What can our own organizations do about self-care?

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What can our own organizations do about self-care?

What role does an organization play in one's self-care?  How can an organization care for itself? How can we change an organization’s culture to one that values and prioritizes self-care?

Note: This dialogue is PUBLIC. Do not share any private or sensitive information. For advice on a specific situation, please contact a participant privately.

Role of organisations in activist self-care

Hello everyone! I'm very pleased to be part of this dialogue on an important issue which is close to my heart.

The way an organisation operates can have a significant on the way activists behave and think about their own health and well-being. In many ways our identities as activists are defined by the cultures of the organisations, networks and campaigns we participate in. Very often these cultures are not scrutinised or reflected on - their norms are just that, normal, and can seem hard to challenge or change.

Katrina Shields, author of the very excellent book In the Tiger's Mouth, has two questionnaires that people may find useful: 'How Well Does Your Group Empower Its Members?' and 'How Burnout Prone is Your Organisation?' (NB With downloads from the Change Agency website, a short survey appears - please let us know that you're involved in the New Tactics dialogue when downloading. You only need to go through this step once.)

This page includes a number of useful resources from Katrina, including a list of recommendations about preventing stress and burnout as part of organisational culture (scroll down about 2/3 of the page). One of the things she emphasises is the value of long-range planning, and a consciousness of stress impacts as part of this. When people burn-out one of the factors can be demoralisation, experiencing defeats, and feeling as though their actions are futile. Unwittingly poor organisational planning or campaign strategy contributes to this. If groups can be more effective, and win more often, this likelihood of burnout can be reduced. The Change Agency works to address this through education, facilitation and mentoring on campaign strategy.

Katrina also encourages stress checks as part of meeting agendas. One simple tool the Change Agency encourages groups to use is a 'Check-in' at the beginning of meetings. This could be paired listening or a go-round. During a check-in people can share how they're feeling, what's new for them, or what else in their lives may be pulling at their attention. It's a way to acknowledge feelings, our humanness, and the fact that our lives are bigger than activism. As a routine way of paying attention to a group's maintenance it can contribute to an organisational culture which puts greater value on self-care and community-care. Our own collective uses check-ins as a part of meetings, including via teleconference. Facilitators have got creative with this tool, including using metaphor to help go deeper, or stay light (eg 'If I was a plate of food I would be...' with some sharing about why.)

I'm interested to hear what people have figured out about setting up organisations well... or what we've learnt from situations that have been less ideal!

Organisation survey links

Correct links to Katrina Shield's surveys: 'How Well Does Your Group Empower Its Members?' and 'How Burnout Prone is Your Organisation?' both accessible from this page. Thanks for pointing this out Kris!


Thanks for those useful resources!

A Sense of a Goose

Here is a story that illustrates how it important for the whole team to put in place practices that nourish and support all the members in it:

A Sense of a Goose

When you see geese flying along in "V" formation, you might consider what science has discovered as to why they fly that way. As each bird flaps its wings, it creates an uplift for the bird immediately following. By flying in "V" formation, the whole flock adds at least 71 percent greater flying range than if each bird flew on its own.

People who share a common direction and sense of community can get where they are going more quickly and easily because they are traveling on the thrust of one another. When a goose falls out of formation, it suddenly feels the drag and resistance of trying to go it alone - and quickly gets back into formation to take advantage of the lifting power of the bird in front. 

If we have as much sense as a goose, we will stay in formation with those people who are headed the same way we are. 

When the head goose gets tired, it rotates back in the wing and another goose flies point. 
It is sensible to take turns doing demanding jobs, whether with people or with geese flying south. 
Geese honk from behind to encourage those up front to keep up their speed. 
What messages do we give when we honk from behind? 

Finally - and this is important - when a goose gets sick or is wounded by gunshot, and falls out of formation, two other geese fall out with that goose and follow it down to lend help and protection. They stay with the fallen goose until it is able to fly or until it dies, and only then do they launch out on their own, or with another formation to catch up with their group. If we have the sense of a goose, we will stand by each other like that.

Author Unknown

consulting to organizations about self-care

I wonder if any participants in the dialogue have served in the role of external consultant on self-care to an organization and what system you adopted or developed to fill this role. Clearly there are situations where the perspectives of the board, senior administration, middle management and line staff will differ and sometimes conflict. Confidentiality of communication can be an important principle in learning about the experience and concerns of individuals and groups within an organization, but can also limit work towards solutions. Discussion of vicarious trauma and self-care inevitably and understandably leads to discussion of burnout which has more directly organizational roots. Any experience or ideas to share?

