Why and How Rituals Build Resilience in the Nonprofit Workplace | Beth's Blog

Why and How Rituals Build Resilience in the Nonprofit Workplace

Organizational Culture, Resilience

Last week I presented a session at the  Nonprofit Technology Conference called “Activating A Culture of Resilience for Sustainable Impact,” with fellow NTEN board members, Ananda Leeke & Meico Whitlock as well as Carrie Rice.

We each tackled a different aspect of resilience.  I presented and facilitated a small group activity on  rituals.

The Power of Workplace Rituals To Nurture Resilience

Rituals are intentional small, tangible acts done routinely and carry meaning. Rituals have been performed for centuries and are an important part of human history – from religious ceremonies to common rituals like saying hello or shaking hands. Rituals are also used by professionals to boost personal productivity because rituals capitalize on our brains’ ability to direct our behavior on autopilot, allowing us to reach our goals even when we are distracted or preoccupied with other things.

Workplaces are tapping into the power of ritual to create a sense of community, build relationships in the workplace and reduce stress. And if that wasn’t enough, rituals can also encourage innovation by reducing the fear of failure.

If you think about it, our nonprofit organizations already have rituals — from the boring everyday activities like coffee breaks to larger events such as annual meetings and holiday parties. Now that we know what the research says about the benefits of rituals, nonprofit leaders should view the creation and fostering of rituals as essential, whether for the entire organization, your department, or team.

Here are some examples:

Rituals to Celebrate Success

  • Completion of Fundraising Campaigns or Big Project: Did your organization just complete a successful fundraising campaign or maybe you just launched a new web presence or database. Celebrate that milestone with anything festive that fits your organization’s values, is inclusive, and everyone finds enjoyable.  This could be a pizza or taco party or giving comp time.
  • Employee of the Week or Month: Did someone on your team or in your organization make an extraordinary contribution to your organization’s programs and went above and beyond to make it a success?  Having a formal and consistent way to recognize staff who work hard can motivate others. One organization has a silly banana statue that they give to the “Top Banana” for the month. Others have created a “whiteboard of love” with written praise or staff accomplishments, provided reserved parking space, or take time to praise staff at monthly meetings.  Of course, a raise or bonus is nice, but it is the public acknowledge that helps builds community.

Rituals to Promote Growth and Learning

  • Weave reflection Into Meetings: Incorporate formalized reflection activities such as “After Action Reviews” for large projects and campaigns.  This can be done in less than hour and can reap many benefits. Another way to practice reflection is to incorporate a five minute reflection at the end of every meeting to reflect on meeting norms.
  • Removing the Stigma of Mistakes and Failure: I’ve written extensively on how nonprofits can remove the stigma of making mistakes or failed projects.  Some of my favorites include having staff wear something silly like a pink boa when they do an after action review of project that didn’t work or doing failure bows.
  • Lunch and Learns and Field Trips: Inviting outside experts to lunch at your office to learn about their work can make professional development an experience that also builds community.  Another way to promote learning is to organization a field trip to visit your organization’s programs in the field or another organization to learn from their work.

Rituals to Build Relationships

  • Recognize Birthdays and Work Anniversaries: Look for a fun way to celebrate birthdays and work anniversaries. Give them a cake or have everyone sign a birthday card with a small gift.  You can decorate their office door, give them a birthday hat, or sing happy birthday. One nonprofits gives the employee a comp day off on their birthday or work anniversary. Some workplaces also celebrate the birth of children and weddings.  And, upon the death of a loved one, find an appropriate way to express sympathy in the workplace. All this can help humanize your workplace.

  • Schedule regular staff social events: Plan regular times to get together to talk about the team or just to socialize. This could be over a meal, or might involve doing a fun activity together outside of work, such as a hike.  One of my favorite nonprofit examples is “Crock-Mondays” where the nonprofit staff sign up to cook a meal for everyone in the organization’s crock pot.  Name this event something fun such as, Taco Tuesdays or Pizza Fridays. Researchers led by Kevin Kniffin, of Cornell University, discovered that communal meals can help with team building and more effective work together.  Some might view preparing and eating food together or what is called “commensality,” as not meriting  management interest. But Kniffin and his colleagues point out that eating is such a primal behavior that it can be an extraordinarily meaningful ritual if done together.
  • Give A Unique Welcome To New Employees: Tech companies in Silicon Valley have made onboarding an artform, for example at Google new employees are called Nooglers and given a prop beanie to wear.  Your nonprofit doesn’t need to invest in new hats for new staff, but simple activities like assigning a buddy, decorating their workspace, or special welcome events can make new employees feel welcomed on their first day (or week.)

