Combatting Burnout in Nonprofit Leaders

Supporting the personal well-being of nonprofit leaders is critical to the success of effective organizations, and grantmakers can help.

Talent Matters Talent Matters Talent Matters is a blog series exploring how nonprofit leaders have achieved real-world results through an emphasis on talent.

An unexpected thing happened during Julie Rogers’ tenure as president of the Meyer Foundation in Washington, D.C. “As I got to know the nonprofit leaders in my community, I fell in love with them,” said Rogers, who has led the foundation since 1986 and is stepping down in June. “The more you listen to what they do and the struggles they go through, the more you want to pull out stops to do everything you can for them.”

In 2013, the Meyer Foundation surveyed nearly 100 executive directors of nonprofit organizations to learn how it could best support them. Executive directors reported a range of challenges affecting their effectiveness; some of the most commonly cited were fundraising, personnel management, and working with boards of directors. The survey also showed that most executive directors saw strong links between leadership development opportunities, organizational effectiveness (discussed earlier in this series), and personal well-being (physical and mental health, and work-life balance).

“These people are sacrificing so much to take on the executive roles of these groups,” Rogers said. “We are watching people not just burn out but make themselves sick in service of their communities. It’s our job to take care of them.”

Leadership development grants

Often the best thing grantmakers can do for nonprofit leaders is to support renewal and reflection, and to help create the “white space” leaders need to explore new ideas. From 2006 to 2011, the Meyer Foundation’s Exponent Award recognized strong nonprofit leaders and provided two-year, $100,000 leadership development grants. Exponent Award funds allowed leaders to invest in their teams and restore themselves professionally and physically. One award winner, who works for an organization serving a growing number of immigrants, used the funds to support a week-long, Spanish-immersion program, which increased her ability to connect with clients. Another created space in the organization’s office that staff could use for yoga, meditation, or quiet reflection, which led to greater staff morale.

Similarly, the Gifford and Allyn Foundations in Central New York co-sponsored the Kathy Goldfarb Findling Leadership Award in memory of the Gifford Foundation’s late executive director. The award honors nonprofit leaders who best embody Ms. Goldfarb-Findling’s approach to leadership: nimbleness, creativity, collaboration, and embracing risk and lifelong learning. Recipients of the award receive $3,000 for personal use; the award stipulates that recipients may not give the money to their organizations. Recipients have used the award for family vacations and professional development that the organization would not have been able to pay for otherwise.

“Kathy was a strong proponent of the idea that you cannot be a good leader if you don’t take care of yourself,” said Heidi Holtz, director of research and projects at the Gifford Foundation. “The things so many leaders lose are quality time with their families, downtime for themselves, and professional development. When a leader spends time with family or pursuing personal goals, and comes back refreshed, that has a benefit for the organization.”

Sabbatical programs

Other grantmakers have created sabbatical programs to support nonprofit leaders. A study written by Third Sector New England found that sending nonprofit leaders on sabbaticals can help them return to their jobs refreshed while at the same time help organizations develop leadership skills among other staff in the executive director’s absence.

For more than 10 years, the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust in Phoenix, Arizona, has sponsored the Piper Fellows sabbatical program. Fellows spend one or two months away from their organizations, dedicating time to professional learning and personal renewal. Piper Trust awards fellows up to $30,000 for study and travel expenses associated with the sabbatical and $10,000 to the organization for board and staff development. Fellows’ organizations are also eligible for additional funding up to $50,000.

Similarly, earlier this month, the board of the Meyer Foundation announced the Julie L. Rogers Sabbatical Program to honor Rogers’ leadership of the foundation.

These grantmakers understand the business case for investing in leadership, and through awards and sabbatical programs, they are helping ensure that leaders stay in their jobs longer, and with renewed energy. As AchieveMission’s James Shepard mentioned in a recent post, investments in human capital reap benefits that far exceed the costs.

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  • BY Joseph Bute

    ON May 23, 2014 05:41 AM

    I spent about twenty some years in non-profit management and program work.  I felt I was undercompensated and over-worked most of the time.  Foundations were then - and still are - a big source of the problem.  Because they generally think what we do is not central but rather additive to our communities.  The idea that someone would “fall in love” with NPO managers strikes me as pretty paternalistic - certainly the expression itself is.  Today I am an investor in lower middle market companies.  We place large, multi-million dollar bets on businesses and their management teams.  But no one in our business would regard it as prudent or sane to “fall in love” with our CEOs.  That’s not respectful nor does it measure the importance of their roles in making sure our investment gets the return we expect.  This is more of the same - NPO managers are stuck with begging bowls, inadequate resources and convoluted governance structures.  They can’t be effective in all phases of their organizational mission and the general philanthropic view is that they are “good people” who are making sacrifices.  Why to acknowledge their importance, pay them and give them the capital resources they need to be successful rather than treating them like the faculty English department at a small liberal arts college?

  • Thank you for this article. I have spent the last 25 years working in non profits—the latter 15 as an ED. There is certainly an intangible pressure and responsibility placed on this position that is, I believe, unique. If you haven’t been there, it is difficult to understand. Between the growing complexity of non profit business practices, to developing and, essentially, managing a volunteer board, the reasons why most of us work in non profits can, at times, seem out of reach. The earlier commenter is correct, NPO staff and management is generally overworked and underpaid. This applies to EDs as well. I see a looming crisis in non profit management in the next 15 years. The for profit sector is just too tempting, and the pay gap continues to widen. Competent EDs are increasingly uncommon, and unless programs/grants and support like those mentioned in the article become standard, the non profit sector has set itself up to fail miserably. Effective leadership is essential, and worthy of competitive compensation at least in the same ballpark as corporate leaders. I am thankful I have a board that understands that. NPOs lose too many potentially potent leaders because of a system wide failure of recognition and support. Hats off to those who lead our non profits, and those who meaningfully support those leaders!

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