Nonprofit Burnout

Nonprofit Burnout

Nonprofit Burnout


Staff and Volunteers – Playing Beat the Clock

More than the for-profit sector, the nonprofit arena can get stress hormones flowing at an amazing rate. This is the match that sets the fire that causes nonprofit burnout.

It is evident that nonprofits tend to attract intelligent, altruistic, creative, highly committed people.  They are change makers who see the glass as half full.  And you can bet some of them are going to fill it up to overflowing even if it kills them.

Whoa, did I say that!?  Yes, I did.  Anybody reading this who recognizes themselves, raise your hand.

Oh my gosh, I just got this vision of a sea of waving digits and I’m not talking about a revival.

If you raised your hand (or wanted to) don’t feel badly. People who dedicate themselves to helping others are the cream of the crop. The best of the best.  They also are too valuable to lose to overload – to nonprofit burnout.

I am embarrassed to say that in the nearly twenty years I spent working in the nonprofit sector I burned my candle at both ends too many times – enough to visit the emergency room twice and be connected to a heart monitor.  It can happen.  Ultimately, I have myself to blame for allowing nonprofit burnout to take control.

I am older and wiser now.  I have learned a few things.

  •   No one is indispensable.
  •   Calendar “Me” time and stick to it
  •   Balance is good for your emotional and physical health
  •   People pleasers need to temper their inner selflessness
  •   Saying “No” can be an enormously freeing experience
  •   Take good care of your “Funny Bone”
  •   Frazzled people do not do their best work
  •   Decisions made under stress can haunt you for years to come
  •   Pick your priorities and don’t waffle (unless a tsunami is coming)
  •   Strategic Planning is critical
  •   Delegation of duties is doable
  •   Know when enough is enough and when to make a graceful exit

No One Is Indispensable

After more than ten years with a nonprofit, I decided to move on.  The day I left someone looked at me and said in a very serious tone, “What are we going to do without you?”  I wrestled my ego to the floor. I told them, “You will do just fine.  Heck, in three months you even may forgot my name.”  I think it took a year – but, point made.

You are not air, chocolate or bacon.  You will find they can live without you. Seriously, isn’t that what you want them to be able to do? A nonprofit needs to be at such a high functioning level that the absence of any one person does not make the organization come apart at the seams.

CARE, the humanitarian aid and development organization, works in 94 countries.  They are committed to promoting and developing programs that create sustainability in the developing nations. Their goal is to do such a good job that the population they serve no longer needs them. They do impressive work.

Most parents will tell you they want to raise their children to be independent and able to stand on their own two feet.  That is an act of love.

If you have done a good job, you have put systems in place to create a smooth transition or a well-functioning workplace in the case of an absence. Whether you leave an organization or go on vacation, your absence should not have a negative effect on your organization.

Calendar “Me” Time and Stick to It

 Speaking of vacations. . . Vacations are good thing. You are a better and more effective employee or volunteer when you take time off to decompress and regroup.  Your “Me” time is valuable. Guard it carefully.  Make it a priority. Prioritize it the same way you do work responsibilities. Put it on your calendar – and put a fence around it.

Remember, without down time, stress can find a foothold. Now, get creative with your “Me” time.

Balance is Good for Your Emotional and Physical Health

Create your own wellness program – yoga, Pilates, walking, running, cycling, swimming, dancing.  Or find a hobby – fishing, cooking, reading, traveling, wood working, learning a new language.  It doesn’t matter what it is (as long as it’s legal).  Anything that you enjoy which gives you a healthy break from responsibilities, contributes to your overall well-being.  Check out your community’s calendar and see what fun stuff is going on around you.

When your physical and emotional health are in balance everything in your life runs better.  The benefits will show in your work performance and in your personal relationships.

People Pleasers Need to Temper Their Inner Selflessness

People pleasers find it hard to create balance in their lives. They are too busy putting other’s needs and projects first.

People pleasers are often found in the nonprofit sector because they are hardwired to be givers.  These givers may convince themselves the organization’s mission is so important, this “one more thing” won’t matter.  That is a slippery slope.  Selflessness taken to an extreme can be destructive. These “Yes” people are prone to nonprofit burnout because they can’t say “No.”  With this behavior left unchecked, these people pleasers can become overextended people.

