You Are Not the Problem
Updated: Feb 16
Four Strategies to Help Nonprofit Leaders Avoid Burnout
Wearing multiple hats in a nonprofit organization is always stressful. It is time to take control before stress leads to burnout.
When we decided to make our careers in the nonprofit sector, we knew that our work would be important as well as challenging. But with the pandemic, our work has become urgent, overwhelming, and - sometimes - even unbearable. Are you wondering if you can continue at this pace and intensity? Are you questioning your decision to stay in your job? Or even to stay in the nonprofit sector? If you are, you may be suffering from occupational burnout.
The truth is that you alone can’t avoid burnout. It is a function of the conditions in your workplace. Occupational burnout is caused by the structures and systems inherent in your job or the sector itself. You alone may have very little control over these conditions. Nevertheless, as a nonprofit executive you CAN make some key changes in your approach to those structures and systems that will help you - and your employees - avoid burning out. I suggest four strategies: do less with less, don’t let your workplace off the hook, reconnect with your leadership role, and protect yourself.
1. Do less with less
As nonprofit professionals, we always “do more with less.” In fact, we pride ourselves on our ability to stretch scant resources, wear multiple hats, and multi-task all day long. Indeed, these skills are essential to our success! However, if you are feeling hopeless and deeply exhausted, you may be doing TOO much at once. This pandemic time provides the perfect opportunity to refocus, since everyone understands that it’s impossible to do everything.
Avoid mission creep by focusing your efforts on only those activities that support your mission. Of course, this requires that you be crystal clear about your mission.
Prioritize. Pick your 1-2 highest priorities for the next year from your strategic plan (hopefully you have one), and make sure your board approves them. Your priorities may be operational (e.g., build development capacity) or programmatic (e.g., expand community outreach services). Operational priorities should be essential to your organization’s success. Programmatic priorities should be mission-centered, valuable to clients, and generate revenue or, at least, cover costs. If a program doesn’t meet your mission or clients’ current needs, it should be dropped or gifted to a partner agency. If a program doesn’t cover its costs, now may be the time to pause or discontinue it.
Expect the unexpected. Plan budgets for three scenarios: base budget (reasonable expectations), base + (funding exceeds your expectations), and base – (funding falls below your expectations). In tandem with your budget, develop an annual work plan that addresses your chosen priorities and includes time to handle surprises. This way you will be prepared for whatever happens.
Say no. Think twice about a tempting grant opportunity or a board member’s pet project, especially if the full cost won’t be covered. Be confident about saying “no, thank you,” and then explain why you are not pursuing it.
Collaborate. Find opportunities to consolidate, partner with, or hand off programs and services to other staff, departments (if you have them), and even to other agencies. Most funders like collaborative initiatives and are willing to pay for a shared approach. You may even be able to renegotiate deliverables with existing funders.
Help your employees work smarter. You can give your employees permission to do less, if they have good reasons. Listen to their suggestions for how to get the work done more efficiently. Ask them what can be eliminated, done less often, or in a new and better way. Give your staff time to think and, if appropriate, push back their deadlines.
2. Don’t let your workplace off the hook
When there’s a mismatch between what you want and need from your workplace and what your workplace wants and needs from you, it can lead to burnout. (To learn more about this topic, read about the Job Demands-Resources Model.) However, as a nonprofit director, you may have more influence in your working conditions than you think you do. Find your voice. Know your worth and expect that you will be treated accordingly. Articulate what you and your team need to succeed and don’t apologize.
Model positive behavior and problem-solving skills. Complaining and cynicism perpetuate a negative and defeatist culture. Make it your regular practice to give constructive feedback after every big project and ask for feedback in return. Listen to the challenges your employees are facing but expect them to come up with pro-active suggestions, work with them to develop feasible solutions, and support them by advocating for the solutions that seem most promising.
Manage up. Communicate regularly with your supervisor(s) and board, asking them to name their own priorities, explaining what is working well and what needs improvement, and requesting specific help. For example, make a compelling case for professional development, paid mental health days, a better benefits package, or even ...gasp...a RAISE!
Change the financial paradigm. So many nonprofits are overly dependent on quixotic and short-term grants or rely on public funding that comes with excessive regulations. If this is true of yours, think outside the box. Know that foundations and other donors may be eager to support a consultant to help you diversify your revenue stream. You can start by learning what peer organizations are doing, perhaps in other cities or states. Develop a new major donor campaign to raise unrestricted funds, develop private-pay services that are unencumbered by state regulations, or advocate for changes in those regulations. Expect that your board will help you with these efforts, and hold them accountable.
3. Reconnect with your leadership role
Believe in your own ability to make positive changes in your workplace. Leverage your leadership position to get the results you want and need.
Praise liberally, honestly, and specifically. We may not be able to increase pay or give time off, but we can add value through other means as well: appreciation and shared mission are significant and underutilized motivators. Keep praise focused on how successful work supports your mission. You are all in this boat together, pulling in the same direction.
Be bold. You may find that this is the perfect time for a new and compelling initiative, as long as it supports your mission. Funders are excited by big ideas and a clearly defined need. In this moment, we know they are listening and responding to those needs. The pandemic has given us an opportunity to make important and ambitious changes. Don’t waste it.
Be brave. Where can you and your organization grow? What ideas, opportunities, or challenges have you talked yourself out of pursuing in the past? The time may now be right to pursue them.
4. Protect yourself
This is not a recommendation to practice more yoga or take a vacation (although those are both great). Since burnout symptoms are experienced on a personal level but are caused by your work, you have to figure out what you want and need to do at work to keep yourself healthy. Finding the answers requires clarity and strength.
Know thyself. Be clear about how to best use your own time and skills. It is a truism that “If you want something done, ask a busy person.” But if that busy person is you, it can feel like failure to admit that you are doing too much. Be honest with yourself about what you can realistically do and what you truly want to do.
Don’t try to do everything yourself. Empower staff, board members, and other volunteers to take responsibility. You might need to form a new committee or project team (that you’re not on). You might need to modify expectations – those of others and perhaps your own - about the amount of work you can accomplish. Or you might need to step back from some of your duties.
Consider a new job. If all else fails, you may decide that your workplace conditions are untenable and you need to move on. That is not your failure, it is the workplace that has failed to meet your needs despite your best efforts to assert them.
The key to burnout prevention is to be clear about what you have control over and what you don’t have control over. You can only operate within your degree of control. We don’t have control over the economy, the pandemic, and others’ decisions. We do have control over our priorities, our own actions, and how we respond to the actions of others around us. What do you need to do to have more control over your work life?
Ann brings over 35 years of experience to strategic planning, non-profit board development, needs assessment, and outcomes measurement. Ann works with all types of mission-driven organizations. Learn more about Ann and her nonprofit consulting work HERE.
For a version of this article specifically targeted to health care clinician-leaders, visit https://bolsterup.life/blog-amplify/