Updated: Aug 30, 2022
Limited funding combined with seemingly unlimited needs from the populations we serve, create an environment where the risk of burnout in nonprofits is disproportionally high. This is often prevalent among senior leaders, who carry the burden of responsibility for the overall care of program participants, the wellbeing of the entire staff team, and the on-going viability and sustainability of the organization itself.
Burn-out was recognized in the 10th edition of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10) well over twenty years ago, not as a medical condition, but as a significant factor negatively influencing one’s health. The ICD-11 includes a more detailed description, listing three primary characteristics of burn-out:
physical, mental, and/or emotional exhaustion
disengagement from, or negativity towards the work;
Experiencing any or all of these symptoms can quickly lead to some serious consequences. The costs for your nonprofit can be immense, overall performance may suffer, impacts can ripple throughout the organization, and turnover in the executive director role can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Burnout can translate to physical and/or mental health issues–and you might not even be aware. The passion for the cause can dissipate and your professional and personal relationships may suffer. But dedicating yourself to the service of others does not and should not have to be miserable.
We can generalize the various sources of burnout (and there are likely to be many for most nonprofit leaders) to a single term: stress. Research has demonstrated without question that experiencing chronic stress leads to serious negative consequences. There certainly have been times when I've felt like I'd been dealt a losing hand and it didn't matter what I did–burning out was going to be an inevitable end. The truth is, while some stress is inevitable, some sources of stress can be mitigated.
If you feel like you’re burning out, set aside some time to reflect on what’s happening. Consider this as an investment in time, with huge opportunity costs if neglected, and with big payoff potential. Right the ship, increase your capacity, and set a positive example for your teams.
The common sources I often hear about are: budget-related; staff turnover, staff performance, unrealistic expectations from any number of stakeholders; time-management (not having enough time to spend on big picture activities); and/or maintaining good work-life balance. Which of these are issues for you? What else is having a negative impact?
It might be helpful to try a few different approaches to assess your sources of stress. If you feel like you don’t have enough time to get to certain tasks because you’re always putting out fires, or constantly reacting to situations or people, try documenting exactly how you’re spending your time at work. (The Pomodoro Technique is a time management strategy which includes a practical way to assess how well you’re using your time). This can help identify where and what you have control over and your plan can include increasing delegation, or re-prioritizing. If HR issues seem to consistently surface as a source of both time consumption and anxiety, you might plan to engage in some strategic thinking and adjust some organizational systems to shift how things are done at an organizational level. In a previous role, I spent hours listening to a manager struggle to manage individual performance issues with her staff. This seemed to happen during 3 out of every 4 check-ins we had. The specific concerns that were raised involved different workers, and different performance issues each time, and we often ran out of time in our meetings to address bigger picture agenda items like program evaluation. We decided to assess how the programming was structured, how expectations were communicated, assessed and enforced. We made some tweaks in each of those areas, and this led to significant improvements, ultimately saving time and reducing stress.
External vs Internal Sources of Stress
In assessing your stress, it’s helpful to also check in about what beliefs are impacting your experience of stress. What assumptions are at play, and have they been tested? Have you drawn conclusions about what’s driving staff engagement (or lack thereof) without asking? Are you sure your funders have no flexibility in terms of their expectations re: outputs or deadlines? Are other members of your team really incapable or unwilling to cover certain tasks that you’re clinging to because you think so without evidence? What beliefs are exacerbating your most challenging experiences? Consider different ways to test your assumptions.
Once you’ve assessed the sources of your stress, strategize how you may reduce them. There are formal strategies and tools that focus on time management. Priority setting may be aided through re-establishing expectations with your funders, or boards, or any number of other stakeholders. Deciding to upgrade technological infrastructure or soliciting support to address on-going HR issues might make the most sense to reduce overall stress for you and your teams.
Increasing your capacity to manage stress through self-care can dramatically decrease the intensity of the pressures you face. I confess to feeling like the term “self-care” has gotten to a point where it almost feels overused, but its significance simply can’t be ignored. Among my peers, the most effective nonprofit leaders invariably engage in some routine of self-care.
Yoga, meditation, getting outdoors, spending time with friends, and movement get mentioned a lot, likely due to significant empirical research that has proven these activities contribute to stress reduction. If you’ve dismissed these options as “not for you”, I'd encourage you to try something from the list above before tossing them all aside. Still, self care is extremely individualistic, so personal reflection and trial and error are often necessary to figure out what works best for you. And just like everything else- evaluating something’s effectiveness is important and deciding whether to keep something up or not- just make sure you’ve given an activity enough runway to fairly assess if something is working or not.
Two other strategies I highly recommend are: commitment to on-going professional development; and mentorship. Feeling a sense of growth can fuel your engagement with your work while also increasing your capacity to be effective. We live in an era where you no longer have to visit a physical library or attend an in person conference to read or get training. You can access virtual libraries, have books delivered to you, listen to podcasts and access training online.
The impacts of mentorship for both the mentee and mentor have also been well documented. Peer support has received significant attention in recent years for good reason. Building in regular opportunities to connect with a mentor or a mentee is an act of self care! Opportunities to have open and honest conversations with other nonprofit leaders allows you to put your own experiences into a context that is difficult to achieve in other ways. Peers are an excellent source of support and learning that often don’t exist in your own organization. Connecting with former supervisors and former members of my past teams is one of my favourite things to do. I find the richness in those conversations invariably inspiring and energizing.
The implementation of whatever plan you devise will often require a concerted effort. Humans are programmed to resist change. It might be helpful to enlist the support of others around you, and invite them to hold you accountable. For executive directors of charities, your board chair might be best situated to fulfil this role. If you are experiencing burn out, a board chair who truly partners with the ED is likely to have noticed, and might be helpful in all steps of problem solving. Burnout can also be an indicator that it’s time to move on from your current role. Engaging in the reflection process may lead you to this conclusion, and that’s okay too. Your nonprofit may indeed thrive with a new leader, and you may find a role with a better fit at another organization. Regardless, acting on your plans is essential to this entire process, so that you may stay well, and guide your nonprofit to realize its potential to support your communities in the best way possible.
This blog post was written by John Choi, Executive Director at Sheena's Place and facilitator/coach for EPIC xChange Cohort #5