The Importance of Self-Care as Self-Defense to Nonprofits

Nonprofit organizations are givers. Reframing self-care as self-defense can help us to prioritize our people and protect our organizations.

The Importance of Self-Care as Self-Defense to Nonprofits
12 mins read

Don’t let burnout lead to poor performances and high staff turnover.

Nonprofit organizations are givers: We recruit like-minded staff and volunteers who give and give until they are spent. All too often burnout leads to poor performance and high staff turnover. However, reframing self-care as self-defense can help us to prioritize our people and protect our organizations.

What’s the best self-defense move?

That’s our first question we ask at my youth and family-focused, martial arts nonprofit when starting a new program or self-defense workshop.

We hear similar answers from youth and adults. “Knee to the groin.” “Run.” “Poke their eyes out.” “Sweep the leg.”

Our follow-up questions (as the title to this article gives away) make our students reconsider: How many hours did you sleep last night? What did you eat yesterday? What’s your stress level? Often, our students object to the trick question but it still helps them understand the point.

Our physical state influences our mental state and our mental state impacts our physical well-being. How we are able to best defend ourselves from any given threat depends upon how well both our bodies and minds can perform together in that moment. Creating conditions in which we are strong, focused, and balanced is self-care. And practicing self-care is the foundation of self-defense.

When we think about self-defense, we often focus on reaction: Someone’s about to punch you in the face and you need to do something because taking the hit will hurt. Without self-care, you’re choosing to take the hardest hit. With self-care, you can take more hits or, even better, see the hit coming in time to block and move. You increase your ability to respond to a threat with competence, confidence, empathy, and hope.

There’s a bomb in your building.

It’s a figurative bomb but if we’ve been reminded of anything these past two years, it’s that we don’t know what the next thing might be. In the nonprofit sector, we tackle issues that others can’t or won’t, but these combined hits lower our breaking point. Our organizations battle disease, climate change, poverty, and injustice while dealing with board egos, staff shortages, and insufficient funding. Not practicing self-care diminishes our effectiveness and leaves us vulnerable to other problems.

So how can we be proactive in the self-care and defense of our organizations? How can we use self-care as self-defense to bring the best version of our nonprofit to the community, both in a crisis and every day?

As leaders in the nonprofit world, here are a few things we can do to begin to implement self-care as self-defense.

Take care of your people.

You must balance different needs, wants, roles, and responsibilities to encourage individual self-care while at the same time not making it just another task that keeps your people from other tasks.

  • Ask your team, stakeholders, and supporters how you can support their self-care as an organization. Be open to ideas and flexible in implementation.
  • Explore incentives, group activities, challenges, team building exercises, gratitude boards, or self-care calendars, making sure these are aligned with what your people need.
  • Our team enjoys daily, independent practice challenges because scheduling additional group activities means more time away from their families. Given our focus on youth martial arts, we ran a million kicks challenge but a morning walk, or weekly post about a pet, may work better for your staff and volunteers.
  • Nonprofits can shift into crisis mode for a variety of reasons. Here are a few examples with a possible self-care follow-up:
    • Your executive director got hit by a bus — Allocate time for staff and volunteers to process and shift gears by pushing back moveable deadlines or canceling meetings.
    • You lost a grant — Reset by touching the work, even in a small way, to remind yourself to keep moving forward.
    • You received negative press — Spend 60 seconds air boxing before approaching your team or drafting a response.
  • Your follow-up is going to be unique to your situation and organization. During a crisis, organizations need to be vigilant about including self-care as part of the planned response. Too often our missions are visionary, but our plans are reactionary—let’s commit ourselves to changing that.


Creating a culture of self-care involves demonstrating that you understand the issues impacting your team.

  • Make sure your self-care messages are consistent with work expectations and establish clear work boundaries.
  • Provide materials — such as healthy snacks, refillable water bottles, or yoga class passes — that help reduce impediments to participation. Don’t send out articles on health and fitness while packing the break room exclusively with junk food.
  • Include any beyond-regular-hours expectations in job descriptions as well as employee and volunteer manuals. Staff can’t use the weekend for self-care if expected to be available 24/7 for board member calls, donor emails, or covering for staff who are out sick.
  • Share resources for self-care.
  • If you’re struggling with a commitment or responsibility, let someone know. There shouldn’t be sad anonymous posts on nonprofit forums about board members ghosting organizations or executive directors struggling with burnout alone. Volunteers, board members, and staff should know the names, emails, and phone numbers of their contact person.
  • Many small organizations, like mine, may not have a separate HR department, but we do have a clear communication chain:
    • Volunteers ⇄ Instructors ⇄ School Coordinators ⇄ Executive Director ⇄ Board
  • There’s some overlap and exceptions, but those are also part of the plan.

