47 Street-Tested Ideas to Help You Reduce Your Nonprofit Leadership Stress

Taking on the ED role means you willingly accept a very difficult and challenging job. You choose to make responsibility a central aspect of who you are and what you do. In order to succeed, you have to believe you have a superior combination of leadership traits such as strength, perseverance, commitment, intelligence, focus, problem-solving, communication skills, etc.

At times it is a very lonely job.  The buck stops at your door and when things go wrong, your job may be in jeopardy. Be prepared for hard times. They are part of the job and a form of job insurance! After all, if everything went smoothly all the time, why would management be needed?

But also know that there are terrific rewards for getting through difficulties. You learn you grow, and you achieve new heights. The challenges yield meaning, purpose, shared achievement, and being part of building more competent communities. Risk and reward are the yin and yang of the ED role. Do you love the mission/vision/values enough to take on the stress of the job?

Although the subject of stress reduction for nonprofit leaders is truly book-sized, here are 47 street-tested ideas to help get you can put to use right away: 

Maintain Mission/Vision/Values Focus

  1. Identify your most important values. Use them as your moral compass for planning, decision making and as a teaching tool for your staff.
  2. Always model the behavior you expect from your team. Your team will watch and model what you do. Your actions are much stronger than your words.
  3. Use the key values to develop a vision. The vision is a world in which all key values are fully expressed.
  4. The mission is the day-to-day steps toward achieving the vision.
  5. When you deal with hard situations, consider how your choices would be seen on the front page of the newspaper or lead story of the local TV news hour. If you can clearly explain why and feel comfortable with the exposure, it is the right thing to do.
  6. Build trust with your team and with your community. Establish and maintain an ethical culture.  Never take financial shortcuts, falsify records, etc. Tell the truth and the truth will always set you free! Never create a backside that can be used against you.
  7. Value collaboration. No agency can be all things to all people. Welcome competitors as a means of keeping you and your team focused and productive.
  8. Expect to maintain a high level of learning. No one has all the skills that are required to effectively lead an organization. The ED role is a career-long process of discovery.
  9. Use professional resources as you need them. Seek consultation as needed in finance, HR, marketing, Board training, etc.

Stress management

  1. Only you can manage your stress level (and burnout). No one else can make you happy or productive.
  2. Keep careful track of your emotional thermostat and stay within its too much, too little limits.
  3. Keep a healthy stable of friends who recharge your emotional batteries. Let go of people who consistently sap your energy and leave you tired. You model the emotional tenor of the organization and that must be positive, flexible, and upbeat.
  4. Avoid negativity in yourself or others. If people bring you problems, always ask for their suggested solutions. Never fall into “gee it’s terrible” conversations. Make solution-seeking part of your culture.
  5. Avoid seeking perfection. Remember “progress, not perfection.”
  6. Imagine success, solutions, and prosperity. There are always alternatives that capitalize on reversals, losses, etc. that make things better or at least mitigate reversals.
  7. We can only control ourselves. Nurture your attitude carefully. When you see or feel darkness, find the light as well.
  8. Make change your partner, not your problem. Learn to bend with the inevitable changes that you did not want, don’t like and must respond to. Look for the judo in every hard situation and use its energy to meet your positive purposes. You will often be surprised by the results.
  9. Celebrate successes with your team. Thank them clearly and be generous with your compliments.
  10. Don’t take the highs or lows too seriously. Both will come and go, leaders keep momentum no matter what happens.
  11. Getting regular aerobic exercise is one of the best stress management tools. Many solutions will appear when you take a long walk and think about other things.
  12. Learn and respect your rhythms. For example, if you don’t write well at the end of the day because you are tired, use that time for checking in with your team, seeing clients, etc.
  13. Choose carefully who you ventilate your stress to. Make sure there is never a back side with the person you choose. Someone outside the organization who you truly trust is generally safer than a subordinate or Board member.
  14. Build supportive relationships with other EDs so you have someone to talk to who truly understands what you are going through. Ask for help when you need it.
  15. Take short trips on weekends to places and activities that distract you from thinking about your job. Take good vacations. Renewal and recharge is a critical process you manage.
  16. When you encounter criticism or resistance from your team, ask yourself if there is any kernel of wisdom or truth in the situation that you need to address. EDs have blind spots, just like other people. Even though you may feel annoyed, some of the most important information you will receive will come in this form.
  17. You will make mistakes. Use them as learning tools, and teach what you have learned to your team. Just don’t repeat them. Apologize as needed and move on.
  18. Probably the most common reason EDs get fired is poor financial performance. Watch your finances carefully, and make rapid changes as needed. You will have financial reversals so when revenues drop or expenses surge use your team to identify how to survive. It is amazing what you can get rid of to survive.
  19. Covey observed, “No margin, no mission.” Protect and nurture your margins to build reserves for hard times. Never assume good times will last, they never do. But they do ebb and flow. Discuss your margin rationales and goals in each budget. It is generally wise to underestimate revenues and overestimate expenses.
  20. Good financial management is also about balancing short and long-term needs. And balancing a broad range of competing interests and needs is one of the key tasks the ED constantly does with their team.


