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A well-being grant? Foundation says resting up fuels the important work of nonprofit leaders and staff

“People are leaving the sector because of the burnout,” said Chanida Phaengdara Potter. The awards are “a call to say, ‘We value collective care. Let’s live into our values by investing in the mental health of our leaders.’”

Signe Harriday
Signe Harriday
Photo by Sarah Whiting

Late this summer, Signe Harriday, co-founder of Fields at Rootsprings, an Annandale-based cooperative retreat center for members of the region’s BIPOC and LGBTQ+ community, got an email from the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota.

A longtime artist, healer and nonprofit worker, Harriday is well aware of the philanthropic history of the Women’s Foundation, so she paused to give the email a read. It was a letter from the foundation’s leaders sent to female executive directors at nonprofits around the state inviting them to apply for one of 40 Rest Up Awards, $10,000 grants designed to support the mental health and well-being of themselves and their staff. The program was created in honor of the foundation’s 40th anniversary.

To say that Harriday was surprised to learn about a grant focused on bolstering the mental health of female nonprofit leaders and employees is putting it lightly.

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“In the capitalist environment we all live in, grants are generally awarded for the product you make,” she said. “That’s the capitalist mindset: ‘What are you producing? I will award you based on that.’” The idea that a large granting organization wanted to prioritize the rest and well-being  of herself and others like her almost came as a shock, Harriday said: “This is a deeply radical way of thinking, of supporting our important work by saying, ‘In order to do this work you need to rest.’ No one is funding the rest.”

For Harriday and other women who work in the nonprofit sector, rest is essential but hard to come by, said Chanida Phaengdara Potter, Women’s Foundation of Minnesota vice president of strategic communications and narrative change. Many of the state’s small nonprofits are led and staffed by women of color, and many of those workers are underpaid and under-supported. Because of this, nonprofits face staffing shortages and hiring struggles.

“People are leaving the sector because of the burnout,” Phaengdara Potter said. The Rest Up awards are, she explained, “a call to say, ‘We value collective care. Let’s live into our values by investing in the mental health of our leaders.’”

When time and money are tight, and the work itself is emotionally draining, many people don’t make time to care for their own well-being, said LaCora Bradford Kesti, Women’s Fund vice president of community impact. These grants were designed to emphasize the importance of mental health by providing funds to make that care possible. This emphasis on the importance of rest is a key message, Bradford Kesti said, something that many women don’t prioritize for themselves.

“We wanted them to invest in rest,” Bradford Kesti said. By launching this program, she said of the Women’s Foundation, “We’re leading the way.”

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Harriday wasn’t the only potential grantee who was surprised to learn about this program, Phaengdara Potter said.  “There is this feeling that rest has to be earned, that you have to reach a certain point to feel you are deserving of rest.” While the grants were initially intended to benefit executive directors, she explained, the definition soon expanded: “We know that many of our grantee partners lead with a collective. We wanted to give them the flexibility to say, ‘This can be used for you — or your team.’”

Harriday was one of the nonprofit leaders selected for the grant. She said the award feels like a recognition of the significant emotional impact that running a nonprofit has had on herself and her colleagues.

“Justice work is hard work,” Harriday said. “It takes a toll on your body, mind and spirit. It raises questions like, ‘How do we care for the body, mind and spirit?’ ‘How do we do this work?’ This is not something you usually see in a grant application. “

Healing the healers

The Fields at Rootsprings’ focus is on providing a place where members of marginalized communities can find respite and healing in nature. The retreat center, founded in 1988 by members of the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls, was under the care of Dan and Joan Pauly Schneider when Harriday and a group of other local Black artists and activists came for a visit.

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The experience of spending time together at the center and on the land that surrounded it was transformative, Harriday said. “Land can hold our grief and trauma and pain in ways that people can’t. Holding space for people to come and be with the land I believe is an important step in their healing journeys. After visiting the land, the thing we said we wanted to do was heal the healers. This felt like a place where we could do that.”

In the years following that first visit, members of the group spoke with the Schneiders about eventually purchasing the land. In time, the nonprofit’s leadership transferred to a BIPOC-led cooperative board, and in 2022, after a successful $2 million fund-raising campaign, the group purchased the land outright. It now offers free and reduced-cost stays to BIPOC community members in need of respite.

While the work of purchasing and running a retreat center has been rewarding for Harriday, her fellow board members and the center’s three employees, it has also been exhausting. Because the organization runs on a collective vision, with each member’s efforts carrying equal weight like the spokes of a wheel, she said it made most sense to say in her application that grant funds would go to support the well-being of all employees.