Consulting to organizations about staff care

I've been in both the role of an external consultant to large global organizations on staff care, and been employed full time as a Director of Staff Care for two multi-national International NGO's. In my experience my ability to influence the ways in which organizations support staff hasn't been too much different in either role. The key factor that governs whether or not organizations support staff is a matter of 'will' on part of the senior managers. It really comes down to the ability of senior managers (and I include Boards) to both recognize any pain staff are experiencing and then taking decisions to seek ways to mitigate pain, or enhance wellbeing. The research clearly shows that the single most important factor that negatively impacts health and wellbeing in organizational contexts is the organization itself. By this I mean the way in which the agency works, how leadership relates to staff, what kind of HR systems are present, whether teams are cohesive or not, and whether the context and culture of the organization is supportive of growth and development. Because the research clearly links health with employment conditions it is my premise that employing entities have a primary ethical responsibility for creating environments for staff that promotes health and supports individual self care. I have worked in many contexts (Haiti just one of many) where individuals strive to maintain self care but the organizational context inhibits these individual methods from succeeding. People generally handle the stress of livign in a disaster zone relatively well, but when their employer fails to ensure adequate support, the compound impact can be significant. While self care processes certainly work, in contexts where people are denied the opportunity to make use of these skills and knowledge then individual health is compromised. In terms of consulting or working for organizations the extent to which employers are able to recognize their own responsibility in developing partnerships of care and support is the key factor that impacts success. In many contexts being a consultant has been more effect because the activity of seeking and hiring a specialist indicates the organization has already moved towards becoming a partner with staff and is now investing resources. I've never had any major issues of confidentiality because the most effective way to prevent and treat burnout or any Acute Stress Reaction is through sound organizational processes rather than individual treatment plans. While there are certainly individual aspects to burnout, stress and any ASR it is the wider context that either mitigates or amplifies the individuals experiences. Organizations have considerable ability to create working environments that mitigate impact on individuals and even enhance thriving in challenging environments. The greatest puzzle that I have is the reasons why strongly ethical organizations dedicated to the care and wellbeing of people subject to the most abject conditions are, at the same time, unable and/or unwilling to provide the same degree of support to their own staff. It is a great mystery to me.

follow-up re organizational level consulting

thanks for these thoughts John. Two follow-up questions.
1. My reference to confidentiality relates to the situation where line staff don't feel comfortable or safe to discuss their dissatisfaction with organizational policies because their criticisms will not be listened to or will lead to some form of retaliation. This may be particularly true when senior management does not understand or respect the importance of staff care, as you indicate it often the case (lacking the "will" you refer to. Do you have a process whereby you facilitate the communication of suggestions, complaints, or even grievances upwards in organizations, even when you have identified this problematic dynamic?

2. Do you have a specific guidebook that you recommend for organizational level interventions to facilitate staff well-being?

Organizational level consulting

Good questions. For me the process begins at the initial contract stage. Generally the motivation to hire me as a consultant comes through some senior management process because a "problem has been identified" and someone needs to "solve it". When I am asked to do this kind of work I don't agree to become involved until there is a very clear understanding that the hypothesis includes the theoretical possibility that the "problem" might be caused by management, organizational culture and/or organizational practices. Many times I find senior managers are surprised to be informed of these possibilities, often assuming that it will be individual staff have (or are the) problems, or possibly some kind of team issue. But I won't go any further with the contract discussion unless these options are fully understood. The consequences for the scope of work, therefore, must include the ability on my part to both assess and report on organizational and management processes. I make it clear that the gathering of information from staff will provide a general reporting on climate, context and culture but will not identify specific individuals or teams without their express approval. Further, I generally insist on at least a two part process. The first part is the assessment process which includes the opportunity to meet with any staff at any level, right up to the CEO if necesary. The second is recommendations for interventions, and possibly the interventions themselves. I preface all the discussions about interventions by explaining that in my view health interventions (whether psychological or physical) are the result of damage already sustained (by whatever cause) and the the main focus of any consultancy work should be on prevention of future harm to staff. And that such prevention may well require changes in organizational practices and structure, right up to senior management levels. I used to be happy to treat symptoms and conditions, and happy to help people cope with extreme environments. Now I'm most interested in changing those environments so that harm is either avoided or mitigated. Of course in some places I work (Haiti, Gaza, Afghanistan, etc) we will never be able to make the environment risk or threat-free, but even in those contexts organizations can do a whole lot better in creating environments that support staff and even help them thrive, while ensuring continual access to health services where exposure to toxic conditions compromises health. My ethical view is that I should not commence a process of assessment (or identification of problems) without having a clear agreement with the hiring organization that full access to services (which includes changes) will be provided. i suspect that it can be extremely traumatizing to identify issues or problems or conditions and then have no possible plan to provide relief, treatment, change or hope.

