Why Nonprofits Have a Burnout Problem

By Beth Kanter and Aliza Sherman

“Why does something extreme have to happen before nonprofit leaders change and start to take self-care seriously?”

Image courtesy of Pixabay

That was the question one nonprofit executive asked after a discussion about nonprofits, self-care practices, and wellbeing in the workplace during the Alliance for Nonprofit Management Conference in 2015. Someone shared the story of one nonprofit leader they knew who ignored the early warning signs of burnout, kept on going, and suffered an almost fatal heart attack. That nonprofit leader was lucky. He left the hospital in a wheelchair, not a hearse. He subsequently changed his attitude and behavior, prioritizing his wellbeing so he could continue to lead his organization’s important work.

Sacrificing one’s health in service of a cause is a common narrative in the nonprofit sector. Nonprofit consultant and blogger Joan Garry1 spent eight years as a nonprofit executive director and worked herself and her staff hard. Like most nonprofit leaders, she was so driven by her organization’s mission that every task took on urgency, and there was never any downtime.

While preparing for a board meeting, Garry’s development director revealed that she was wearing a heart monitor due to stress. As the organization’s leader, Garry admits that she should have told her development director to go home and rest, but instead she and everyone else kept prepping for the meeting. Looking back, Garry recognizes how toxic the combination of passion for one’s work and Type A behavior can be.

Garry recently told this story to an executive director who quietly confessed that one of her staff members was currently on a heart monitor. Garry asked, “What are we doing to each other? How can we take care of others when we can’t take care of ourselves?”

An organization’s work may be mission-based, but its people are mission critical. The passion that social change activists feel for their work is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, that fervor helps them keep going in the face of difficult challenges, especially in the early stages of their careers. On the other hand, they can be so driven they don’t stop to refuel or smell the proverbial roses or even notice they are experiencing symptoms of burnout.

Aisha Moore has worked for 15 years in social justice and health care fields. One day, when leaving the office for lunch, she began to feel dizzy and lightheaded. The next thing she knew, she was being wheeled out of the office on a stretcher and taken to the hospital in an ambulance. After a battery of medical tests, Moore learned from her doctor that her symptoms were the result of chronic stress.

“Stress? But I love my work,” she told her doctor. Moore was so anxious at work that she did not even notice that stress was making her sick until she passed out. She recovered through a systematic program of self-care she created for herself. She then launched a wellness coaching practice to help other social changemakers avoid her mistakes.2

Cindy Leonard3, who manages the consulting and technology programs at the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management at Robert Morris University, was driving home from work when her heart started to race. She thought she was having a heart attack, pulled over, and dialed 911 for help. The EMTs arrived on the scene and took her vitals. They determined she was having a panic attack, not a heart attack. Leonard learned that she was experiencing an early stage of burnout due to stress. She sought help and began practicing self-care techniques to improve her wellbeing.

Laura Maloney, currently Chief Operating Officer at Panthera, a global conservation organization, headed up animal rescue efforts at the Louisiana SPCA during Hurricane Katrina. She remembers how the traumatic events impacted her and her staff. Later, as the Chief Operating Officer of The Humane Society of the United States, she oversaw the Animal Rescue Team. She noted that while staff at SPCA’s and Humane Society’s staff are dedicated to their mission of saving animals from inhumane conditions, working long hours and witnessing horrible situations without any relief can be draining, even dangerous.

Maloney became a “compassion fatigue educator” to teach self-care practices to those in the field of animal protection who were showing early signs of burning out. Maloney recalls an exercise she facilitated at an organization where she invited staff to add ideas and suggestions to a bulletin board on self-care.

“Someone suggested that once a month, staff leave the office an hour early and do something fun as a group,” she says, adding that next to the suggestion, someone else wrote, “But the animals don’t leave their cages at 4 p.m. How can we take a break?”

These stories, and many more like them, illustrate how good people working in the nonprofit sector view self-care: as something that gets in the way of their work serving an important cause. Self-care is seen as a guilty pleasure, a one-time or once-in-a-while feel good luxury instead of an individual and organizational necessity. It’s time to change the status quo.

Scarcity of Self-Care

In the face of the challenging work that nonprofits tackle every day, leaders and staff need to be unapologetic about self-care. Nonprofit staff and leaders are often driven to do more with less and to keep going no matter what. But what they need to remember is by practicing self-care, they are not only taking care of themselves but also taking care of the organization’s mission and all of its stakeholders.

Michelle Gislason, MA, is a Senior Project Director at CompassPoint Nonprofit Services and well known for her leadership development and coaching work with nonprofit leaders. She often deals with leaders and organizations working to end domestic violence, work that puts nonprofit staff at risk of burnout because of potential secondary trauma. Michelle talks about radical self-care, channeling one of the leaders in the movement, Norma Wong, when she says, “We live in complex times. We need clarity of purpose and radical self-care to navigate. If our energy isn’t swelling, how can we do the healing work that is needed? Lack of self-care is a form of repression. Radical self-care is an interruption of violence against ourselves.”

Aspen Baker, executive director of Exhale4, talks about the need for nonprofit leaders, especially those who work in social justice movements, to be more disciplined about self-care — in service of both themselves and their organizations. She points out that it is critical to distinguish between the hard work that is needed for social change and the personal sacrifices that can trigger burnout.

Baker says she learned a hard lesson by not practicing self-care in a systematic way. Instead, she and others on her staff used self-care activities as a way to escape responsibility. As a result, her organization established a nasty cycle of burnout and recovery with individuals on staff taking care of either themselves or the organization, but never both at the same time. In other words, the staff pitted their personal needs against the needs of the organization. Here’s Baker’s story:

“As a team, we took responsibility to redefine the meaning of ‘self-care.’ From then on, the term signified the ways in which people cared for themselves and for Exhale. The change was a choice to honor the importance of our work and to sharpen the focus required to make a lasting social impact. Now, when I think of self-care, I don’t think of just manicures and massages or vacations and walks in the park. Self-care is not a simple feel-good activity. It’s a much deeper and, ultimately, more meaningful tool. Self-care is a discipline that honors what is sacred, including the hard work that provides meaning in our lives.”

Baker’s story demonstrates how her organization finally reframed self-care in a way that allowed staff to address personal and organizational needs simultaneously Her story encapsulates the organizational version of self-care or “WE-Care.” But WE-Care can’t happen if all stakeholders aren’t on board and engaged.

Excerpted from The Happy Healthy Nonprofit: Strategies for Impact Without Burnout by Beth Kanter and Aliza Sherman, published by Wiley in September 2016