  1. No one learns much by talking at others. We learn what we need to know by asking questions, listening, paraphrasing, and exploring alternatives with team members. Learning to ask the right question is a critical skill that will help you lead.
  2. It is more important to give credit to your team than to take credit. You need your team to do your job and they will support you if they feel recognized and appreciated. The mere fact of giving credit is recognition of your leadership.
  3. Help your people start their day positively by greeting them warmly in the morning when they come to work. Some people need your help to leave their personal concerns at the door so they can focus on their work.
  4. Never let your temper fly if you want to be trusted and respected. You can’t truly take words back so avoid adult temper tantrums.
  5. If you are dealing with very difficult personal stuff (depression, divorce, grief, feelings of inadequacy, etc.) at work or in your personal life, find a good therapist and work with them. It will make you a better boss as well.
  6. Use your written reports to the Board to educate and inform them. Never take short cuts when informing the Board, what is left unsaid may haunt you later. Make situations clear, ask for advice and guidance as needed.
  7. Don’t expect recognition from your Board. But model recognition by making it part of your culture. Recognize your Board on a regular basis.
  8. You will generally have at least one Board member who thinks someone else would be better. Do your best to increase communication with them, learn about their concerns and possibly win them over. Don’t get defensive, take a positive, charming offensive.
  9. If you have issues with Board, talk about them with the Board. Sometimes you will have to change, sometimes they will choose to change. Never lose your temper with the Board. Avoid power struggles with the Board, they are career limiting.
  10. When you make a recommendation and Board struggles to come to a decision, sometimes listing the pros and cons will resolve the logjam.
  11. Never discipline a Board member. That can only be done with or by the Board President.
  12. If you have a dysfunctional Board, educate them through consultation and training. If that does not work, pack and use your parachute. Always leave with élan, never with a shoot out or sudden resignation that will hurt your career prospects. If it is not a good fit, be honest about that and work with the Board to identify the next steps for you and for the Board. Ending a bad situation well can create a good reference and result in a much better job.


  1. Hire slowly, carefully. If it is not working use coaching and progressive discipline sooner not later. Know when to let someone go and never operate out of revenge.
  2. Some of your most difficult terminations will thank you years later! Most will not.
  3. Never talk about progressive discipline or terminations except as needed to your Board and your top-level management team. Talk outside those groups may come back to you in ways that hurt.
  4. Never go bare without an HR professional.  The laws and regulations are complicated, they change, and you need a second point of view as you work through coaching and discipline.
  5. Always operate with compassion and humility when you use your power. You are responsible for the livelihoods of other people. Your actions will be studied by staff and emulated.


Got a comment or a question about any of these ideas? Leave a note below and I’ll get back to you asap!

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