Plan and practice

In November, we plan for an icy Wisconsin winter in our self-defense classes with added focus on how to fall properly to minimize the chances of breaking arms and heads. We practice so that our responses are almost automatic.

This is self-care on a daily scale ensuring we can handle a possible future crisis, falling down. Remember, our goal is to incorporate daily self-care in order to optimize our reactions.

  • Establish a framework response. This should include the flow of who does what as well as who steps in when those people are unavailable. A framework response allows for an automatic go-to response, which in turn allows your organization to answer a need faster (download template).Your planned response template should be able to address the following:
    • Position, responsibility, project impacted
    • Immediate need or due date: Is it tomorrow’s gala or a grant report due next month?
    • Who can help: Staff, board member, volunteer, or interim position?
    • Supporting resources: Who has the keys, logins, passwords, paperwork, files, credit cards, contact numbers for all the pieces?
  • Practice, practice, practice. Give your board or staff an emergency scenario and ten minutes to make a plan. Look for any assumptions concerning resources and/or organizational operation. Are there any discrepancies between what the staff assumes the board will do and what the board thinks the staff will do? Finding those discrepancies and assumptions in advance of an actual crisis gives you time to assess responsibilities and assign them to the appropriate party.

Time is a Resource

“When you say that something is impossible, you’ve made it impossible.” — Bruce Lee

Both individual and organizational self-care require exploration and practice.

Individual self-care is personal. A daily affirmation recording encourages some but depresses others. A practice log can motivate or create additional anxiety. Some of us need to punch the bag to destress while others soak in a bath. There’s no one right answer and the answers keep changing along with our lives. Google has over 8 billion articles on best practices. We’ve shared lists and calendars of suggestions with our students but self-care can’t be delegated. You have to do the work to find what’s best for you.

And yet, organizational self-care includes an emphasis on individual, personal self-care that must be communicated and promoted. It also includes needs that are unique to your nonprofit as a business. Your nonprofit may need an everyday staff meeting, additional training resources, childcare, or a review of hiring practices. Self-care for your organization means taking care of present needs, planning for possible crises, and growing your mission for the future.

Time is a resource. How we spend our time is a choice. And yes, there are inequities of available choices—that’s why many of our nonprofits exist. Every day we make multiple decisions involving priorities and goals that we may not realize we’ve set.

Be aware of choices you are making. For example: I don’t have time for that because this other thing is more important to me now. I don’t have time for that today but will make time tomorrow. I don’t have time for that, but I could do this which will also help me reach the goal. Once you are aware of your choices you can consciously set priorities and goals.

Where to Start

Making the proper self-care/self-defense choices involves mindful assessment and reflection.

Ask yourself and your nonprofit: what’s the number one threat (challenge) facing you today, this month, or this year? It may be unlikely that someone will try to punch you in the nose, but you might be bringing on new staff, starting a new initiative, submitting a grant request, or on the verge of burnout.

Consider what self-care action might help you counter that threat or meet the challenge. Think about what’s worked or hasn’t worked in the past.

When you consider self-care as self-defense, it becomes clear that self-care is not an optional activity. Or, put another way: none of us want to get punched in the face but when we do have to take a hit, we need to be strong and resilient enough to get back up.


About the Author

Photo of Maryfrances Palmisano

Maryfrances Palmisano is the Executive Director of J.K. Lee City Youth Martial Arts, a small nonprofit that brings the benefits of martial arts to Milwaukee youth and families who would not otherwise have access to such programs. She is a former attorney and third degree black belt who has been with the organization since it was founded twelve years ago. She completed the “Ultimate Black Belt Test” and has competed in the Hamnadang National Tournament. She began studying martial arts at J.K. Lee Black Belt Academy with her children more than fourteen years ago. She graduated with honors from Baldwin-Wallace College and attended The Ohio State University College of Law. She enjoys spending time with her children and grandson.

Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

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