Advancing Philanthropy

Beyond Fundraising: The Ethics of Self-Care

Paid Advertisement
woman at a spa

An hour at the spa. A facial. Sleeping in late on a Saturday morning. These are the types of things that have become the baseline for what we consider “self-care.” But there has to be more. This can’t be the be-all and end-all for self-care, can it?

Self-care. The phrase is clearly trending. I see it on social media posts, spa advertisements, and in articles galore. However, even with all that exposure I’m not quite sure we have a firm grasp on how important self-care truly is to our overall health. Given the way it is typically portrayed in pop culture, it doesn’t seem to be a prerequisite for living well.

I’m not sure if I can get behind this definition of self-care. As the leader of an organization called Leading Well & Living Well, I’m calling the bluff.

What Self-Care Is—and Isn’t

Self-care is the process of developing a lifestyle which includes actions to improve mental, physical, and emotional health. Self-care is not a weekend activity; it is a lifestyle of awareness, intentionality, and self-preservation. Ethically speaking, self-care should be a right (well, in my eyes anyway), because it is a set of proactive habits that can help avoid burnout, bottleneck behaviors, and lackluster results.

Self-care is more than just “care of self.” It involves an awareness of your desires, needs, and triggers as you maneuver through life and work. It means identifying the community that will allow you to both preserve your identity and to thrive in, no matter what season or situation you’re experiencing. It is making decisions that will stretch you and help you reach a new level at this stage of your life. And it is walking away from work that drains you and forces you to be a caricature of your best self.

Do you have an ethical responsibility to take care of yourself?

This includes you—yes you—the leader of the pack, the chief executive of the organization, the director of advancement, the fundraiser extraordinaire on the rise.

Your own self-care affects you, your team, and your outcomes. It affects your ability to raise transformative gifts for your mission. It affects your ability to develop deep and meaningful relationships, not just with donors, but with all those professionals who are critical to your success.

When I talk to professionals about what’s not right in their organizations, the word “culture” is front and center. And since an organization’s culture is defined by its people, it is probably safe to say that if your number one asset—your people—is unhealthy (worn out, bedraggled, overworked, not eating or sleeping well, on the road 80% of time, etc.), then your organization’s culture will be equally unhealthy.

Don’t See the Problem? Try Looking in the Mirror

If you truly want to get to the root of the problems in your organization, you might want to start by examining the self-care practices you have in place for yourself. From there, look at how your team functions. Given that there are only a few degrees of separation between the two, it could simultaneously uncover the problem and reveal the solution.

Now, let me be clear. You can choose not to lead a self-care lifestyle. It’s your life and it’s your choice. But as a leader, just because something isn’t illegal doesn’t mean it’s right (or ethical). Constantly pushing your body and your mind to the breaking point is not quite the example of dedication you should be striving to show others. And operating from the most frayed ends of your rope NEVER produces good results.

The ethical dilemma arises when you have been trained to put your team first but your own sanity is at stake. Do you choose your team, or do you put the oxygen mask on yourself first before assisting someone else?

If you still don’t see the connection, maybe it’s time to consider a self-care checkup and an ethical check-in. You may not realize the deficit caused by overworking, overwhelming, and over-worrying, but it will definitely show up in every area of your life—and probably sooner than you think.

Put the Oxygen Mask on Yourself First

As a sector leader, you’re often the one identifying the gaps, researching the symptoms, and resolving the problems. But you could find yourself on the receiving end of the research and resolution if you aren’t ready to take care of yourself FIRST. The ethical dilemma arises when you have been trained to put your team first but your own sanity is at stake. Do you choose your team, or do you put the oxygen mask on yourself first before assisting someone else?

I’d like to say we’d all follow the handy advice from our favorite flight attendant before we take off into the leadership skies. Yet, there are many leaders who are still teetering on the fence between self-preservation and team sacrifice.

Running on Empty or Making Decisions on FULL. According to multiple sources, the average person makes approximately 35,000 decisions each day. We call it adulting. Whether we’re at home, at the office, or at the cafe, decisions are a part of life—no matter where you are on the leadership ladder.

If you’re not taking care of yourself, you more than likely aren’t paying complete attention to your donors, consistently listening to your team, or making sound decisions. You’re running on “E” and wondering why things aren’t going as planned. Your clarity is steeped in self-care. When your body is drained, your brain is foggy. When your health is not a priority, your attention to detail is cloudy. There are only two ways to start making decisions on a full tank: you can take care of yourself, or you can take care of yourself.

Island Surfing or Community Survival. Gilligan was not stranded on an island alone, and you aren’t either. Yes, you can swim out to the most remote island in order to surf the best waves alone, but you can’t survive out there alone.

Self-care is not a weekend activity; it is a lifestyle of awareness, intentionality, and self-preservation.

That one project you are handling solo is okay, but you can’t lead your company with the solo, island mentality. And for women leaders, the unspoken expectation to manage everything alone and somehow maintain our sanity is a pill I refuse to swallow anymore. You need your work friends, you need your fellow fundraisers-in-arms, and you need other leaders who understand the difference between surfing and surviving.