What happens then? Well, I’ve seen the same story play out from churches and other nonprofits to the corporate world.  Many of the overworked and over-promising people pleasers just cave and leave.  They can’t say no and they don’t want to complain, so they exit.  Everybody loses.

If you want to avoid this cycle, ask yourself some pointed questions.  How many masters are you serving – at work and at home?  What are your specific and reasonable responsibilities? Are you allowing others to use you as a dumping ground for their chores and projects?

Surely, the most important question is, do you value yourself enough to get out of this vicious cycle and draw boundaries?

Saying “No” Can Be an Enormously Freeing Experience


So okay, let’s give that wonderful word “No” the love it deserves.

The best thing one of my friends ever did for me was to hold up a sign which read “NO!” and say repeat after me.  A few days after that epiphany, I received a phone call asking me to do something I neither had the time for nor energy.  I politely stuck to my guns and declined.  I hung up the phone and celebrated my first big “NO.”  Then I danced around the kitchen doing the King Tut dance while repeating for a good 30 seconds, “I said NO.”  It was transcendent.  I’ve been rockin’ that ever since.

One more thing, a big part of learning to say” NO” is to remember you don’t have to give detailed excuses. Tell the truth.  Be polite but firm. If it doesn’t work with your schedule, say so. Also, give yourself permission to simply answer, “Sorry, I cannot do that.”  Lengthy explanations can lead to having your excuses challenged or possibly being caught in a lie.


Take Good Care of Your Funny Bone

If you are chuckling about the fish tragedy, then your funny bone is intact.  That’s a good thing.  Laughter has propped me up through some tough times.  Boy, am I grateful for my sense of humor!

Often, those working in the nonprofit arena deal with daily tragedies and emergency situations.  You must find relief from the darkness. If not, you won’t be healthy enough to help those who need you.

So, laughter can give relief from stress produced by challenges.  Laughter is the drug free way to produce euphoria.  It triggers the body’s natural endorphins and strengthens the immune system.  It lowers blood pressure and is heart healthy.  Laughter also helps us to think more clearly and function at a more productive level.  Comic relief is stress relief.  We all can use a daily dose of it.

Be proactive in finding a place to channel humor into your life.  Mel Brooks once said, “Life literally abounds in comedy if you just look around you.”  So, look around you.

Watch a funny movie. Scroll through You Tube’s funny dog and cat videos. Read a funny book.  Go to a comedy club or Google your favorite comedian and watch their best comedy clips. People watch while shopping at Walmart (just don’t overstay your welcome).

Get on the phone or go to lunch with an old friend and talk about old times.  You are guaranteed to revisit funny times you shared together.  Over and over, my best friend I tell each other the same funny stories we lived together.  We never get tired of telling them and we never stop laughing at them.  Old friends are the best.  In a safe and loving relationship, you can laugh at and with each other.  Hanging out with friends is a great way to let your hair down and exercise your funny bone.

Laughter truly is the best medicine. And it is part of a healthy balanced life.

Frazzled People Do Not Do Their Best Work

For some people stress is subjective.  What stresses one person, doesn’t stress another.  In some cases, it invigorates another.  Athletes can experience adrenaline rushes driven by stress hormones.  So, some might say that “good” stress is possible.

However, at certain levels and under certain conditions, stress takes a different turn.  It can be a hazard to your health, your relationships and to your work performance.  Stress at its worst extreme can emotionally paralyze you.  It can stop you from finishing an assignment.  It can cause you to forget a meeting.  And it can override your ability to focus on the task at hand.

So, it follows that overextended people are not fully competent or focused.  They can make mistakes, cost the organization time and money, and irritate co-workers and cause dissention in the ranks.  They may mean well, but ultimately, they can do more harm than good – to the organization and to themselves.

Decisions Made Under Stress Can Haunt You for Years to Come

Decisions made under stress rarely are made using logic or balancing risk against advantages.  The damage control necessitated by bad decisions can take a long time to run its course.

