Coming back from the brink: Beating back #nonprofitlife burnout

A nonprofit executive director’s perspective on the struggle for work life balance.

This article was written by featured writer Amber Smith.

I was at the proverbial cliff-edge, once. About 6 years ago, I was a full time graduate student working on completing my Masters in Public Administration and Nonprofit Management. I was also working two part-time jobs, mired in student loans, and serving as the Executive Director of a beloved nonprofit organization on a volunteer basis. My every moment was filled with some assignment or task demanded by someone else. My time with my friends and boyfriend was rare, and with every passing month I saw those relationships dwindling from the sacrifice, which only amplified a looming sense of isolation and loneliness I was starting to feel.

I did all of this out of love for the organization I was serving. As its founder, I had already led the organization for seven years before that, and we had such big dreams for the future. With every new semester of school, every paycheck from my part-time jobs, I would tell myself, “Just a little while longer, and then I can focus all of my attention on my cause.” But the mountain I was buried under felt increasingly heavy. I started getting sick more often. I started wondering if it was all worth it. I was nearing a breaking point. At 2:00 AM one day, I sat on my living room floor and cried my eyes out. At that late hour, I called a friend who had escaped from a deep grave of nonprofit dedication some years before. She had left her own organization for the sake of her health and sanity. I reflected later on that I’d probably called her in particular because I was looking for permission to quit, too.

She gave me that permission. But I didn’t quit. It turns out that I wasn’t truly ready to give up. But the event was a wake-up call and my first real experience with burnout — that exhausting, dull, paralyzing sensation many in public service or leadership positions feel when everything becomes just too much.

I started doing some research, learning about the signs of burnout, tips for combatting it, and reading all I could about self-care, all of which were new concepts to me at the time. I learned that burnout is common among nonprofit leaders, and leaders aren’t the only ones. Employee burnout keeps nonprofit leaders up at night worrying about whether they’re going to wake up to yet another resignation email or voicemail, especially as an employee reaches that 2.5 year mark with the organization (a low, but standard turnover time in our sector). A 2011 Opportunity Knocks survey cited that 50% of nonprofit employees were burned out or at serious risk of burnout. It’s no wonder why. With small budgets and typically underpaid staff who must work long hours to achieve the mission of the cause, stress is high, and so is guilt for feeling like you need a minute for yourself.

That time I was close, I made some quick decisions that I believe saved my sanity. First, I started turning down requests and opportunities to take on additional projects or attend events if they didn’t exactly align with what I needed at the time. This freed up a little more time, which I forced myself, despite an inner voice that offered constant guilt-trips, to use on myself. I instituted a hard rule of eight hours of sleep per night and, whenever possible, promised myself one day per week where I did nothing but whatever I wanted to do for fun or relaxation. I managed to survive my Master’s program and finally move on to the life I dreamed of: Working full-time on my cause.

Knowing what to look for in myself (and others) in the burnout realm was a huge turning point for me. I am not out of the fire yet — I never will be, working in the social impact realm — but I can monitor myself and take the necessary steps I need to protect my mind and heart. Doing so can only make me a better champion for my cause anyway.

Over the years I’ve added to my list of coping strategies to keep burnout at bay. Here are my favorites:

Gratitude: This one is simple and easy. Stop, appreciate everything around you, and thank everyone who has been there along the way. When you’re feeling overwhelmed and teetering on the edge of burnout, it can make you feel like everyone and everything is working against you, trying to sap you of energy, and take what little you feel you have left. Gratitude reminds you that the cup is still half (or two-thirds, or three-fourths!) full.

Turn off the TV and Read: Specifically, read about inspiring people solving big problems. Over the past year my most rejuvenating books were Banker to the Poor by Muhammad Yunus, Doing Good Better by William MacAskill, and Coretta Scott King’s semi-autobiography, My Life, My Love, My Legacy. I could see bits of myself in these authors and their subjects, finding empathy in their words for what I was feeling, but also, hope. These folks have dedicated decades of their lives to making an impact and, through trials and tribulations and multiple opportunities of their own to burn-out, accomplished what they’d set out to. It is possible.

Cut out everything but what you need for your cause and your heart: The Pareto principle (you know, that thing about how 80% of results will come from 20% of the work, if it’s the right work) applies substantially to nonprofits, and keeping it in mind can help you focus and excel in your mission driven work. On a personal level, I’ve been working on cutting down on the unnecessary noise around me. If you can figure out what time of day your brain is most on point, get rid of all distractions at that time and dedicate it to doing your day’s most difficult task. I’ve determined that my ‘time’ is first thing in the morning. This week (as part of a 2018 non-resolution) I’ve practiced avoiding looking at social media or my email in the morning, instead just focusing on the one top task I think will take the most brain power. So far, it has worked really well. Everyday I’ve come home feeling productive, accomplished, and like I have time to do a few other things I enjoy. This strategy is backed up anecdotally by other leaders as well. I plan to keep it going.

Help someone: When you’re feeling overwhelmed by the world and all people are asking of you seemingly every minute of the day, it can feel counterintuitive to put life on pause to go help someone. But doing so can remind you of your values and even your own self-worth.

About a week and a half ago, I stepped out of my house to run an errand and watched as a fire truck sped past me. Turning to look, I saw a fire with smoke that obscured the sun blazing out of a house just a few doors down from mine. I ran over as other neighbors started to gather, and decided in the moment that I was going to look for any way to help that I could. A fireman emerged from the burning house with a shivering dog. As a neighbor took it in her arms in the frigid January air, I wrapped my scarf around it. I spent the next hour preparing hot cocoa and snacks for first responders, bringing them hand warmers, and helping neighbors with a search for a second dog from the home that had fled in terror down the street. At one point my face was so numb from the cold that I realized I was having trouble moving my lips to talk to someone. Eventually the second dog was found, and the fire was put out, and the friends of the neighbors whose home had burned down were taking care of their more personal needs. I went back to my house, grateful it still stood there, grateful for the heat that warmed up my face. As I sat back down at my desk to reflect on the morning’s incident, I contemplated how good it had felt to be of service, and I was ready for the day.