The diverse therapy group listens attentively as the young adult woman shares.

By Maria Azuri, LMSW, principal, Equitable Table and Lauren Thomas Priest, MNM, program officer, Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta

This article is the last of a three-part series on nonprofits and mental health.

Community health is an interconnected tapestry of well-being, a system that is interdependent on its parts in order to equitably thrive—and we are not thriving equitably. A key lever of this system are nonprofit organizations who, through their varied missions, exist solely to strengthen communities’ health by providing much-needed supports across a wide range of issues. Most nonprofits (55%) have programs that serve the general public, and 45% have programs focusing on people and families below the poverty level. Nonprofits, whose employees carry out these missions, comprise the third-largest employer in the U.S. Why, then, has nonprofit employees’ health and well-being not been prioritized? 

Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), nonprofits with fewer than 50 employees don’t have to provide health insurance, and rarely do part-time employees receive health benefits. The vast majority of nonprofits have fewer than 50 full-time employees and many rely on vital, part-time employees. We are missing a key opportunity to dramatically increase community health by not systematically providing health insurance to the third-largest employment sector.

All of us—the for-profit, philanthropic, academic, and government sectors, as well as individuals—should advocate alongside nonprofits to expand and increase access to health insurance. The Georgia Mental Health Parity Act mandates that all health insurance plans cover mental health and substance abuse conditions on par with physical ones; however, the uninsured – including many nonprofit workers – are excluded. There is significant data on the positive impact of health insurance and the negative down-stream impact of this gap.

There are also critically needed organizational level initiatives that each of us can support. Funders and individuals support nonprofits whose missions we care deeply about, but we must also pay attention to, and support, cultures of wellness at the organizations we support. All organizations can take steps to strengthen wellbeing. 

Nonprofit leaders can begin with simple steps, like writing a memo stating their intention to become a mental wellness-focused organization and asking staff for ideas on how to foster workplace well-being. This will help bolster engagement, dialogue and trust. To be successful, leaders must participate and demonstrate their own commitment and humanity. Simple and powerful actions like hosting workplace monthly workshops led by counselors, employee listening sessions to name stressors impacting mental health, and having conversations with staff regarding the realities of daily stressors, are important steps that lead to greater depth. These have shown strong positive impact on overall organizational health. Nonprofit leaders have an influential role in modelling pro-health behaviors by bringing down the wall of silence, stigma, and fear, and by simply showing up

Funders can support these initiatives by working with nonprofit leaders to dive deeper into overall staff well-being by incorporating this into the provision of grants. They can also hold nonprofit staff listening sessions on the impacts of hardship, vicarious trauma and other elements that contribute to employees’ stress. Funders provide important support to nonprofits every day, and starting this conversation with nonprofit leaders demonstrates that they prioritize the mental well-being of nonprofit staff. 

Individuals who support nonprofits through donations and volunteering have a role to play, as well. Board members can make staff wellness part of every Board meeting, and by understanding what benefits staff do and don’t receive. If those benefits are inadequate, Board members can lead efforts (including fundraising) to improve them. Volunteers and donors can ask about the wellness culture of the organizations they support and work to support them, understanding that the staff is the engine that keeps the organization and its programming running.

No one entity has all the solutions, but opening the space to listen to nonprofit staff with leadership participation is a key first step to advancing mental wellness in our workplaces. 

This is sponsored content.

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