Staying Sane While Saving the World

Updated: Nov 10, 2020

Alex Counts, founder of Grameen Foundation and author of the book Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind, shares his insights on how to avoid burnout while trying to save the world.  Counts has spent his entire career in the nonprofit space. During his days as a Fulbright scholar at Cornell, he traveled to Bangladesh to work with microfinance pioneer and Nobel peace prize winner Muhammad Yunus. From there, Counts went on to build the Grameen Foundation, helping tens of thousands globally by microfinancing their otherwise unattainable capital needs.

The Nonprofit Lifestyle

For many, working for a nonprofit is as rewarding as it gets. Leading a life of service and getting paid for it (albeit, often modestly) is reason enough for most people to stay in this field. Nonprofit entrepreneurship is growing at an unprecedented rate, about 20% over the last ten years. The nonprofit industry is a relatively easy field to break into because there are thousands of ways people want to give back to the community, innovation and disruption are prized, and funding can often be easy to secure.

However, nonprofit work does not come without a personal cost.  Because those in the nonprofit sector are often self-motivated and take great pride in their work, they often make incredible personal sacrifices to help others. This can be an incredibly harmful mindset for people and organizations. Counts says, “I wanted to change the world, I wanted to have my life be meaningful… but it couldn’t come at the expense of my physical, mental, or spiritual health.” He knew that in order to be effective at helping others, he had to be taking care of himself as well.

The Mindfulness Mindset

“It is unacceptable that work done for the public good should come at a private cost.” Those who participate in the nonprofit world, whether they be leaders or interns, need to break from the old-fashioned notion of great personal sacrifice. Individual growth is important in helping the world. This fundamental mindset shift helped Counts develop the mindfulness that he now practices.

Counts supports exercise, sleep, relaxation, and healthy hobbies all as useful mindfulness techniques.

But, he also suggests seeking to make the abstract tangible through what he calls service meditation. Saving the world is a very abstract goal. Consciously picking up litter and throwing it away on the way to work every morning is a very tangible way to accomplish that goal. Saying something kind to the grocery store clerk is a tangible way of making the world a better place. “Make someone else’s day. You can have an impact on the world by having an impact on one person.” as Counts says. Consciously doing these types of activities helps foster positivity and makes people feel like they are making a difference. Making abstract goals tangible is just as important for our mental health as exercise is to our physical health.

International Careers

Nonprofits may be the easiest way to attain international experience. Hundreds of global organizations offer internships in every field imaginable. Often, these internships are unpaid, but provide a great way to work up the ladder in the nonprofit world and send a strong signal when put on a resume. Experiences like these show potential employers an interest in foreign operations and can often be leveraged later when applying to or volunteering for an international position. Young professionals can highlight these experiences and tip the balance in their favor when they are being considered for international positions.


“[There are] injustices in the world. You can do something about them, something creative, something that might really work.” Everyone wants to save the world. Many young professionals do internships with nonprofits hoping to do some good in the world but end up going down a traditional business route when bills come due and they are offered greater financial stability. Established professionals with families often yearn to do something more meaningful with their careers but see transitioning into nonprofit work as an impossible task. These concerns are fair but, like Alex Counts, anyone can have a rewarding career in the nonprofit industry while also providing a healthy and sustainable living for their family. To learn more about working with international nonprofit organizations, listen to the iHub podcast here.

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