception that we can be restored in a one-shot way: people come back from an annual holiday and find themselves back in the same spot within minutes of returning to work.” Archer encourages people to integrate a more balanced mindset into their days, whether that be taking restorative breaks or even adding pleasurable dimensions to work, such as working outside on a warm day.

Set good culture

Too often nonprofit organizations implicitly cultivate a culture where martyrdom is a desirable norm, but this is clearly not healthy in the long-term for the employees or even the organization. Isakson strongly urges leaders to set a culture that communicates and rewards those who achieve and contribute but also set good boundaries.

It is also vital for leaders to model this behaviour. Filipchuk knew an ED who would draft emails on weekends but would delay delivery until fifteen minutes after work began on Monday mornings, in a deliberate effort not to allow a power dynamic to coerce employees into working on weekends.

But leadership can also be set by anyone in an organization. “Most of us,” Archer says, “follow the crowd, do what others do, and get caught up in the minutiae of work. But regardless of your position, anyone who determines to do excellent work and to value their own personal lives by setting boundaries can start a movement.”

And starting a movement like this is so much better than feeling like your life is a runaway train.

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for more than two decades and loves a good story.

Please note: While we ensure that all links and email addresses are accurate at their publishing date, the quick-changing nature of the web means that some links to other websites and email addresses may no longer be accurate.

Go To Top