“I just hit a wall.” I have heard some version of that three times in three weeks from dear friends and former colleagues who are leaving the social sector. Combined, that is 47 years of nonprofit leadership and experience leaving our sector.
These are brilliant, innovative, and committed people, and I wanted to understand how they reached their decision to leave. None of them were excited to leave, they had simply reached a place where they felt they had no choice.
Unfortunately, we are hearing more and more of these stories, and I am worried about the long-term reverberations for these leaders, their organizations, and the sector at large. A 2020 Nonprofit HR study found that 45% of nonprofit employees plan to leave their job in the next five years. Of that group, 23% said they would leave the sector altogether.
This is staggering.
What did my three former colleagues have to say about what drove them to their decisions? Although they all feel they bear some responsibility for ignoring or dismissing the signs of burnout, there is more to it than that. As I chatted with each of them, I noticed three common themes, along with what might have helped them along the way.
The buck stopped with them.
In each case, the leader carried most of the weight of revenue generation for their organizations. Here’s what I heard:
- “The psychological burden of knowing the families of my employees and the people we serve are depending on me raising more and more money just became too much.”
- “We only talk about revenue when we need more of it. No one else thinks with me about the strategy behind it.”
- “I didn’t do a good job sharing the fundraising load with my team, and it all just lands on me.”
What could have helped?
A leader needs an entire leadership team that really understands both the inflow and outflow of dollars and is aligned around their revenue strategy. Building a revenue culture that embraces revenue as a driver of impact, and not just a necessary evil, shares the load and helps the team make better decisions.
They didn’t recognize the signs of burnout before it consumed them.
As they reflected, all of them could see they had been on the path to burnout for a long time, but overlooked or dismissed the signs.
- “I walked into my board meeting last month, screaming on the inside, willing someone to notice I was not ok. But it just isn’t safe to say it.”
- “I was reading an article on employee burnout because I was worried about my team and every single sign of burnout described me.”
- “People would ask me how I was, and I always gave a canned answer. It never felt safe to tell a board member or someone on my team that my passion for the work had taken a hit.”
What could have helped?
A leader needs peers with whom they can be vulnerable and who won’t accept the canned answer. And, a leader needs a board who is willing to proactively encourage and invest in tools to sustain them (peer groups, professional development),rather than reacting when it is too late.
They never hit “pause”
Not a single one of them had taken a sabbatical, or even a vacation of more than five days, in many years.
- “I kept thinking, if I could just walk away for two months, I think I would come back re-energized.”
- “I think a genuine break might have helped me reimagine what it means to lead the organization now. It is a much different place than when I started it.”
- “I was so tuned into that with my staff, ensuring they got the rest they needed, but I just kept going.”
What could have helped?
It is easy to encourage rest, but many leaders don’t see that as a legitimate option. Too often, the lack of succession planning combined with chronic understaffing mean there is no one to keep things running when a leader is away. Boards need to take seriously the need for leaders to have genuine rest by pushing for sabbaticals, tackling succession planning, and investing in professional development for key leaders in their organizations. And, leaders need to take seriously their own need for rest and set a healthy example for their teams by taking actual time away from the organization.
It doesn’t have to be like this.
As I reflect on our sector’s loss of these three leaders, and the thousands of others who have left or will leave the sector, I keep thinking “it doesn’t have to be like this.” There are things funders, boards, and nonprofit leaders can do to lessen the burden of revenue generation, recognize burnout before it becomes a crisis, and make space for genuine rest for leaders.
Helping nonprofit leaders not just sustain, but thrive, is the core of our mission at RevJen – from our Fuel Series that helps leaders share the burden of revenue generation with their full leadership team, to our R-Squared Peer Groups where leaders can tackle their biggest issues or opportunities with a group of their peers.
Luckily, funders are recognizing this need and partnering with RevJen to make it possible for leaders to access this training and support through full scholarships in our programs. Reach out today to find out more.