Three Tips for Social Entrepreneurs: Balancing Work with the Holidays


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Editor's note: This post was written by Kate Petty, writer and editor at Ashoka Changemakers.

There’s nothing like the holiday season: Attending parties with friends, spending quality time with extended family, preparing 500 personalized letters to ask your donor list to make a year-end pledge to your social venture…

If that last item didn’t seem out of place to you, keep reading. For too many social entrepreneurs, the holidays are just another time of the year when you work hard for a great idea to save the world.

But taking time to vacation, spend time with family, and generally unplug is vital. Just ask the Mayo Clinic, which cautions on its web site against working long, stressful hours without a break: “When you’re tired, your ability to work productively and think clearly may suffer — which could take a toll on your professional reputation or lead to dangerous or costly mistakes.” 

Balancing work with a personal life can be difficult in any field, as Ashoka Fellow Molly Barker, founder of Girls on the Run, points out: “Social entrepreneurs tend to be incredibly driven, over-the-top passionate, and can often be consumed by the mission of their work, which could lead to work-life imbalance. These traits are not, I believe, owned exclusively by social entrepreneurs; parents, more traditional entrepreneurs athletes, artists, and musicians are all capable of possessing these traits.”

And there’s at least one extra challenge faced during the holidays by those working for donor-funded organizations: People tend to feel more charitable around the holidays (and/or are looking for a year-end tax write-off).

“A typical nonprofit can raise almost half of their individual donations for the year during December,” says Jaime-Jin Lewis, executive director of Border Crossers, an education equity nonprofit organization based in New York City. “So Thanksgiving is spent developing and implementing an outreach strategy to supporters, and Christmas and New Years are spent following up with personalized phone and email reminders.”  

Even if you’re not responsible for keeping an organization in the black, it can be hard to take a vacation.  “I really love my work (both my job and my social venture), and I usually think of work as pleasurable. But it’s not relaxing,” says James Vasile, executive director of FreedomBox (a recent winner in the Changemakers Citizen Media competition).

“Of course, people in our position don’t take vacations. We need somebody to force us to do that, to point out how inefficient we are when we’re run down.”

If this sounds like you, then here are three ways to unplug around the holidays: 

1. When you’re with family, be with family. Is your iPhone or BlackBerry a lifeline or a ball-and-chain? The holidays are a good time to answer this question.

Take an “Internet fast” while you’re off work; if you’re checking email, you’re not really taking time off. James Vasile says that he never checks his email on a phone.

“When I’m with people, I try to be fully present. That lets me get the most out of family dinners and social plans.”

Ignoring the smart phone will also help you focus on the moment. For Molly Barker, this is the key to finding balance.

“Daily meditation plays a significant role in my ability to maintain an internal sense of peace,” she said. “Whether I find that meditative space during a run, walking my dogs, or cleaning, the intent behind the activity (or lack of it) is to still my thoughts and be as present as I can be.”

2. Take enough time off. One day home isn’t enough to detach; to benefit from a vacation, you have to take off enough time to truly relax. “I often find that I forget how to relax, so downtime makes me fidgety,” says Vasile.

“I spend the first few days of a vacation somewhat miserable because I can’t manage to slow down and enjoy myself.” If you never get the chance to enjoy your vacation, you won’t return to work refreshed and ready for the next challenge.

3. Practice self-empathy. Barker’s work has been highlighted as part of the Ashoka Empathy Initiative; she says that developing empathy could play a key role in taking better care of oneself.  “I believe empathetic people have a keen understanding of the important role emotions (and emotional health) play in our well-being,” she said.

Or as my mother has always said: Treat yourself like you would your best friend.

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