With regard to resources I make use of HRM specialists (with a focus on international NGO contexts) such as the Antares Foundation (www.antaresfoundation.org) for organizational processes. People In Aid (www.peopleinaid.org) for a huge range of HR staff care resources and Psychosocial.org (http://www.idealist.org/en/psychosocial/index.html) for a comprehensive discussion of a wide range of psychological support processes and resources. I have many books on my shelves relating to these topics of which the following four are but examples. Danieli, Y. "Sharing the Front Lines and the Back Hills" ;Paton & Violanti "Traumatic Stress in Critical Occupations"; Quick et al, "Preventative Stress Management in Organizations"; KLein & Izzo, "Awakening Corporate Soul".

Hope this is interest.

the role of the organization in supporting well being

Hello John! I'm pleased and excited to read your thoughts on this subject.

To offer some reflection about why ethical systems who are dedicated to the care and wellbeing of peoples sometimes do not attend to their own staff: 

Various authors within the trauma field have articulated the way in which the fundamental processes of post-traumatic reactivity play out in groups, in systems, as well as wihin individuals. Three authors come to mind. First, Judith Herman, in her seminal book Trauma and Recovery, speaks about the powerful human impulse to minimize or forget the horrors of trauma, as we have seen with the denial by some of the Halocaust. second, Sandra Bloom, founder of the Sanctuary Model, addresses how trauma can infect an organization's processes and policies; and underscores how organizations meant to serve vulnerable populations can themselves become neglectful and/or hurtful to their staff and clients. Her model addresses this contagion by creating processes and policies that support the wellbeing and health of the staff and the people they serve. Third, Richard Schwartz, founder of the Internal Family Systems Model, who as a family systems therapist, bumped up against limitations when he  worked only with external systems in groups (families) in his early career, speaks of ways in which external group processes and practices (e.g. scapegoating; banishment; implicit privileged assumptions, values, behavior, goals) play out in each of us as well. When trauma is in the mix, internal (as well as external) relationships become extreme, dysregulated, imbalanced. A Jungian therapist (whose name I'm forgetting at the moment) wrote a lovely little book several years ago on this predicament, calling it the problem of "trauma saturated systems."

A final reflection: The question that arises for me when I see this dynamic play out in human service organizations of all kinds, is where to start in trying to heal the system. As a practicing Buddhist and traumatologist who is actively exploring the interface of Buddhist psychology with trauma theory and practice, I am finding it helpful to begin this effort with three steps/actions: first, invite attention around what creates a sense of sanctuary, refuge, safeness for the group and for each individual. Second, invite individuals in the group to consider what motivates them to do the work they do. And once identified, third, to engage in a conscious commitment, or re-commitment, to that/those goals. If some intential effort is then implemented, and some positive results happen, I also find a simple ritual of dedicating the positive effects toward the deepening of wellbeing for all helpful. These steps, in my experience, create the fertile ground for orgnaizational change that is more able to increasingly support the wellbeing of its staff and clients.

Organizational Support for wellbeing

Hi Deborah,

I agree. I think the process of paying 'mindful attention' to our surroundings has been lost in a culture that shares incredible amounts of information but has lost the art of 'attending'. Buddhist psychology and almost all contemplative practices have much to re-teach us about paying attention. Part of this is due to organizational cultures that reward actions that are short, sharp, apparently clean and time-limited. The descriptive term "meeting" no longer has much meaning as such processes have become largely one-way tracks of information production - either endless powerpoint presentations or tightly controlled agenda. It is very hard to actually 'meet' with colleagues at work. Interactions become a series of exhanges of sentences, largely through electronic media, which convey little beyond bare facts, and strip relationships of soul and substance. I have worked in large, open plan offices where colleagues communicate by email even though their desks are but a few feet away. Where senior managers seek to improve morale through carefully crafted senior 'newsletters' but never occupy the same physical space as staff. All the literature I've seen on stress mitigation indicates that strong social relationships are extremely effective in maintaining and enhancing wellbeing, both psychologically and physically. But in contexts where time is deemed to be an enemy of corporate objectives (something to be beaten down and savagely controlled) such relationships are not encouraged, rather they wither and fail.

