top of page

Nonprofits & Burnout - Who's Helping The Helpers?

Updated: Feb 6, 2022

In our news letter last week, I shared a survey of the problems Connecticut nonprofits are experiencing with staff burnout and lack of job candidates. It received such a response that I wanted to return to the subject. The study's title, Workforce in Crisis, is not an exaggeration. Here's a dashboard view of their issue:

A National Problem As you probably know from your own organization, this problem is not limited to Connecticut. It is nationwide. In December, the National Council of Nonprofits released its own survey, this one looking at nonprofit employment across the country. More than 40% of nonprofits said more than one-in-five of their positions were open. Many nonprofits reported that they have waiting lists for their services or have just stopped taking applications. A big part of the problem is that nonprofits can't compete with business and government on salary and benefits. One Texas nonprofit told researchers, "..School districts, mental health organizations, etc., are basically poaching from nonprofits that cannot offer the higher pay."

Private Sector Competition Unfortunately, disparate pay levels have always been a problem and many business are reacted to the "great resignation" by increasing wages, exacerbating the problem. The secret weapon for nonprofits has traditionally been that people are willing work for less because they are drawn by the opportunity to make a meaningful change.

The Burnout Problem That is what makes burnout such a troubling problem for the nonprofit world - It robs people of the sense of accomplishment that makes the sacrifice worthwhile. The World Health Organization defines burnout as "resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” It has three symptoms:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion,

  • Increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings negative towards one’s career, and

  • Reduced professional productivity.

Does any of that sound like it makes people who joined you to change the world want to stick around?

Nonprofit Burnout The other quality people who are drawn to nonprofits tend to have is a strong sense of responsibility and the pandemic has really tested that. Think about the executives who juggled all of the challenges to keep their organizations alive. Or the development professionals who knew that, if they couldn't find donors during this difficult period, no one would get paid. Or the case workers who stuck with all of the uncertainty and COVID exposure risks because their clients needed them. That's a lot to deal with every day for two years.

Strategies In the newsletter story about this, I quoted Mr. Rogers telling children to “look for the helpers” when they are in trouble. We have to ask ourselves, who will help the helpers? Fortunately, there is a lot of good advice out there about preventing and recovering from burnout. There are two particularly good podcasts.

  • HBR IdeaCast: Why Burnout Happens — and How Bosses Can Help looks at all of the workplace factors that contribute to burnout. Significantly, research shows that the way organizations address the symptoms of burnout is more important than the job demands or workload. How bosses and co-workers recognize the signs of burnout and address the symptoms is the key.

  • Brené Brown: Burnout and How to Complete the Stress Cycle talks about the need to recognize that events are things that happen and emotional reactions are the way we respond to events. They are connected, but they are not the same thing. We have to recognize that emotions are chemical/physiological reactions that we need to address regardless of how we dealt with the event. For example, you meet a tough deadline, but you are still stressed. Why? Because your body ignored all the warning signs of stress while you focused on the deadline, but now you are emotionally exhausted and at risk of getting sick.

Savior Complex, Boundary Issues and Scarcity Mentality Nonprofits are breeding grounds for burnout because of some unique factors. One is Savior Complex, a deep-seated need to help other people, and unfortunately there are always more people in need than you can help. Another is the sense of responsibility that makes people so suited for nonprofits means they may not have work/life boundaries. Finally there is the scarcity mentality that permeates nonprofits; we are hard-wired to do more with less. Doing more and more with less and less turned into quicksand for a lot of people during the pandemic.

A Few Tips It is not an easy problem to solve, but here are a few suggestions.

  • Make the challenge about the organization, not just the individual. Make sure everyone knows they are not alone, that the nonprofit will work together to pull through.

  • Celebrate the victories as an organization. When people pour their hearts into a cause, it is always hard to see the progress, but impossible when the staff is burning out. There is research that shows that just sharing a laugh together can help restore balance to a staff.

  • Make sure everyone knows that they are not failing. The work is more challenging than ever, but it is not their fault.

Hey Board of Directors, This Is your problem too! Last - certainly not least - this is where boards need to engage! Human capital is the most valuable asset for a nonprofit. A board that doesn't protect that human capital is shirking its responsibilities to ensure the organization has the resources to meet its mission. That may mean

  • Tapping the breaks on that new expansion if it is going to push your staff beyond their capacity to cope with the stress,

  • Budgeting for support staff if they are wearing too many hats, and

  • Pushing your executive and senior staff to take time off.

The band 3 Doors Down had a song lyric that went, “If I go crazy will you still call me Superman? If I'm alive and well, will you be there holding my hand?” A little corny, maybe, but right now, nonprofit leaders, their boards and their staffs need to remember that we can't be faster than a speeding bullet all day every day, and burnout is our kryptonite!

it is a problem with nonprofits throughout the country.


bottom of page