The importance of (not) being (too) earnest: Bringing play into the workplace

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People who work in the nonprofit sector experience the underlying pressure of the issues they fight to solve: if we don’t do our work, there could be a child who doesn’t eat, a dog that is euthanized, a cure that is delayed, a person who doesn’t have a bed at night.

The serious and often critical nature of this work, however, sometimes works against us, both in terms of actually accomplishing our mission and in being able to stay the course for the long haul. “People who carry the weight of the world on their shoulders,” says Denise Lloyd, chief engagement officer at Engaged HR, “don’t always feel inspired.”

Introducing a playful sense to work may be one way to help inspire or relieve some of the pressure. CharityVillage spoke with nonprofit organizations that are incorporating the concept of playfulness, changing how they operate and experience their work.

But it’s work, not fun and games

First off, a number of the people we spoke with didn’t like the word play. “There’s a real stereotype about what play means,” says Lloyd. Dr. Stuart Brown, the founder of the National institute for Play and author of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul, agrees. “The message is that if you are a serious person doing serious work, you should be serious.”

Robin Bender, president of Waterloo-based Mega Health at Work Inc, notes that it is often the approach that doesn’t encourage people to embrace playfulness in the workplace. “A lot of organizations accept the idea that health and wellness is important, but I’ve seen wellness coordinators put together a group and launch initiatives that others don’t buy into.” This usually happens when someone tries to define play or wellness for others. “Fun and wellness are different for every single person. People have to define it for themselves, or be part of a dialogue to determine what play will look like in the workplace.”

So what do you mean by play?

Brown argues that “play and work are mutually supportive,” that both work and play require creativity, that, in fact, play at work is essential.

He says, “Work that is devoid of play is either boring or a grind. We can get pretty far through sheer willpower, and some people have prodigious powers of perfectionism, self-denial and suffering. Ultimately, though, people cannot succeed in rising to the highest levels of their field if they don’t enjoy what they are doing, if they don’t make time for play.”

While this is true in any field, Bender believes it is especially so in the nonprofit sector. “People who work in the nonprofit sector tend to be highly compassionate people, but it’s very easy for them to become burned out or to experience compassion fatigue because they are constantly giving or not giving to themselves.”

For Brown, play lies at the core of creativity and innovation. It involves finding what we enjoy and doing it. “We don’t need to play all the time to be fulfilled. The truth is that, in most cases, play is a catalyst. The beneficial effects of getting just a little play can spread through our lives, actually making us more productive and happier in everything we do.” He contrasts life with and without play, saying, “life without play is a grinding, mechanical existence organized around doing the things necessary for survival” while life with play allows people to “bring a sense of excitement and adventure back to their lives, make work an extension of their play lives and engage fully with the world.”

A playful culture

Across sectors, says Bender, many people complain that work culture has become very serious, with everything written into policy and people having less opportunity to spontaneously engage or to have fun.

Part of the challenge, according to Todd Cohen in a recent Philanthropy Journal article, is that the culture of some nonprofits, like that of other sectors, “works to crush original thinking before it even has a prayer of beginning to sprout.”

Lloyd encourages charitable sector leaders to be more open to ideas: “When someone comes to you with an idea, your go-to answer should be ‘how can we make this work’ rather than looking at all the reasons it won’t work and why.” She notes that employees need permission and space to think creatively. “We have to operate within a lot of rules but there are times when people need to be encouraged to step out and take time to get creative.” Brown suggests organizations can benefit from a having an in-house maverick — “someone who has a reputation for tolerating and nurturing wild ideas and methods, but who also has a track record of sound business decisions.”

Another barrier is that too often the priorities of nonprofits are focused on the criteria of funders rather than the ideas and innovation of the agency, says Lloyd, because those innovations may not get funding because they don’t fit funders’ standards. Still, she believes that brainstorming “gets people thinking differently and puts new solutions on the radar.” According to Brown, brainstorming — one of the most common ways for encouraging playful, innovative thinking — has been credited with more than doubling the productivity of work groups. Lloyd also notes that ideas generated in a brainstorming session can resurface later to solve completely different challenges. She says that brainstorming can be as simple as spending ten minutes in a staff meeting layering ideas about a specific issue.

Team-building exercises also often involve play — whether it is solving a puzzle or going through an obstacle course. Lloyd observes that team building works because it allows a group to flex their creative muscles as they share an experience together. “When the time comes to talk about our work, we have that experience to draw on, we will go back and remember what it was like to play and create together.”

Social media

Social media almost demands playfulness. Paul Nazareth, vice president, community engagement at Canada Helps says, “Social media allows an organization’s professional voice to stay consistent through traditional channels, but adds a playful and creative voice to its communication with its audience.”

The recent baseball playoffs provided an opportunity for a playful Twitter exchange between the Kansas City and Toronto libraries. Ana-Maria Critchley, communications manager for the Toronto Public Library says this began when the Kansas City library used an existing hashtag (#bookspinepoetry) to send a tweet to Toronto, a photograph that used titles on book spines to compose a playful challenge. “We realized it was really fun and we responded right away, and had ongoing fun throughout the playoffs.”