So, this is to say that I totally agree with your three steps/actions as bringing about positive outocmes. The trick is, however, to persuade the organization that there is a significant return on investment in permitting staff to "take time away from work" to enter these practices. More significantly, I think the research indicates that sustainability of outcomes is more likely to be achieved over time where senior managers are actively and personally engaged in such processes themselves, preferably in the same context as other staff. I've been in situations where senior managers have supported such processes for "other staff" but they "don't have the time to become involved" themselves. In many such instances staff that do take part can perceive themselves as being less than competent that managers who don't need this "stuff" or having it now confirmed that managers want to "to things to them to fix them up", or that managers just "don't care anyway". The catch-22 to this is that many organisations that vote to spend time on these essential practices already have pretty good workplace contexts anyway, because they are generally believers already. Those contexts that are most toxic to staff are likely to be those where it is extremely difficult to encourage management to view the provision of self care, or staff care, programs as being useful.

We need to become very astute at "marketing" (I hate that word!) or presenting these concepts in corporate contexts.

Consulting to organization about self-care

When I served as the Executive Director of a Rape Crisis Center in California, I recognized the high level of staff burn out and secondary trauma. With support of the board, we made a commitment to create a culture of self-care in the agency. We restructured the organization, as example:

  1. We put in personnel policy that staff is the first responder to their own situation ( crsisis, stress) and the organization will support the staff in finding resources.
  2. Budget permitted, we allocated  $ 50/staff /month for self-care. Staff discussed what can be reimbursed for self-care ( ranging from massage, tank of gas to take a trip, hair & nail  care, etc)
  3. All direct staff works only 4 days a week but making the same amount of salary as when they work 5 days a week. We told them to go home if they showed up to work on the 5th day.
  4. Board facilitated team building activities with staff. A lot of appreciation being shared.
  5. Training, workshop or sharing of tools, resources of self care.
  6. Additional health benefits to include acupuncture.

All the above really help in staff retention, improved quality of  service we provided and improved staff's quality of life. So in this case we had support from the board of directors, management and staff.

Organizations encouraging individuals to care for themselves

Nina Jusuf wrote:
1. We put in personnel policy that staff is the first responder to their own situation ( crsisis, stress) and the organization will support the staff in finding resources.

I think it is such an important point, Nina, that one of the things organizations can do to is to encourage and support self-care, while setting the expectation that individuals are primarily responsible for monitoring and caring for themselves. In both activist and clinical settings, we sometimes talk about empowering others but allow ourselves to languish, not heeding our own advice. Strong, supportive organizations can help by being fiscally responsible, respectful and logical in their operations and programming, and open and responsive to the voices and needs of their staff, all the while maintaining a position that self-care is just that: caring for yourself.

Organizations supporting staff

One of the organizational practices I have seen some companies adopt has been to take the concept of accountability one step further up the chain. So, that where there are good HR policies and practices such as those Nina describes, the supervising Manager is held accountable for their staff making use of those provisions. For example, if the org has a policy of vacation, hardship or R&R leave the Manager is held accountable where staff they supervise have NOT taken this leave. This switches the whole reward process on its head. Most organizations covertly reward staff for not taking leave, for working long hours, for working thru weekends, for coming to work while ill, and all that. Despite the clear evidence that health and effectiveness are impacted when people are not able to have non-work contact time balanced by work time. So, in this new process, Managers/Supervisors who have staff who have a substantial amount of untaken leave are held to account in their own performance management processes and required to account for their inability as Managers to ensure that their direct reports have been able to take care of themselves. I often use the rather crude analogy of car maintenance. If you run your vehicle without ever checking the oil, the tire pressure, the electrics, etc, you can sure it will wear out faster and even break down. You will most likely void the warrenty if you don't make sure the vehicle has its regular service checks. If you will do that for your vehicle (and fleet managers get this very quickly!) why would you want to wear your people down by not allowing them to have "service checks"?  Managers, then, have a real incentive to ensure that their staff make use of their leave provisions. In some cases I have been successful in having the company publish internally the total number of staff-leave-days outstanding against the name of each manager (not identifying individual staff, just the team totals) so that all staff can make an assessment of the capacity of managers to ensure staff care is taking place. Kind of like gas stations pinning up bounced checks for all the customers to see! Needless to say most management teams find this suggestion a bridge too far!

