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The PeopleCap Playbook

Timely insights and actionable people strategies for leaders.

We’re Burning Out Our Leaders

A shocking number of nonprofit professionals live in a state of overwhelm and near burnout. According to Kathleen Kelly Janus in her book Social Startup Success: How the Best Nonprofits Launch, Scale Up, and Make a Difference, 50% of nonprofit employees are on the verge of burning out, a statistic that is even higher for nonprofit leaders. Too many nonprofit EDs live in a state of exhaustion for extended periods of time. And, it’s not because they fall short on leadership skills: I believe it’s due to several factors that are unique to the nonprofit sector.

Since nonprofit culture dictates “resources are limited,” we expect nonprofit leaders to not only wear a lot of hats, but to successfully lead multiple functions of an organization that require specific skills and experience. For example, nonprofit EDs commonly serve as the head of strategy and vision, the director of finance, the chief development officer, the lead marketing and PR professional, the manager of HR, the COO, and the program lead; if not all of these roles fall on the plate of the ED at a given organization, likely several of them do. It’s nearly impossible to be knowledgeable and competent in all, or even a few, of these areas. However, without a robust team of skilled leaders on staff to bolster the ED, at many organizations she serves as well as she can in many of these roles by default. Sounds exhausting, right?

Wait, there’s more. For numerous reasons, including passion, the importance and urgency of the work, board direction, funder expectations, etc. nonprofits have a habit of taking on more and more work without taking anything off their plates to make space for that work and certainly without adding more staff to support that additional work. The result is that many nonprofit professionals take on more and more, feel exhausted, and frequently have a sense that they’re working harder and harder and producing less impact. Meanwhile the problems they are determined to solve continue to perpetuate.

Finally (although there are more variables we could analyze in another post – anyone thinking about income???), since nonprofits run very lean from a human capacity standpoint and rarely boast a C-suite of leaders to partner with, compliment the skills of, and support the ED, nonprofit leaders lack readily available thought partners. EDs are all-too-often left with limited places to turn when they need to strategize, problem solve, mull things over, make tough decisions, think outside the box, or just relieve stress through an appropriate vent-session.

Among nonprofit leaders, there’s an exhausting and demotivating sense that they’re chasing their own tails. This is all too often what I hear when I’m having coffee with a nonprofit leader. They’re exhausted, they need to think things through with someone they trust, and they need the support of people with expertise in areas where they don’t feel competent. They need time to just think. They need input from others to make that thinking time productive.

It’s alarming – burnout will either cost your organization significant money and lost opportunity while you find, hire, and settle in a new leader or it will cost you in lost productivity while your exhausted leader works feverishly without feeling energized and focused. So, what do we do about this before our leaders (and trust me, there are more than a few out there on this ledge) leave and we start the process of burning out the next leader?

Board members – you can:

  • Encourage and create space for your ED to regularly hit “pause.” Take something off her plate and ask her to set aside time to slow down and think, read, talk to peers.
  • Make sure she uses her vacation time and truly unplugs.
  • Ask her to share at board meetings what’s keeping her up at night. Use that as a chance to listen, empathize, brainstorm, and show your support.
  • Map out the work of the board and what board members are doing each month to move the organization forward – hopefully, providing some work relief to the ED.
  • Mentor the ED in areas where you have expertise the organization needs or find people who can.
  • Hire a coach to ensure the ED puts time aside for thinking things through and to help her craft a plan to get her head above water and thrive again.

EDs – I hear you silently screaming, “but there’s no way I can hit pause! People depend on me. There’s so much to do. It’s all important.” My response is the same as the many incredible flight attendants tasked with keeping us safe 30,000 feet in the air: place your oxygen mask on first so you will be able to help others.

If you’re working harder and harder and feeling more and more overwhelmed, you’re burning your limited oxygen and likely not driving your organization to your destination with vigor. If you feel burnout looming, you’re not fueling yourself with enough oxygen to serve your team, mission, or community.

We don’t have to let nonprofit leaders live like this. That should be the charge of boards everywhere – make this job possible, and support your nonprofit’s leader to make the impact that reflects all her energy and effort.