In addition, stressed people often are impacted by sleep deprivation issues.  Fatigue is not a good proving ground for making important decisions.

Basically, all the markers of stress contribute to an unhealthy environment for assessing choices.  Surely, you don’t want a stressed, over-extended surgeon making critical decisions during your major surgery.  You wouldn’t put a sleep-deprived person distracted by problems in charge of taking care of your children.  There can be long-term negative consequences to putting these people in charge of your welfare or that of your family.

In the same way, stressed employees or volunteers can hurt your organization.  An overloaded plate or personal problems can block the ability to make choices in a logical and clear-headed manner.  This can lead your organization down a rabbit hole of chaos.

Therefore, be proactive in ensuring employee and volunteer wellness. You will avoid being haunted by the ghosts of unhealthy decision-making.  Health and wellness workshops can help identify and combat problems before they gain a foothold and give nonprofit burnout a home.

In November 2017, the San Antonio Area Foundation based in that Texas city offered a one-day “Compassion Fatigue Summit for Nonprofit Professionals.”  Through interactive workshops and presentations by professional speakers including a psychologist and a certified Compassion Fatigue Educator, participants learned how to identify and manage stress, fatigue and burnout symptoms.

Nonprofits should invest in programs like these.  Staff and volunteer wellness helps to ensure the charity’s work honors its mission and its standard of service.

  Pick Your Priorities and Don’t Waffle

Let your mission and your strategic plan clearly define your priorities.  Does the task or program drive your mission? Does the task or program fit with your strategic plan?  If not, regroup and identify the tasks and programs that do drive you mission and support your strategic plan.  Avoid “Shiny Object Syndrome.”  That’s the stuff that distracts from your goals and can stall your growth.  When you revisit your strategic plan on a yearly basis, that is the time to look at satellite issues that might be programs to consider in future growth.

Check out how you manage your time.  You could be surprised to find out your work day has unnecessary detours.  Those are the “shiny objects” discussed above.  Click on the time management assessment tool below and see where you could improve your productivity.

Strategic Planning is Critical

Strategic plans should support and coexist comfortably with your mission.  Faithfulness to your mission and the organization plan will keep the organization from biting off more than it can chew.  This keeps the nonprofit staff and its resources from becoming overextended.  Organizations that overextend themselves and promise more than they can deliver end up diluting their value and the quality of their services.

Also, through high-functioning strategic planning your organization can map contingencies for growth and change.  Planning for the known and unknown is the mark of a mission-driven, strong, proactive organization. Staffing and volunteer needs should be included in strategic planning. Job descriptions are part of this.  They help to ensure no one is overloaded.

Delegation of Duties is Doable

Clear job descriptions make it easy to delegate duties.  They also reduce unnecessary tension and create a more professional, productive and friendly work environment.  An annual or bi-annual visitation of job descriptions is a good idea.

So, delegate duties to those whose job descriptions own those duties. Resist the temptation to unload duties of a non-productive employee or volunteer onto a productive one.  You could end up losing a great volunteer or employee that way.  Put on those big girl panties or big boy britches and deal with the productivity averse person. The pain is worth the gain.

Now we come to the chronic over helpers with rescuer’s syndrome.  They could care less about job descriptions. They have identified and can solve all problems. These are the people who have their fingers in too many pies (especially those of others).

Thankfully, job description parameters help overeager, controlling folks to put that whirlybird down and resist the urge to hover over other people’s kingdoms.  Healthy control can be good and called for in specific situations – such as safe-landing an Airbus A320-214 on the Hudson River. Thankfully, occurrences like this would not be on the horizon of day to day nonprofit life.

Of course, delegation of duties is doable.  So, celebrate the fact the controllers can be corralled with a clearly stated and defined job description. This is one more way to shove nonprofit burnout out the door.

Know When Enough is Enough and When to Make a Graceful Exit

A good employee is able to recognize that they have contributed as much as they can to an organization. A new job may offer better possibilities to share talents and revitalize abilities.  If you feel you have maximized your potential at one organization and are drawn to expand your horizons elsewhere, do so.  You know when it’s time.  Take charge of change before it takes charge of you.








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