mandatory vacations

Early in my career as a clinical psychologist I worked in the outpatient department of a state hospital in Brooklyn NY with clients suffering from severe and chronic mental illness. Later I worked at a rehab hospital in Los Angeles County with people who had just suffered spianl cord injuries, usually meaning permanent paralysis. I lasted 3 years in each of those jobs, leaving in a state of sever burnout and vicarious trauma, neither of which I had language or training to identify. Much later, I served for 8 years as clinical director of a non-profit torture treatment program. I attribute my longevity there in part to the satisfactions of doing work with an explicit human rights component and also to the fact that our executive director and board established policies with explicit attention to staff wellness. One of these was a generaou vacation policy (4 weeks paid) which staff were required to take. As a middle manager, I was responsible to ensure that my team members took their vacations within the year. Only one week could be rolled over. We also developed a monthly Vicarious Trauma and self-care meeting for direct service staff, which I attended although I was the team leader and manager. My modeling my own VT awareness and sharing my struggles as well as a non-judgmental attitude towards those of my staff members was important in encouraging honest sharing and support, which generated an informal process of mutual support that went far beyond the monthly meetings.

Organizational culture model of humanitarian organizations.

This is a key question that leads us to think about self/staff-care. It is not easy to answer who is responsible for staff care and even for identifying the right balance between individual and corporate responsibility.

When I go to the field and work with front line aid workers, bringing them the topic of self/staff-care,  it creates a space to think on how being exposed to the work have changed themselves and their view of the world over the years. How different they are and how much it is related to changes in their beliefs or to what motivated them.

I normally don’t start exploring symptoms or what we already know from the literature of compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, stress, PTSD, secondary trauma and etc. Instead, I start working with what they tell on their own experiences and, afterward, these topics may come out in a kind of psycho educational way.

Firstly, helping them to connect with their “here and now” feelings, thoughts, experiences. Then, to reconnect to what is important and valuable to them.

Of course this approach is flexible and will depend on settings like the amount of time available, number of people to attend, if it is an emergency context or complex environment where emergency is an ongoing reality, if it is an acute crisis intervention, if it is HQ staff that sporadically has contact with field work, if it is an administrative desk station or a field worker…  And even notice if it is national or international staff (that is an often tension relationship). There is no one-fits-all model, but this connection and re-connection process approach often underlines different technical interventions.

Helping them to look at that introspective question on how they have changed over the years as aid workers frequently brings responses that are indeed related to the unique exposure to the traumatic of others, but even more frequently, brings up struggles that are associated with the organizational culture model. Still knowing that such struggle is a product of different sets of experiences, it is important to have space to reflect critically on those models and this is what I would like to pick up to provoke the dialogue. How much the organizational culture model of humanitarian organizations affects staff?

Marcio Gagliato

I am in awe of the quality of

I am in awe of the quality of resources and insight in these posts. Thank you! Holly - the documents you provided PDF links to are fantastic. (Note that both of them link to the Burn Out questionnaire; I had to google to get to the Empowerment one, which is here, and is accessble from this page.)

I am struck by the insight that burn-out is not just the result of too much work, or even too much trauma or stressful work, but that it also seems to be directly related to organizational and personal effectiveness. At Urgent Action Fund, we are for the first time in our 13 years creating a process by which we decide whether to take on new projects. In the past, when a funding opportunity has emerged, and if it fit with our mission, UAF jumped at it. Staff are so burned out from this! It was eye-opening to me that question number 1 in the Change Agency's Burnout Rating Scale is this: "1. PLANNING & PROJECT MANAGEMENT: How clear are your group's goals and 

Another comment, from another discussion thread, put it this way: burnout seems to be related to how much energy you put out, versus how much energy you get back. So, if an organization is taking on projects without going through a process to ensure they will be effective, and sustainable, the result will be burnout on an individual basis as well.

