ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Current nonprofit sector research and recommendations for effective day-to-day practice from ASU faculty, staff, students, and the nonprofit and philanthropic community.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011 - 9:48am
posted by
Laci Lester
Public Allies Arizona
former Program Manager,
ASU Lodestar Center

There are people who think of work-life balance in a Utopian way — where work and life responsibilities are lines in the Zen garden of life. When those same people realize how fictionalized that image is, they often give up on the daydream and get back into the thick of their work. But it doesn't have to be this way!

In Spring 2010, I administered an informal survey as part of a Public Allies independent study project. I asked nonprofit professionals about their views on work-life balance and how it effects their day-to-day lives. I have to say, the results were pretty fascinating.

People responded in every way possible. Some outright claimed that their organizations hinged on staff being overworked and underpaid. Some acknowledged their efforts to make balance more a part of their supervision style. Others responded that balance is dependent on very personal practices.

So, how can nonprofit professionals realistically tackle work-life balance? Ultimately, it's a tight rope act. And, by thinking this way, we can begin to gain some much-needed perspective:

A strong foundation and set-up is crucial.

If the tight rope line and its supportive structures are too tight or rigid, it's hard to maintain your footing. You first fatigue from trying, then you ultimately fall off. On the other hand, if the line is too loose, it's tricky to orient yourself — you just can't trust where your feet are landing. You need a strong, dependable base to stand on — this includes surrounding yourself with talented, motivated friends and colleagues, as well as staying organized and in-the-know.

Learn from your predecessors.

When you come across your first tight rope line, you may assume it's perfectly even and stable. But if you haven't tried walking one before, you'd be better off watching how more experienced walkers approach getting across to safety. It's even helpful to watch their mistakes in order to learn what to avoid. After all, tight rope walking requires far more skill than just strolling along in a straight line. At the end of the day, watching someone else try to cross first can have a huge impact. So, be a good, keen observer, and you might have a few less "try, try agains" in your future.

Don't be afraid to ask for a helping hand in order to move forward.

Kids are great at this! At first they cling on to their parents' hands for dear life, but eventually they start to feel at ease and find their own rhythm. Then, all of a sudden, they are testing themselves, letting go, and pushing their own boundaries. So, channel your inner kid! Reach out to those around you until you feel confident enough to take your first big step on your own. And if you start to wobble or lose your balance, there's always a helping hand close by.

Once you achieve success, soak it all in.

When you've got it, you've got it! Sure, it doesn't exactly feel like walking on flat ground, but there's something to be said about being able to trust yourself — to know that you're probably going to fall at some point (probably at multiple points) — but you have the knowledge, skill, and foundation to hop back on and do it all over again. So stay committed — you'll get across that tight rope in no time!

Laci Lester is a former Program Manager with ASU Lodestar Center's Public Allies Arizona program and a board member of YNPN Phoenix. She has lived in Arizona for 15+ years and  completed two 10-month terms of service as a Public Ally before being hired. Laci is an Adult Degree Program student at Prescott College, and she plans to receive her bachelor's of arts in psychology in Fall 2011.

Laci's nonprofit experience is largely rooted in youth leadership development, having volunteered with Anytown Arizona and working for the Civic Leadership Institute program hosted by Northwestern University and Johns Hopkins University. She also has a background in healing arts with certifications in massage therapy, yoga, and rock climbing.

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Click here to read "Fear not, nonprofit professionals!" — Aaron Stiner's (of Catholic Charities) suggestions for managing life/work stress.


I have found work/life balance by actually blurring the line between work and life.

From an hours perspective, I am fortunate to have control and flexibility over when and where I get my work done (as long as it gets done on time!). Like I might come in late one day, or leave early for a doctor's appointment, but I know I am going to work that night (sometimes late into the night) or over the weekend. For me, work/life balance doesn't mean 8-5 in an office then turn off my work brain until the next morning. It means finding a career in which my work is in-line with my personal mission - and my personal mission is something I live all the time, I can't turn that off when I leave at 5pm! As long as the total hours I work don't get in the way of my family, friends and personal health, I am cool with the blurred lines.

Another thing I've started doing to blur the lines and bring balance too, is to bring my family to work and volunteer events - where appropriate - so that time at a fancy dinner wooing supporters can also be spent at the side of my wife (and depending on the event, my son too). Another example, last week, my son's school was unexpectedly closed for a day - because my wife and I both had full days, our 7 year old each spent 1/2 a day at each of our offices, playing computer games, coloring or drawing, while we plowed through our meetings and projects - now, THAT's work/life balance =)

I also spend social time with other nonprofit professionals - sure, we talk a lot about "work" stuff and the sector as much as we talk about other life stuff, cut up and have fun. But, I like talking about important things, so why not hang out with other people doing important work. It helps me remember I'm not alone in this work and I even learn best practices for how to approach my own work. In fact, I feel fortunate to be connected to and be able to hang out with a cohort of other socially concious, passionate people!

I also gain balance by exercising, sleeping enough, eating well and drinking lots of water! A healthy body can lead to a sharp mind and a more productive day at work!

Thanks for raising the conversation Laci! I look forward to your August YNPN Phoenix event (especially the part where we practice office yoga!).

I know this is hard for me and many other individuals and we sometimes look back and see where we could have done things differently. I know I have to have a schedule of when and how long I do certain things. That is the only way I can balance life. I want to enjoy everything! Thanks for the content!!!


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