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PEAK Grantmaking

How to Reduce Your Stress to Give Your Best

The problem: Grants management professionals take on a substantial level of stress to effectively support and guide grant partners, coworkers, board members, and supervisors. These days, the stress is even higher as the world is constantly transforming, cultural norms are being upended, and conflicting belief systems are creating deep divides within our country. In any work environment, it’s easy for someone to feel stuck in the middle. We may walk on eggshells in fear of offending others, or we may suppress others’ reactions to behaviors that offend them. This only makes it harder to engage in productive, supportive relationships and limits our ability to make a difference in the world.

In this context, many of us are facing a mental and emotional health crisis, and very few of us have the experience or skills to give ourselves what we so desperately need during these uncertain times—a sense of control, agency, and influence without the fear of being called out as being wrong for our perspective. We need a new way to recognize, honor, and reduce our stress level before it forces us into crisis situations in our lives.

Because grants management professionals are involved in the entire funding process, they are in the best position to see gaps between equitable policy and practice. And they can experience considerable stress because they often see the flawed assumptions made—and acted on—by their organizations. For example, if a foundation is trying to improve health outcomes but doesn’t do the work to uncover its blind spots, it might invest in solutions that fail to account for some of the unique barriers faced by Black and Brown families. In this case, the flawed assumption is that all demographics would benefit if the foundation funded a program that offers a blanket solution to a problem. The reality is that many universal interventions only work for those who are already doing well, not for those funders really want to reach.

For the grants manager, situations like these can result in a moral crisis where they need to ask, “How do I add the highest value in this situation without creating more stress for everyone involved—especially me?”

In our professional roles, we often find ourselves in the middle of polarized perspectives as we look to do business in more inclusive ways. While there is a big push for inclusion within the philanthropy sector, our larger social culture has changed such that people may feel shamed into not giving voice to their views in a professional or public setting. This leaves us fearful for speaking our mind and potentially offending an individual if we are honest about our experience. We need to find our way back to creating a common ground that genuinely allows for all perspectives to be heard.

Don’t measure your own success based on the actions that others take. ... Instead, look at your contributions in terms of your ability to enable your colleagues to make a decision they can stand by.

Solutions: There are two ways to avoid getting derailed by stress and still contribute our best work to the mission and vision you share with your organization.

First, stop focusing on who is right and who is wrong in a situation. This mind-set divides us, increases our stress, and keeps us stuck in a victim/persecutor mentality where we feel that we are not in control of doing what is best for us. Instead, we can focus on what is right for us and allow others to do what is right for themselves. No judgement. We each have a unique perspective that has the power to contribute to the greater good of our organizations. The ability to contribute our most authentic self requires us to see ourselves and others as capable of making the best decisions for ourselves based on what feels right for us. This perspective acknowledges that each of us are creating our own experience based on where we focus our attention and intention. If you expect fear and skepticism, you will create experiences that bring more fear and skepticism. However, when you disconnect from other people’s opinions and viewpoints and do what is right for you, your sense of clarity and ability to contribute your highest value goes up exponentially.

For example, when a nonprofit asks, “Why didn’t I get funded again?” a grants manager’s stress level can skyrocket. In these situations, there are three different perspectives to consider: the funding institution, the nonprofit, and you as the grants management professional. The key is to uncover, understand, and communicate what is right for each of the players. No one is in the wrong. For the grants manager, the right thing for them is to provide the nonprofit with clear and realistic expectations in order to build a constructive relationship. For the funding institution, the right decision was to cut the funding in half given a reduction in our overall funding and a new focus area to support based on a new strategic plan. In conveying this information, the conversation opens up so that the grants manager can uncover what is right for the nonprofit given the change in funding: being connected to other grant resources and pro-bono tech support to expand their donor base. Everyone was able to honor what was right for them and the partnership can continue to flourish.

Second, don’t measure your own success based on the actions that others take. It’s easy to have feelings of failure and stress when a colleague does not agree or act on your recommendations. Instead, look at your contributions in terms of your ability to enable your colleagues to make a decision they can stand by. For instance, when a leader in an organization wants to add questions to the grant application that are not very helpful, it’s up to the grants manager to suggest a recommendation that would work better. Instead of simply sharing those improvements and hoping they get used, the grants manager needs to help the decision-makers understand what the consequences are of not using these recommendations. In this situation, if the leader doesn’t take the recommendation, the consequence is they will not garner consistent or usable data, which will frustrate them and the chief financial officer when it comes time to create board books and quarterly reports. In providing the consequences of not taking their recommendation, the grants manager maximizes their influence on the decision-making process from where they sit by enabling leaders to make an informed decision. The grants manager has provided the information that is required for their colleagues to do what is right for them. The actions taken based on that information are outside of the grants manager’s control and responsibility, and there is no need to feel like their perspective and efforts are wrong if the colleague doesn’t use their recommendation.

When we adopt this shift in perspective, we take a huge emotional weight off our shoulders because we are cultivating attitudes that honor our contributions. When we increase our ability to choose what is best for us and make it easier for our co-workers to do the same for themselves, we can reduce the stress for everyone while empowering ourselves to recognize, take responsibility for, and to share and our unique and authentic insights and experiences.