I also resonate with the observation that the single-most important factor in creating a culture of sustainability is the leadership and support from the top of the organization, including management and board. This accords with my own exerpience in attempting to facilitate transformational change around dynamics of racism and exclusion. Without that support, change simply will not happen.


Hope and Burnout

Kris Abrams wrote:

I am struck by the insight that burn-out is not just the result of too much work, or even too much trauma or stressful work, but that it also seems to be directly related to organizational and personal effectiveness.

I agree with this insight. For me, a key factor is hope - which can either be very fragile or very resilient depending on personal and societal circumstances. If we can set up our organisations and social movements to function effectively we're more likely to foster hope and keep engaged and emotionally strong activists.

I think activists are people who:

  1. See a problem in the world.
  2. Believe the situation could be different.
  3. Take action in the direction of the change they want to see.

Sometimes we need to work with people quite intensively to get them even to see a problem (although many people don't find this part hard!), to convince them that this can be changed (perhaps sharing a vision of a preferred future), and to translate that into action (overcoming barriers and objections, fitting action to skills/capacity). Getting to number 3 tends to require belief, or hope, that individual and collective action can make a difference.

People don't always move in one direction. Sometimes people become really demoralised. If they didn't have much understanding of how entrenched power operates in society they can get a nasty shock. After working really hard and not winning, or suffering defeats, hope can evaporate.

This can happen on a movement wide level. For example, millions of people around the world marched and rallied to try to stop the Iraq war. The war went ahead. Many people stayed committed to ongoing resistance to the war, but overall there was a significant demobilisation - a lot of people lost hope that action they participated in could effect the change they wanted to see.

How do we deal with this? What can organisations do to reduce the risk, or rebuild hope in jaded activists? I suggest:

  1. Political education and clarity about theories of change. It's important for people to understand power relationships, how much is invested in the status quo, and how challenging it can be to shift powerholders.
  2. Develop clear campaign strategy which builds movement power and maximises pressure on targets (powerholders/decision-makers).
  3. Give people opportunites to express the depth of feeling they have about the current situation, how much they want to see change, and the grief and fear that come up with setbacks and defeats.
  4. Celebrate wins, whatever their scale. Share stories of people power, learn from history, and gain hope from what has been achieved so far.

We can't afford to lose activists to disillusionment and hopelessness. The correct response to a setback is to reflect on it, learn from it, plan what comes next, and fight harder.

I am in awe of the quality of

I am in awe of the quality of resources and insight in these posts. Thank you! Holly - the documents you provided PDF links to are fantastic. (Note that both of them link to the Burn Out questionnaire; I had to google to get to the Empowerment one, which is here, and is accessble from this page.)

I am struck by the insight that burn-out is not just the result of too much work, or even too much trauma or stressful work, but that it also seems to be directly related to organizational and personal effectiveness. At Urgent Action Fund, we are for the first time in our 13 years creating a process by which we decide whether to take on new projects. In the past, when a funding opportunity has emerged, and if it fit with our mission, UAF jumped at it. Staff are so burned out from this! It was eye-opening to me that question number 1 in the Change Agency's Burnout Rating Scale is this: "1. PLANNING & PROJECT MANAGEMENT: How clear are your group's goals and 

Another comment, from another discussion thread, put it this way: burnout seems to be related to how much energy you put out, versus how much energy you get back. So, if an organization is taking on projects without going through a process to ensure they will be effective, and sustainable, the result will be burnout on an individual basis as well.

I also resonate with the observation that the single-most important factor in creating a culture of sustainability is the leadership and support from the top of the organization, including management and board. This accords with my own exerpience in attempting to facilitate transformational change around dynamics of racism and exclusion. Without that support, change simply will not happen.


Is there a single most important factor for change?

i am also most impressed by the commitment and wealth of experience that is being shared here... however, in oder to shaprpen our insights into how change happens, I would like to highlight the comment made by Kris:

I also resonate with the observation that the single-most important factor in creating a culture of sustainability is the leadership and support from the top of the organization, including management and board. This accords with my own exerpience in attempting to facilitate transformational change around dynamics of racism and exclusion. Without that support, change simply will not happen

Please elaborate, Kris, how your experience has led to that conclusion?

