Putting People at the Center: Mental Health and Wellness Grants for Nonprofit Staff

Friday, May 19, 2023

In the spring of 2022 ACT for Alexandria, Alexandria’s community foundation, was concerned about nonprofit partners’ challenges with staff burnout and we wanted to do something about it. Thus, we launched a grant program focused on the mental health and wellness of nonprofit staff.  

Alexandria’s nonprofits are composed of passionate and dedicated individuals who hail from and serve our community.  Some have had long careers in the sector, while others are recent arrivals who participated in the very programs they are now delivering.  All share a commitment to the task at hand: helping neighbors in need. 

The work is not easy. Serving vulnerable populations by its very nature exposes staff to secondary or vicarious trauma.  “We don’t solve all of the problems in our clients’ lives, but we hear all the issues.  Emotionally and physically, the job can be draining,” shares Donna Walker James, Executive Director of Computer CORE.  Even at Donna’s non-profit, which is driven by and for technology, the heart of the work is the staff. “We are the program,” she says.  

The effort nonprofit staff expended to meet the COVID moment was nothing short of herculean.  They faced unprecedented demand for services, shortages of supplies, reductions in revenues, hurdles to delivering services, and a complete remake of their operations. “It has been a few very long and grueling years for our team,” according to Julie Feldman of Capital Caring Health.  As a result, many organizations are experiencing increased turnover, resignations, and burnout.   

Our nonprofit colleagues are essential to the wellbeing of our community.  Support for our community means supporting the people who care for our community.  Through the Alexandria Resilience Fund, ACT provided wellness and mental health grants for nonprofit staff.  

We received about 40 applications and awarded $158,724 to 35 organizations.  The impact of the grants, which were capped at a modest $5,000 per organization, is incredible.  Speaking of her team’s transformation achieved by embracing wellness and mental health – a journey which was boosted by ACT’s support – Elizabeth Jones Valderrama of OAR shares, “Before, we came to our work with shame and sadness, and now we come from love and joy.” 

We took an open-ended approach.  Grant applicants were free to experiment.  “[This grant] allowed me to think outside the box,” shares Yvonne Williams of K.I. Services, an organization that provides culturally competent education, mental health, substance abuse counseling, and HIV testing and counseling with a focus on African American, African, Caribbean, Hispanic and other diverse cultural and ethnical groups. 

The sense of agency flowed to employees, whose directors invited them to voice their needs and design creative, personalized wellness and mental health supports.   

The list of activities funded by the grant is long and varied.  In addition to therapy sessions, grantees organized seminars, speakers, books and retreats teaching mindfulness, storytelling, art therapy and musical therapy.  Physical therapy and fitness were other themes, including gym memberships and passes, yoga classes, Fitbits and sessions with personal trainers.  Grants also covered personal care like massages and chiropractic visits.  Grantees used funds to provide one-time offsets to stressful personal expenses such as unplanned out-of-pocket medical costs.   

Celebrations, meals, retreats and thank you events were also popular, whether on site or leveraging offerings in the surrounding region like sports events.  Some outings allowed employees in an active and visual way to vent stress, such as a “rage room” outing for one group.  Overall, in-person events built interpersonal ties between employees – especially those who do not typically cross paths on a day-to-day basis due to their schedules or hybrid work arrangements.  The events also created spaces that welcomed the “whole person;” for example, in cases when family members of employees were invited.   

With the grant funds, some organizations offered employees job-related supports like coaching and reflection.  And other organizations gave allowances to each job site location or each individual to select improvements to their personal workspace like a standing desk or, for the office broadly, an expresso machine or juicer. 

The grants fostered the rejuvenation of individuals within grantee organizations and started or restarted traditions of care and connection.  The grantees tell of improved morale, organizational cohesiveness, employee engagement, gratitude, peace of mind and more. 

ACT has been committed to funding capacity building for nonprofits since our inception.  The mental health and wellness grants funded by the Alexandria Resilience Fund offered healing, connection and renewal, and helped our community build the capacity to care for one another.   

Heather Peeler
ACT for Alexandria
President & CEO



Willow Darsie
ACT for Alexandria