Rituals To Build Mindfulness

  • Quiet Time: Noisy and busy offices can be stressful due to interruptions that can keep people from getting work done.  Some nonprofits declare organization or department wide quiet time for planning. One example is “Stop Days”  where there are no meetings and people plan for the next month.  Other nonprofits have established norms and cues to minimize interruptions, especially in an open office.
  • Time off: Some nonprofits give employees time off, whether it is leaving early on Fridays during the summer or closing office during the holidays.  For example, World Wildlife Fund wants its employees to feel inspired to save the planet’s natural resources, so, every other week, it gives the staff a day off. Known as “Panda Fridays,” this bi-weekly break gives employees the opportunity to spend more time with their families or pursue outside interests.
  • Workplace Flexibility: Whether you have remote staff who work from home or staff that reports to same physical office everyday, flex time can help staff with work/life balance while still maintaining optimum productivity.  Having a workplace flexibility policy can facilitate it.

Rituals to Build  Creativity, Gratitude, and Joy

  • Play Time: Playworks, a national nonprofit that supports learning by providing safe play at schools, has a daily ritual of staff “recess”  which is a meaningful way for employees to collectively exemplify the values of the organization. They give 15 minutes at 3 pm which helps keep staff morale high and helps employees feel connected to the mission. Kiva, the microfinance organization, gives a monthly 30-minute recess to enjoy unstructured “play time” at the office.
  • Gratitude Rituals in the Workplace: There is a whole field of scientific research about the power of gratitude practice for not only individuals, but also in the workplace.  There are also lots of ideas for different rituals that your nonprofit can establish.

Designing and Implementing Workplace Rituals

It is also important to think about what will make a ritual stick. Why will people want to participate? Can it start organically and catch on, or will people look to certain leaders to model it first? Designing a ritual that will sustain over time requires tuning in to the organization’s existing culture, beliefs, and behaviors. One important step is to get feedback and ideas from staff that helps create that important buy-in. Here’s a more detailed description of a process.

There are many examples of workplace rituals that your nonprofit can initiate. A well designed ritual will reinforce mindsets and behaviors in a way that feels authentic to the nonprofit’s mission and people. What works at one nonprofit, might feel awkward at another nonprofit.   

To get started, look at your organization’s mission. Then, ask yourself and others how that can be played out in a day-to-day realistic way. Nonprofit staff because they have a passion for what they do. So, find simple ways for employees to demonstrate their passion in the workplace and tying it to the work week.

Does your nonprofit have workplace rituals that help build your resilience?  Share in the comments below.

3 Responses

  1. RJ Wright says:

    Love this blog! When I thought about it for a second I realized that there is some negative connotation around the word Rituals, this post was a great way to present the current research on rituals in an easy to read format and give suggestions on how nonprofit organizations can adopt some rituals of their own. I just joined the team of a nonprofit and I’ve never worked in this field before, but have been wanting to for some time. Doing some research I purchased your book The Networked Nonprofit and saw a mention of this blog. Excited for the support that these resources offer in my new endeavor to have an impact!

    There was a grammar error and I felt like a pain bringing it up but realized that I’d want someone to tell me if it is the most recent post. It was in the section ‘Lunch and Learns Field Trips’ and Organization was used instead of Organize.

  2. Himanshu says:

    Rituals are very important. We celebrate our all little victories as it takes a lot of time and effort to achieve the objectives.
    Thanks for this good read 🙂

  3. Katherine Gray says:

    This is such an important aspect of developing a team culture. I have a friend, who is not particularly religious, go to work for a Catholic hospital. There, they start all meetings with a prayer and she was uncomfortable. A mentor advised her to use the ritual strategically and think of it as setting the best intentions for the team so that the purpose of the meeting can be realized. That made me want to start every meeting with a prayer!

Leave a Reply