I agree that it will help things progress a lot, when the formal 'top leadership' of the organisation would support efforts to change.  My experience has been that 'top leadership' is NOT usually the sector that will initiate and lead any change that will benefit the rank and file, unless they have no other choice and are pressured to do so, for example by the Union, on a shop-floor, or united staff action in a non-profit, or even donor pressure. In the first place, they need to be TOLD what the issues really are, and reminded again and again that something has to be done before the dam breaks.... . if we are lucky they will agree and give the green light.

In the most enlightened management situations, top-down initiatives - even good ones - do not usually get the kind of participation from the whole organisation that will make whatever changes that happen, real and sustainable, and not cosmetic..or temporary.... the Revolution.. never begins at the top?

So I don't think we can consider top leadership as the single, most important factor: their cooperation is important and essential, for a peaceful and constructive change process (where that is possible) - but NOT SUFFICIENT. 

So we need to start work with the ones who are feeling the pressures and the stress... they are the ones who can really say where the shoe pinches... and what they need to be able to walk on without pain and even with pleasure.  Furthermore, they are the ones who, once convinced that they need to change unsustainable ways of working and living... must be committed to make that change, and demand the resources they need: The activists on the frontline are just as, if not more important ACTOR, for sustainable change ...





Monday Developments magazine

Hello everyone-

I just want to start by saying that the responses and knowledge in all of these posts is really awesome, and for a student, like me it is really helpful:) For anyone that is interested here is a link [we're working on find the working link for this resource] to magaxine “Monday Developments." It is an entire magazine issue devoted to staff care for those working in humanitarian aid, NGOs, and nonprofits. Gives simple cost-effectiveideas on how to provide staff care that will yield high results. Things as simple as access to a TV or DVD player so that staff working in humanitarian aid missions have time to relax, and rid their minds, even temporarily, of the atrocities they witness...

You can view Monday Developments issues on Scribd.

“Monday Developments

the link to the “Monday Developments PDF does not give access: 
You don't have permission to access /sites/default/files/1/MONDAY DEVELOPMENTS/2008/ MDSep2008.pdf

Monday Developments

I'm not sure if it is possible to attach files to these postings but I have the pdf file of the issue of Monday Developments referred to if anyone wants it.

my own burn out

This summer I camped out on a boulevard median strip to bring attention to state-wide budget cuts that would take many disabled people out of their hard-fought-for homes and leave them no choice but homelessness and nursing homes. 

We accepted and welcomed anyone while trying to organize effectively around our goal to stop the cuts. It was high stress.

The homeless people who joined us taught me a great deal about calm in stressful situations and, simply living amoung them, challenged my usual "fix the problem" work habits.  Overall, it was humbling and produced great personal growth.  My doctor said I probably used up massive amounts of adrenaline and I did need a rest period when it was over.  But, the palpable hope and love that sustained the camp boosted my energy level and allowed me to work harder and longer for about 2 months.

What tangible things helped: 

People constantly created small art projects in the banners, signs and tent decorations.  

We held a series of workshops that included many creative and fun ways to interact. 

Daily meetings created some sense of order in the chaos. 

We created formal times to honor and thank each other.

Every evening we ate a hot meal, mostly provided by cooks who did not live at the camp. 

I got ten hugs a day. 

The leaders, including me, did not play favorites and dealt with potential divisions quickly and openly. 

The money was dealt with transparently and carefully. 

We stopped when we saw these things could not be sustained much longer. 

We did not stop the cuts but we are planning another action very soon.  Thanks for the discussion.  It helps to know what you all are thinking about this kind of stuff.  I took the burnout quizzes and (oh oh) it doesn't look like I'm doing too well.  Guess I'll head out to the garden for a bit.  I am so lucky to have a small back yard.  I am so lucky to have such a rich life.  I am so lucky to have communication with all of you.

Watching out for each other

Adrienne - thank you for sharing your personal experience with burn-out.  The list of ways that your group made sure everyone was ok is fantastic - it will be a great resource for others to look at when they are designing their own actions.  I really like the idea that the group supported each other - the hugs, the fun creative activities, the hot meals, etc - it reminds me that everyone plays a role in self-care. It's not just a top-down approach!

organizational structure and self-care

I'm going to break my comments about this topic into two posts. The first will deal with organizational structure. I notice here the apt suggestion that dedication to sustainability and self-care must come from the top.

