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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Walking the tight rope: finding work-life balance in the nonprofit sector

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.


ASU Lodestar Center Blog