Critical Thinking or Impulsive Actions. You can choose to look at the concerns of your organization from two different perspectives: using a critical eye or an impulsive one. With a critical eye you look above the situation and identify the root of the problem, whereas the impulsive eye will see a cut and put a Band-Aid on it to stop the bleeding.

However, you can’t quite get above the problem if you have no energy. Burning the midnight oil and stretching yourself too thin will clearly leave you with little to no fuel to get up and seek out the best solutions based on critical thinking. Absolutely, you’ve been taught to lead by example, but being an example of burnout is not the way to go.

When you aren’t fueled, your impulses fire much quicker than you might imagine. You make snap judgements, “solutions” which can leave your organization open to threats and further concerns later on. At the end of the day, wrapping your beloved duct tape on a gushing pipe isn’t the well-thought-out decision you’d like to implement as a long-term solution—not for your donors or your team. Yet, when you haven’t gained clarity through self-care, you actually start to believe that one more roll of duct tape just might do the trick.

When you’re dealing with donors and their gifts to your institution, your mind should be sharp, your heart should be open, your vision should be clear, and your mission front and center. When you’re dealing with your colleagues and staff—who have multiple competing priorities and who need your attention, input, and support to meet the goals you established for them—you have to be present and not “dialing it in” because you aren’t running on full.

When you don’t put self-care first, you are putting a lot at risk because you are not your best self. And even if no one can see that you’re not on your “A” game—you know it! Self-care is the best care, and you can’t lead well without living well. You have an ethical responsibility to take care of yourself. Your mission calls you to do it. Your team depends on you for it. Your donors demand it from you. And you owe it to yourself.

Sidebar: “Practicing” Self-Care Means Taking Action!

stack of small rocks for mediationSelf-care sounds good in theory, but when it’s time to take action, we might feel like that deer in the headlights on a dark winding road. Where to go? What to do? To help you along that road, here’s my “grab-and-go” list to get you moving toward better self-care:

  • Check in with yourself. Ask yourself—What is my #1 priority? How much of my time is directed toward things that feel like a burden? How can I either do less of those or make them feel like less of a weight on my shoulders?
  • Pay attention to what energizes you (and keep a log!). What drains you? What moves you? How can you do more of that?
  • Nurture your community. Take time out on a regular basis—even if it’s only once a month—to have that standing lunch date or happy hour with colleagues who make you laugh so hard your stomach hurts.
  • Go on a “decision diet.” Conserve mental energy by making fewer decisions on things that don’t matter so you can better handle the more complex ones.  
  • Play my jam. Well, your jam. Create a playlist of your favorite joy-inducing jams. I make one for the car, one for the office, and one for soccer game carpool, because...teenagers.
  • Cozy up. Make your office or cube an inviting space for you (or a few). A plant, a picture or two of something that inspires you, or a warm mind-clearing scent will do.
  • Get up and move. Stand up. Stretch. Go for a walk. Our work is important, but we aren’t EMTs or emergency room doctors. “It” can wait.

A Note From Our Guest Editor

Hello, friends! Welcome to the October 2019 issue of Advancing Philanthropy. I am so excited to serve as the guest editor of this special issue dedicated to ethics. I went into my office and dug up my Center for Business Ethics certificate from graduate school and just KNEW my professors would be pleased. I have to admit, ethics has been both a source of curiosity and a source of trouble for me.

Why, you might ask? Looking at how people respond to ethical situations can reveal a lot about their values, mental models, and frankly, where they are in one season of their life over another. In my professional life I’ve had to walk away from roles that seemed like opportunities, but in truth were one issue away from scandal. Taking a close look at ethics humanizes our struggle with ethical situations. It reveals that although there are many cases where there’s a clear difference between what’s right and wrong, there are many more everyday occurrences where something may be clearly legal, but the question pops up like a thought bubble: is it ethical?

In this issue we explore everyday ethics and apply these discoveries to our sector. We dive into meaty topics like the ethics of self-care, empathy, ethics as a skill, board accountability, working as a consultant, and more. Depending on whom you talk to, discussing ethics could be a lot like going for your biannual dental cleaning—necessary for good health but it won’t have you skipping down the road with joy.

I hope this issue piques your curiosity, causes you to have conversations you might not normally have, and gets you thinking about how the ethics of “things” creeps into our everyday lives. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this issue of Advancing Philanthropy and what other ethics issues you’d like to talk more about. Drop me a note at or join the conversation on Twitter @afpihq and @funddiva.

Until next time,

Kishshana Palmer, CFRE
Founder, Kishshana & Co.—Leading Well & Living Well + The Social Good Life

Kishshana Palmer, CFREKishshana Palmer, CFRE, is a uni-mom, trainer, educator, and professional speaker. She is the founder of Kishshana & Co. and author/blogger for “Secret Lives of Leaders.” When she is not starring in the Life of My Queenager (okay it’s not a real show, but it could be), she is dropping knowledge about leadership and life. Kishshana is the epitome of your classic 90’s Queens homegirl and quintessential corner office executive. She is your daily dose of Claire Huxtable with a side of Blanche Devereaux. For more information visit

Read More

30 Jan 2023 President's Perspective Blog
Want The Latest AFP & Fundraising News Delivered To Your Inbox?Sign Up Now!

Recommended for You

Members: Sign in to view your personalized recommendations!

Sign in