Last month, I highlighted five false “facts” that are harming the nonprofit sector and undermining impact.  Over the next few weeks, we will take a closer look at each one. First up: the notion that burnout just comes with the territory.

Pre-covid research showed that half of those who work in the sector are not “able to sustain a long-term career without compromising their health, resilience, and security.”  And that was before covid. It is clear that we are burning through our best and brightest. It’s costing sector billions of dollars and undercutting our programmatic impact.

Add to this the uncertainties and pressures of the last 18 months, which have made executive and employee burnout a growing crisis across sectors and industries.  Articles about The Great Resignation pop up almost every day. But this burnout is particularly catastrophic for the nonprofit sector.

Faced with skyrocketing need and disruptions to their service delivery, nonprofit leaders upended their program models and scrambled for new funding – all while their lives outside of work were also in upheaval, and many lost access to their support mechanisms.  So, it’s not surprising that our sector is feeling this burnout most acutely and leaders are leaving the sector in alarming numbers.

But I reject the notion that it has to be this way. 

Research tells us what fuels burnout – and our sector talks about it – but what are we actually doing about it? Here’s what is fueling burnout, and how we can address it.

On-the-Job Pressures

Across all sectors, employee burnout is primarily a function of on-the-job pressures around workload, role clarity, internal communication, time constraints, and unfair treatment. So any discussion of burnout must start there. In the nonprofit sector, there will always be pressures to do more with less, but we still can:

  • Ensure roles and responsibilities are clear. Too many nonprofit leaders are doing multiple jobs packed into a single job description, but the least we can do is be clear about who is doing what, who is responsible, and how it will be measured.
  • Communicate direction and plans clearly and often. Communicate – don’t assume you’re all rowing in the same direction.
  • Protect your team from unreasonable time and workload pressures. Allowing your team to sacrifice themselves over and over ultimately doesn’t serve the cause.
  • Model appropriate boundaries. Your actions set the tone for your organization. If you’re always available, your team thinks they must be too. Normalize boundary-setting for yourself and your team will feel empowered to do the same.

External Pressures

We must also understand that each member of our team experiences varying stressors. The pandemic has affected everyone, but it hasn’t hit everyone the same. That means our approach to employee benefits and “wellness” cannot be one-size-fits-all. I know of one organization that does yoga together on Fridays, and another that trained for and completed a 5k together.  At RevJen, we provide a wellness stipend that employees can use for whatever “wellness” activity meets their needs – from gym memberships to massage.  Internal policy and benefits decisions should be informed by an understanding that employees are individuals – with unique needs and pressures.

Nonprofit Leaders are Invested … Sometimes to a Fault

While burnout is everywhere right now, the nonprofit sector has an additional layer of fuel: passion for the cause. Nonprofit leaders are often driven by passion and acute awareness of the responsibility they carry in having a direct impact on people’s lives and the health of our communities, societies and the world.  That’s awesome – but it’s also exhausting. It leads to people working long hours, for less money, and often refusing to advocate for themselves.  Couple that with the chronic underinvestment in professional development, and perhaps it should be more surprising that anyone is able to sustain a career in the sector.

So the Sector Must Invest … in Leaders

Every day, I am talking with funders about this and advocating for them to invest in professional development, peer networks, and other tools that help nonprofit leaders sustain careers without compromising their health and resilience.  I say the same things to nonprofit leaders. Every day.

The current burnout crisis more acutely affects the nonprofit sector, so we ought to invest more – not less – in addressing the things that are fueling burnout.  And, we’re getting some traction.  Funders are stepping up to invest in leaders by giving them access to our R-Squared Peer Groups.  We’re on track to give that opportunity to hundreds of nonprofit leaders in 2022.

Ultimately, employee burnout is a symptom of the organization.  And when it’s affecting thousands of nonprofit organizations, it’s an indictment of the entire sector. There has never been more research to back our efforts, and it’s never been more critical.  It’s time to act.