I have worked in nonprofits for 15 years—longer if you count volunteering throughout high school and college. I’ve been powering through “burnout” with full awareness for my entire career. But this year, at the age of 35, something snapped. I literally found I couldn’t work anymore—physical symptoms compounded by stress forced me to take medical leave.
Reading Beth Kanter’s and Aliza Sherman’s recent piece made me think more deeply about how we as nonprofit leaders can proactively face the reality of chronic nonprofit employee burnout. Nonprofit publications, HR departments, and conference speakers are brimming with tips on avoiding burnout: Take your vacation time. Set boundaries. Let go of the need to do it all. But one piece of advice, from a recent article by Yvonne Hudson, seemed more likely to enable the problem than to fix it: “Know when to leave. Recognize burnout creep.” She writes:
Burnout can easily creep up on us, says a long-time nonprofit administrator and volunteer. “One day you realize you’re standing in the middle of the room screaming about something minor. ... I strongly believe nonprofit volunteers and board members should set a firm end date for their work with any one organization, and stick to it.” This avoids burnout, brings in new ideas, and fuels the organization with new energy, says this volunteer. “This gives volunteers and board members the option of returning to the organization after a break refreshed, rested, and with [their] own new ideas, without burning any bridges during the separation.”
While knowing when to leave and starting again may sound good, I have careened through this process—what I call the “burnout/re-ignition cycle”—all my working life. It goes like this: You find an organization with which you deeply connect. The mission is amazing and so in line with your values! The staff seems engaged and committed to the work! They’re totally changing the world! Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, you jump on board, heart open, mind and body ready to work tirelessly to “fulfill the mission.”
Then, the creep happens: The hours are long; the pay is mediocre; the leadership is not as tuned-in as you’d hoped; the career ladder seems non-existent. In fact, you feel like the organization expects you won’t last.
So, you search for the fulfillment that once lit a fire under you. You find another organization with which you deeply connect. The mission is amazing and so in line with your values! The staff seems engaged and committed to the work! They’re totally changing the world!
You exit one nonprofit, disenchanted and exhausted, and enter another, full of hope for the mission and the promise of social change. Thus continues the cycle, again and again.
This cycle doesn’t affect only early-career employees; I’ve seen it happen at every age and at every career stage. Nonprofits themselves embrace the pattern as inevitable. Countless are the meetings where I’ve heard people reference, with a collective sigh, the “2.5 year lifespan” of the nonprofit employee.
Nonprofit leaders, when faced with the challenge of employee retention, tend to throw up their hands: “We can’t keep staff. Disillusionment is bound to happen. All we can do is get the best out of them while they’re here—and they’ll get great experience for their next job.” I say this as a nonprofit leader guilty of it myself, who threw up my own hands when a beloved staff member left the team for a higher-paying, boring-but-cushy job.
I experienced this on the receiving end as an employee early in my career. Now on the flipside, I’m surprised to find myself resistant to challenging the status quo. So, I’m starting with a “myth list”—a list of beliefs that perpetuate the burnout/re-ignition cycle across nonprofits.
Myth #1: Paying people more won’t make a big difference.
Heads up, it will. Yes, nonprofit employees are in it for the mission, first and foremost. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be putting in the hours to meet with clients, plan fundraising galas, and design yet another marketing eblast. But when it comes down to it, they are doing a job, not volunteering.
We hire staff for their talent, skills, and experience. They have rent, student debt, and bills to pay—and those yoga classes we keep saying will help with self-care aren’t free. Let’s pay our staff what they are worth, and pay them well.
While organizations are often at the bidding of government and private funders that don’t prize overhead costs, there are bold efforts underway, such as CalNonrofits’ OverheadProject, to change the mentality around salaries. We can participate in this space to advocate and prioritize the people who make up our organizations—and who ultimately make our missions successful.
Myth #2: Health and wellness means more yoga classes.
When we think self-care, we think of add-ons—meditation, yoga, and other “wellbeing” activities. These are important, but beyond the obvious, how can organizations contribute to employee wellness?
In his book Work Rules, Laszlo Block offers insightful reflections on the philosophy behind Google’s unique workplace, including how it values employees’ personal needs. One of his rules is simple: “Make life easier for employees.”
It doesn’t have to cost a great deal or anything at all. Find a local dry cleaner that picks up and drops off employees’ clothing, or a bakery willing to donate breakfast once a week or once a month. Nonprofits are so creative when it comes to finding resources for programs; let’s extend that innovation to resources for our staff.
Myth #3: External communications are more important than internal ones.
As a communications professional, I spend hours strategizing how to connect with audiences and communicate with them about our work. Whether an eblast, donor letter, or social media post, every interaction is an opportunity to engage with an individual about the mission. Each communication is carefully planned, executed, and analyzed.
How often do we extend that same time and attention to engaging with employees? Could we approach a company-wide email as we would a communication to donors? We don’t, but we should.
Our employees carry our brand, our message, and our mission. They are our greatest advocates and potentially our greatest detractors. I envision an organization that provides the same resources to its HR team as its development team, and cultivates its staff as much as its donors. Good internal communications aren’t an after-thought; they require the same strategy, planning, and execution that go into external communications.
Myth #4: Colleagues are like family.
This might be one of the most harmful myths in the nonprofit world—the philosophy at many organizations that everyone is part of a “family.”
Nonprofit employees are professionals (see #1). Complex and highly demanding work gets done because of their experience and talent. It’s fine to feel like a “family” when everyone is happily bouncing along toward reaching annual goals, but when difficulties arise—say, when the organization needs to let someone go—that mindset is neither comfortable nor comforting.
The clear distinction between professional and personal life is paramount to a nonprofit’s health and the health of its employees. That means understanding that commitment to a mission—no matter the emotional investment—is, at the end of the day, still work.
Myth #5: Nonprofit leaders have limited power.
In an effort to remain non-corporate (see #4), nonprofit leaders can underestimate and underplay the influence they have on junior staff. Whether it’s never taking a sick day or dashing off emails at 10pm, many believe that overwork is simply how the work gets done. But other employees are watching and absorbing; they’re left thinking that the work ethic of overwork is the only way to “fulfill the mission.”
The most effective leaders in the nonprofit space are deeply mindful of how they move through the workplace and among their colleagues. They recognize the power they hold, and embrace their role as setting the example and setting the tone.
For all our talk of self-care, we have to walk the walk, even and especially when it feels uncomfortable. While this doesn’t mean suddenly slacking off, it could mean not answering that late-night email, stepping away from the desk, and taking a well-deserved break.
Some nonprofits are chipping away at these myths, but they are few and far between. There is a pervasive fear among the field that focusing inwardly—on our staff, on our leadership, even on our own salaries—will take away from achieving our missions. We must, as leaders, be willing to take risks and challenge these myths. In not doing so, we are risking so much more—a highly talented, passionate, and committed workforce that cycles through rather than rises up.