Saving the World, and Nonprofit Staff, Too

What causes burnout at nonprofits, and what to do about it.

by John Brauer and Jed Emerson

While we often focus on fundraising and annual drives and the size of our organization's budget, the fact is that human capital in many ways is more important than financial capital. It isn't the annual budget that gets things done. It's the people within our organizations who clean up neighborhoods, help "the unemployable" get jobs and change lives.

They're the ones you meet at an event or party, the ones whose commitment and passion you are instantly intrigued by. They inspire us to get fired up about issues many of us otherwise would just read about in the press: homelessness, teen pregnancy, poverty, the disabled, the depletion of the rainforest and countless other issues.

Why are so many of our professionals in the nonprofit world reaching their limits? Reckless living aside, the causes of burnout are as different as the people who experience it. But there are many common characteristics, including pressure to perform at a high level, never-ending deadlines, office and community politics, generic job stress, and bottom-line concerns.

Then there are some burnout factors that pertain only to nonprofits. Among them:

  • Denial. To some people, the very idea of burnout is incomprehensible. Plenty of people come to the "do-good" professions with the belief that they, along with others, should do no less than change the world. They can't seem to do enough to help their agencies pursue their missions. But this beautiful passion can lead straight to burnout when the issues of poverty don’t end, the environment continues its decline, and a realization dawns that no one person or agency can solve such complicated and overwhelming issues.
  • Guilt. These thoughts run through the minds of many nonprofit leaders: Am I selfish for taking a salary commensurate with my experience? Can I justify taking time off when the agency needs me? Who will deal with funding, board and community issues if I'm out?
  • "Oneness" with the cause. Many nonprofit executives report that they work so much and so intensively that they become inseparable from their causes. This "oneness" often leads them to lose sight of their own needs.
  • Exasperation with fundraising. Single-year funding cycles take a huge toll on nonprofit leaders and divert attention from doing the "real" job.
  • Chronic underfunding. When this becomes the norm, it leaves every person on a small staff with too much to do.
  • Documentation demands. There's a trend toward more data gathering for accountability. Often the information is required by funding partners who don't cover costs of additional staff time or the outcomes measurement process.
  • An inability to quantify achievements. One expects to see tangible results from private for-profit companies' profits, number of goods produced and measurable changes in market share. Without similar "proof" of a job well done, how do nonprofit leaders see what they've accomplished?

Planning for Burnout
Is burnout inevitable, or can we take steps to prevent it? Planning ahead for burnout, though it sounds paradoxical, is a key factor in terms of financial and workload coverage. Toward that end, nonprofit leaders can do these things:

  • Get real. It's imperative our leaders acknowledge that they probably won't change the world as we know it. They must make peace with what can be realistically accomplished and when.
  • Network. Friendly colleagues cannot only help with mission-related topics, but they can offer perspective and strategies for letting go of agency work to allow for a personal life.
  • Take a break. As executives become long-time leaders in their fields, sabbatical leaves might be just the ticket to revive passion for organizational missions and provide time to grow personally and professionally. Of course, the problem is that many organizations simply can't afford to pay the executive director's salary and hire a temporary replacement.
  • Rewrite the job description. Every employee who has worked in the nonprofit field two years or longer should look at his or her job description and ask: What can be added to keep my learning curve current? How can I keep the things that attracted me to the job in the first place?
  • Write goals. This way everyone can recognize, concretely, accomplishments made during the year.

What Can Funders Do?
Foundations can play a huge role in helping nurture talented and dedicated leadership among their grantees. This is what funders can do:

  • Provide resources beyond the initial grant. This might include investing in outcomes measures (computers, software, staff time, etc.), paying for outside consultants and having an honest relationship where information can be shared without fear of losing funding.
  • Use multiyear funding strategies. This allows nonprofit leaders to concentrate on core mission-driven issues rather than becoming mired in the continual "keeping the lights on" funding syndrome.
  • Underwrite sabbaticals. A few foundations have been known to fund leaves of absence for nonprofits. This is a great solution, because it allows for the agency to hire temporary people to assist the agency while the leader is gone. Even if the leader ultimately decides not to return, the agency wins: Either there's a reinvigorated leader, or there's the chance to hire a new person who brings the enthusiasm and passion for the job that the agency deserves.

John Brauer is executive director of Northwestern Workshop in Winchester, Virginia.
Jed Emerson is senior fellow at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in Menlo Park, California.

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