Nonprofit work is stressful. So often we go about our work without realizing the effects of that ongoing stress on our brains. But Jessica Sharp does. The founder of Sharp Brain Consulting, Jessica helps leaders and the people they serve. Here she gives insights into what we should know about the brain to help our clients and our staff. And ourselves. On Twitter, you can follow Jessica @sharpjes


What Nonprofit leaders need to know about the brain

by Jessica Sharp, founder Sharp Brain Consulting

As an expert on the brain, poverty, and nonprofits, I think there are several things that those of us in the nonprofit field need to know about the brain. 

How the brain impacts our clients

While all of us have different constituents, clients, and program participants, many of us are working with people who are living in poverty. Living in poverty is more than just the reality of the financial burden of taking care of oneself and/or a family, it is so much more than that. Living in poverty has physical manifestations that start in the brain.

Living in poverty can cause chronic, or toxic stress to emerge. All of us will experience stress – hard things that happen that we can’t control or have emotions about. That is normal and when minimal and controlled, it can be good for our bodies. The problem arises when that stress becomes consistent and chronic. Then, it increases our levels of a hormone called cortisol to a level beyond what our body can maintain. That increased level of cortisol puts people at risk for weight gain, diabetes, trouble sleeping, memory problems, and other health issues. For youth, living in poverty increases the size of the amygdala and decreases the gray matter in the prefrontal cortex. What this means is that youth have increased impulsivity, risk-taking behavior, and increased ability to plan and think into the future.

Poverty has physical manifestations for our clients that we need to be aware of to best serve them. Here is one proven tip that you can give you clients to help them mitigate the impact of poverty:

  • There are substantial benefits to practicing meditation that when done consistently, can have physical changes to the brain. Encouraging clients to practice deep breathing for 5 minutes a day can decrease their impact on chronic stress on their lives.

The impacts of poverty on our clients are summarized in my TEDxGreenville talk which can be viewed here.

How the brain impacts our staff

Like our brains impact our clients, our brains also impact us in a variety of ways. I will focus here on the impact of unconscious bias.

The amygdala, a part of our brain, has many responsibilities within our brain. Among them, it helps us to make quick, often unconscious decisions that help keep us alive. When we meet new people, our amygdala makes quick decisions about them. Sometimes, though, that can have negative effects.

Because of those brain functions, all of us have unconscious bias against certain groups of people. It is important to note that bias doesn’t make us good, or bad, it just makes us human. Unconscious biases are assumptions we make about people before we know them. Those assumptions, sometimes good, but often bad, impact our decision making and how we interact with others.

Here is a real-life example backed by data: a physician has an unknown bias against black women. His patient, we will call her Janet, comes in and complains of pain, he does not prescribe anything to help alleviate the pain. Another patient who is white comes in, Jane, with the same symptoms and issues and that same doctor prescribes pain medication to help her. This experience happens repeatedly throughout the US. The thing is, those physicians believe they are treating all patients the same and that they do not have bias, but the research tells a different story. That is how bias works, we don’t see it, but the impacts are there. It will impact how we view others, interact with them, and in our world, what we do to help them.

Bias can have significant impacts on our work and our clients, and we can’t begin to mitigate those impacts until we understand our own bias. To better identify your own bias, I suggest taking Harvard’s Implicit Association Test.

Once you have taken the assessment and know your biases, here are a few tips to mitigate the effect of your bias on your decision making:

  • Lean into your biases by building relationships. Start to learn more about the people who are different from you. Often are biases come from messages we have internalized about groups. Learning more about these groups can help decrease the potential negative impacts of your decisions.
  • When making large decisions about your organization, have diverse teams work together to make choices.
  • When interacting with and making decisions regarding groups you have a biased against, slow down and do some deep breathing. This will engage your prefrontal cortex to allow you to make decisions that align with your personal and organizational values.

In addition to understanding bias, it is important for those of us in the public sector to know about burnout and compassion fatigue. I have written about both of those things in various places, so feel free to learn more about those subjects there.

Compassion Fatigue: when hurting helps

5 Signs you are experiencing burnout

Having an increased knowledge of how the brain impacts our work can allow us to better serve our clients and increase our impact through our work.


To hear Jessica talk more about this, go to the NPA training "What Nonprofit Leaders Need to Know about the Brain" at https://thenonprofitacademy.com/trainings/know-the-brain. The training is open to all NPA members. Not a member, don't worry. You can be for as little as $19!

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