This dialogue was great for the library’s brand, allowing the library to position itself as “current, relevant and fun.” It also allowed the library to showcase both the changing and traditional nature of its work. “The reality is that libraries are community hubs that are redefining themselves and providing exciting new services, a lot which are focused in the digital realm. At the same time, books are and always will be foundational to libraries.” The social media exchange also resulted in a wider, new audience, with people who would not typically follow a library on social media. “The challenge for our social media team is to brainstorm new ways to keep these followers engaged with the library.”

Critchley says, “When you get thrust into the spotlight, it gets creative juices flowing in a different way. It was exciting to see positive, instant feedback through retweets and comments. The experience underscored that fun is good, captures the imagination and opens doors that wouldn’t otherwise be open. It’s also good for morale and employee engagement, allowing more people to get involved, engaged and have fun.”

Putting the fun in fundraising

Another organization that was recently thrust into the spotlight is ALS Canada, which together with other ALS groups around the world were the charity at the heart of the 2014 Icebucket Challenge. More than $16M CDN was raised for research for this progressive and fatal neuromuscular disease. The effects on the organization went beyond dollars and cents to create significant awareness about the disease. Executive Director Tammy Moore says that before this challenge, if someone asked her about her work, the conversation was often quite short, due to the dark, heavy nature of the illness. The Icebucket Challenge opened the door for communications, allowing people to engage on a level that was comfortable for them.

The most intriguing part of this campaign was that it was not started by a head office or fundraising campaign, but as a grassroots movement of individuals whose lives had been affected by ALS. This demonstrated to ALS Canada the “beauty of peer to peer fundraising and the incredible strength of the voice of the community”, challenging them organizationally to continue to look for other fun ways to engage. The effects also went beyond the playful nature of the original campaign. “People we serve didn’t feel so alone,” says Moore. “This campaign gave them hope and they began to demonstrate vulnerability and authenticity in sharing what ALS looks like.”

Other organizations such as Movember have similarly benefitted from a playful, peer-to-peer approach to fundraising, something that shows that people want to engage with causes in a social, playful way, and that significant funds, deeper awareness about issues and long-term engagement can be a result.


The 2014 Ebola outbreak was the largest in history, affecting multiple West African countries and also spreading throughout the world. The mood during the height of this outbreak was understandably sombre at best and fearful at worst. A year later, much of the outbreak had been contained by vigilant health workers.

According to Lloyd, after any success, most organizations tend to simply move on and focus on the next challenge. Lloyd encourages nonprofits to do what the health care workers of Sierra Leone did: celebrate their accomplishments. A music video called Bye Bye Ebola was released in November 2015, showing health care workers and citizens dancing in celebrating the win against disease.

“We need to balance dark and light,” says Lloyd. “I would love to see a stronger sense of celebration in nonprofits. Even small things add up. More than stopping to smell the roses, people in nonprofits need to acknowledge the good work that has been done by celebrating the difference they are making.” Ryan MacIntyre, executive director and founder of We Did It says, “We need more fun and praise in our workplace.”

Too often, Lloyd observes, nonprofits don’t do this because people are “busy, under-resourced and hard working.” It also reflects the fact that rarely is the work of a nonprofit completely done: “We focus on finding a cure, but we need to find ways to strive for that bigger win but also celebrate the successes of movement and progress.” Lloyd adds that people may celebrate different things but that it is important for managers and directors to make sure that each staff member’s accomplishments are celebrated.

Lloyd also observes that the more removed staff are from the front-line, direct-impact work, the less often they hear the small, encouraging stories of success. “They don’t have enough connections with the success of today and they are too far from the success of the future.” She encourages such stories to be shared in meetings so that all staff have permission to feel part of that success. Development professional David McColl agrees, “Make storytelling the main way of communicating to both encourage and help learning.”

Taking care of yourself through play

Regardless of how play-friendly a workplace is, individuals can use a playful approach as part of a personal wellness strategy. Bender, who teaches a mental health first aid course, says, “Our society encourages a hamster wheel approach where you are constantly spinning, but you have a choice with how you find balance and cope with things beyond your control. Doing something playful can combat stress and lighten your work environment.”

Bender encourages her clients to set self-care goals in different aspects of their lives – social, mental, physical, spiritual — and says that play can be an important part of any of these areas. She also believes it is important to continuously review goals: “if you’re getting bored, maybe it’s no longer for you and you need to try something new.” Bender suggests that while there will be some activities we will always enjoy, people don’t know what will work for them until they try. “Anything that contributes to you feeling better is worth doing.”

Brown says, “We often allow day-to-day events at work to give us more anxiety than they are worth. Getting oneself into a play state, however, masks the urgent purposefulness and associated anxiety of work, increasing efficiency and productivity.” He suggests that a moment of imaginative play can provide the required distance to see our way out of a predicament — these can include internal narratives (i.e. what would Mother Teresa do?), distraction (i.e. listening to music), disassociation (i.e. pretending to be on a tropical island), etc.

Doctor, stress researcher and clown Dr. Bowen White perhaps sums up the importance of play even in serious, mission-driven work: “Play doesn’t solve all the serious suffering, unfairness or the problems we see in the world, but when you experience it…it opens your heart and then you see what’s inside. Play helps you regain the mind of a child and better deal with the major problems and challenges we all face.”

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 almost two decades and loves a good story.

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