Sacred Gift of Labor and Love


In previous posts such as “A Fine Mess” and “Healthcare as Harbinger,” we’ve pointed to ways the health field offers valuable insights into big societal trends that will transform other parts of the nonprofit sector. This month we’ll return to that theme to explore another way health institutions can help the rest of us “see around the corner.”

It won’t surprise you to learn that healthcare providers have high rates of burnout. Providers face the Sisyphean challenge of treating streams of patients one day and then starting over again the next. They deal with unrelenting exposure to human suffering. They struggle with the business imperative to speed up their patient interactions and reduce costs.

Burnout carries direct, bottom-line costs. It produces high turnover and low productivity. Perhaps even more important, it reduces the quality of care. As Mario knows from his service on the board of a major health institution studying this national trend, whenever burnout rises you see lower levels of staff engagement, which in turn leads to a higher risk of accidents and decreased levels of caregiver empathy.

Healthcare institutions are experimenting with many different approaches to reduce burnout. The Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), one of the most respected drivers of innovation in the field, is pushing a deceptively simple concept that we believe is relevant not just for healthcare institutions but for other nonprofits. The concept is joy.

In the article “Restoring Joy in Work for the Healthcare Workforce,” IHI President and CEO Derek Feeley and Mayo Clinic Director of Leadership and Organizational Development Dr. Stephen Swensen make the case that focusing on joy is the stuff of sophisticated management, not happy talk. They ground their argument in the teachings of W. Edwards Deming, one of the greatest management minds of all time. Deming believed that joy was important in and of itself but also core to the “psychology of change.” People “will be much more likely to engage in improvement activities if they see that change will lead to joy,” in the words of Feeley and Swensen.

What does an emphasis on joy mean for you and your organization? It means asking staff about the pain points in their work and rewarding managers who come up with creative ways of alleviating them. It means that senior leaders provide opportunities for staff to see how each person contributes to the mission and purpose of the organization. It means implementing needed changes in ways that help staff gain meaning and purpose in their work lives, not just new responsibilities. And it means doing all of these things with a genuine respect for the pressures and demands each person faces.

Working in the nonprofit sector isn’t easy. You don’t get stock options or fancy perks. You’re asked to create big change and often have to do it on spare change. And yes, burnout is a big issue. But at its very foundation, the social sector gives us the core ingredient we need for finding joy in the workplace—the possibility of applying our talents to make a profound difference in the lives of others.

In another fierce campaign season, Bill Clinton campaign strategist James Carville gave a famous speech to his troops in Little Rock. “Outside of a person’s love, the most sacred thing that they can give is their labor,” Carville said through tears. “Anytime you can combine labor with love, you’ve made a good merger.” That’s our job in a nutshell—merging labor with love, work with joy, tasks with purpose. In the process, we’ll likely reduce burnout. And we’ll do a much better job of meeting the needs of those we’ve dedicated our lives to serving.

And now for some brief updates from around the Leap of Reason community:

  • We’re excited to announce the launch of, a website showcasing the Leap Ambassadors Community and its work. The private community—now 120 ambassadors and growing—will use the site as a platform for promoting the “performance matters” message and sharing materials developed for leaders on the journey to high performance. Learn more about the model and management of the community; meet the ambassadors who believe mission and performance are inextricably linked; and download a wealth of collaboratively developed community products, including The Performance Imperative, Ambassador Insights, and the Performance Imperative Organizational Self-Assessment (coming in late November). Share your own “performance matters” stories with the community at
  • The Drucker Institute recently announced the 10 finalists for the 2016 Drucker Prize, the biggest management contest in the country for innovative, high-performance nonprofits. The winner of the top prize of $100,000 will be announced on Friday (September 30). You can register here for free access to all of the outstanding learning materials that Drucker Prize contestants reviewed as part of the award process. (Mario is featured in one of the learning modules, “Fostering the Right Kind of Innovative Culture.”)
  • We recommend UC Berkeley Professor David Kirp‘s New York Times op-ed “Conquering the Freshman Fear of Failure,” timed nicely for the start of the school year. Kirp shines a spotlight on a growing body of research on simple, evidence-based interventions that help disadvantaged students thrive in college. In the latest study, researchers showed that having disadvantaged freshman complete one of two different 40-minute online exercises had a significant effect on the course completion. One of the exercises shared research showing that intelligence can grow with hard work. The other included upperclassmen talking about how they overcame tough hurdles in their freshmen year.
  • Speaking of school-based interventions, researchers in Australia recently reported in the respected medical journal The Lancet on a program that aims to reduce teen pregnancy by giving students robot babies that simulate the urgent demands of real babies. While the program makes intuitive sense, the new data suggest that it might have the opposite of the intended effect. Some version of the program is in use in as many as half the school districts in America!
  • Our friends at the Center for Effective Philanthropy have just released their latest report, Benchmarking Foundation Evaluation Practices, which represents the most comprehensive data-collection effort ever on this topic. The report will help you think through key questions on evaluation such as: How much should we invest in evaluation? What can we do to ensure that the information we receive is actionable? With whom should we share what we’ve learned?
  • Congratulations to Results for America on its effective advocacy for the “Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act,” which recently passed in the House of Representatives by a wide bipartisan margin of 405-5. The bill authorizes new grants to help states, school districts, and their partners put in place evidence-based innovations to improve student outcomes. The Senate is now moving forward with similar legislation.

Events/Webinars for Raising Performance:

  • New Frontiers” conference; November 16-18; Washington, DC; Independent Sector. (Key sessions include: “Quantifying Impact is the Unicorn in Philanthropy,” “Stakeholder Voices Strengthen Organizational Success,” “Building Internal Culture for External Impact,” “Making Room for Top Talent,” and “New Models for Achieving and Assessing Performance.”)

Best wishes,
Mario and Lowell