“My well-being as a leader is interconnected with the well-being of the people I am working in relationship with,” she said. “We are using this award to cultivate care and healing for our team members.”

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Employees are free to choose how they spend their portion of the grant money. “What we knew was important was we didn’t want to be prescriptive of what that healing was going to mean for our team members,” Harriday said. “Not everyone needs the same things.”

This nonrestrictive approach felt right, she said. Too often well-meaning people try to direct mental health care. Harriday wanted to give her staff the power to make the decision for themselves without guidance or judgment.

“We wanted to provide compensation that allows our employees the opportunity to say, ‘For my well-being I need these resources for a health-care premium, for a massage or body work,’” she said. “They can use it to get their hair or nails done.” All rest and rejuvenation choices will be considered equally beneficial, and will hopefully have a positive trickle-down impact on employees’ friends and family members.

“You can’t pour from an empty cup,” Harriday said. Rest helps fill the cup so that there is more to go around for everyone: “That is what this award is trying to do.”

‘It still seems a little fantastical to me’

As the first female executive director of Men as Peacemakers, a Duluth-based nonprofit promoting equity, repairing harm and preventing violence against women and children, Sarah Curtiss works long hours.

Sarah Curtiss
Sarah Curtiss
Her organization, founded in the mid-’90s in response to a series of domestic homicides in the city, has focused on bringing people of all genders into the discussion of ending violence. This work is  emotionally taxing, and Curtiss said that she has tried to make a workplace that provides employees with “spaciousness and openness and flexibility.”

Because of the pressures of her job, Curtiss admitted that approach, “does not always apply for me. A 60-hour work week is not unusual.”

When Curtiss read her invitation to apply for the Rest Up grant, she was taken aback.

“My initial reaction was,” she said, “’Oh, that’s very self-centered.’” But, she explained, her, “amazing community of staff members,” had a different reaction: “I happened to mention it to them and they all went, ‘Sarah, you’re applying for it.’”

She agreed to apply for the award, but with the proviso that the money would go to the staff. Their reaction, Curtiss reported, was strong. “They said, ‘Maybe a tiny bit of the money can be for staff. But you have to use most of that money for you.’  It was a crisis of conscience.”

To Curtiss, the idea of asking for funds to support her own mental health and well-being felt almost antithetical to her leadership role at Men as Peacemakers. But she knew her employees had a point: If you want to continue to do good work, it is important to care for your own well-being.

“Other executive directors that I know want to create liberation for the people they work with and their organizations,” Curtiss said. “It is really hard when you are the director to move into that liberation mindset for yourself.” As woman of Anishinaabe/Scandinavian descent, she said she’s seen too many of her female mentors in the Indigenous movement get, “very sick at the end of their careers — physically, emotionally, spiritually.”  This wasn’t the legacy she wanted to leave.

Curtiss eventually drafted an application, but then her great aunt died. “Her funeral was on the due date of the grant,” Curtiss explained. “I said, ‘I can’t do this.’” But her staff wouldn’t let her give up: “They said, ‘Send us the draft. We’ll submit it.’”

When she learned that she was selected to receive a Rest Up grant, Curtiss said she felt excited, but also a little overwhelmed by the idea of spending that much money on her own well-being.

“It does feel a little strange to dream of what $10,000 of rest in a year could look like for me,” she said. As a single mother of a 13-year-old boy, she explained, “It still seems a little fantastical. I can’t even imagine a world in which $10,000 is just simply at my disposal.”

One way Curtiss knows she will spend the award is on focused time with her son Al. Too often her work has taken her away from him, and she wants to use some of the money to be with him in a new and expansive way.

“My son is the best part of my life,” Curtiss said. “But a lot of times, I’ve had to say, ‘I’m sorry. People need your mom right now. I have to go.’ I missed his first steps, his first birthday, his first solid food. I would love to have a very memorable vacation with my son where I could focus on him-and-me time.”

While her colleagues support this plan, Curtiss said that they’re also suggesting that she use some of the money for something that’s focused simply on her own needs. “I am also being gently guided about doing something for me where I don’t have to be a mom,” she said with a laugh. “I guess I’ve got to start thinking about that.”

No matter how the money ends up being spent, Curtiss said she got the message that rest is an important part of fueling the good work that she does for her community. 

“At the end of the day I don’t want people to remember what an awesome grant I wrote,” she said. “I want them to remember the things I value about myself: That I love community, that I love my family, that I’m funny, that I’m joyful. Those things don’t always show up if I don’t get to rest.”