But--uh oh!--the very concept of "the top" implies that organizations must be hierarchical. And, perhaps, hierarchies themselves are both causes and consequences of trauma. If, as the old anarchist slogan has it, "freedom means no bosses," then organizations where some individuals control the work hours, workload, and indeed livelihoods of other individuals may be inherently unhealthy.

So, let me put forward a suggestion from my book, Aftershock, which is that our organizations ought to be, insofar as possible, non-hierarchical. Activist history, including not only anarchist organizations but also cooperatives, unions, feminist projects, and activist groups such as ACTUP offer many models of non-hierarchical organizational structures.

Sometimes, external forces mandate hierarchies, such as when state laws concerning incorporation of non-profit organizations demand Boards of Directors and the identification of a CEO. But, even here, it is possible to game the system to create an organizational structure where nobody bosses anybody.

For example, at the Ann Arbor Tenants Union, where I worked back in the 1990s, the articles of incorporation mandated that policies, budgets, and the like be approved by both Board and staff. Thus, the Board exercised the oversight demanded by the state--meeting monthly, reviewing fiscal documents, and deliberating policy--but could not order the staff to do anything the staff didn't feel comfortable doing. The staff itself was organized non-hierarchically, with a "coordinator" playing the role usually assumed by the "executive director" and work groups collectively responsible for their own areas. So, for example, a hiring or firing decision about the crisis line staff would be made collectively by the crisis line staff, rather than by "the boss."

That's just one example. My main point is that there's a big difference between "coordinating" and "directing" other people and, I would argue, that difference is significant to the organizational ethos. If we want an organizational ethos that promotes self-care in the process of seeking self-determination for everybody, then the organizational structure ought to be consistent with that ethos.

communication patterns

And--oh yeah--non-hierarchical also means that patterns of communication have to be widely distributed: spider-webs rather than bicycle wheels. No more information flowing to the center and then back out to the masses.

NGO business model again...

This is why it is so important to have a strong critical sense in every practice that we incorporate from business model into NGOs. Hierarchical structure is only one of many examples we can use. I’m not saying that this is bad at first, seeing that, somehow, some level of hierarchy (power relations) is inevitable even for the horizontal-relations claimed by many activists. I often see business practices in NGOs playing a role that suffocates slowly local knowledge, beliefs systems, and even the presence of the humanitarian subjectivity. Then, sometimes, the staff-care team is requested to play a role of extinguishing the fire (containment model) but not addressing the cause or even hoping growth.

What are organizations?

Let's be radical and go to the root of the question:

Q: What is an organization?

A: Nothing other than a web of relationships.

Organizations are groups of people. Whatever their legal status or material resources, in the final analysis it is relationships between people that create organizations.

I find it useful, when consulting for or working within organizations, to state this fact explicitly and then ask the members of the organization collectively: What kind of organization do we want this to be?

It's empowering for everybody within an organization to understand that an organization is nothing other than relationships, because this means that everybody co-creates the organization every day. Furthermore, awareness of the fact that our relationships with each other define the organization prompts participants in the organization to be more mindful in their interactions with one another.

At the practical level, just asking, "What kind of organization do we want this to be?" and then saying, explicitly, "We want this to be the kind of organization where people take care of each other" tends to have the effect of promoting exactly that behavior. Indeed, in my experience, it's almost like magic: Just saying, "This is what we are going to do together," having collectively decided whatever "this" is, tends to make it happen.

Referencing my previous post, this is exactly the opposite of a mandate from on high.

Building Mentoring into a Campaign

The Change Agency has recently been engaged to provide mentoring to 10 campaigners or community organisers active in a renewable energy campaign in Australia. This involves mentoring sessions of one hour per month for each community organiser over a six month period. During those sessions organisers can reflect on the previous period of time, plan for the next one, and workshop any challenges arising. There have been a range of issues arising in the sessions: self-care, feelings about the climate crisis, project management, time management, facilitation and presentation skills, group dynamics, techniques for engaging people in the campaign, etc.

In this instance the campaign coordinators planned the mentoring as part of the campaign and sourced funding for the programme. Many campaigns struggle with ambitious goals and underresourced campaigners who lack a place to debrief or ask for advice. It's great that the campaign coordinators anticipated the challenges their campaign could face, and have sourced external help to address this.

We're excited about this model, and would love to see similar initiatives with other campaigns and projects. Does anyone have examples of mentoring, or other mechanisms for support and development, being built into projects?

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