We hear a lot about employee burnout, but we have a different question: is your nonprofit burned out? Employees play a critical role, but they may be burned out because the organization itself is burned out. Yes, you must address issues impacting employee mental health, but focusing on individual employees as the source of what’s afflicting your nonprofit may mean you are not seeing the larger picture.
One place nonprofit burnout shows up is in fundraising numbers. Here are some symptoms to look out for: Your donor attrition rate continues to increase, and the size of your average gift continues to decline; you keep producing the same event – even post-COVID – despite declining attendance and revenue; private and public funding continues to decline; the case for support (case for giving) is outdated; and/or you no longer receive unsolicited gifts.
Another way burnout shows up is in the organization’s thinking. For example, are new ideas and out-of-the-box thinking welcome and evident within your organization, or are you just existing, or maybe declining? The buck stops with the board chair and CEO, but you might be surprised to learn they are the ones who are burned out and contributing to why people don’t show up for work, or don’t participate in board meetings, events, and programs.
When you have burn out at the leadership level you may find that fresh ideas evaporate and that others respond to the lethargy; you don’t have the quorum required to conduct business; staff members don’t show up for work, and board and staff departures result in erosion of organizational capacity and infrastructure.
Other things that contribute to organizational burnout are a strategic plan that was not implemented and is now out of date; a lack of endowment and reserve funds; a lack of public recognition and awards; or a CEO who has stayed too long. “Doing more with less” can bring a nonprofit’s effectiveness to a standstill. Let’s question the statement: “we wear many hats.” Is that because employees want to, or because they have no other option? Is this really a point of pride, or a contributor to burnout? Side effects can include an executive director who is too busy to dedicate the time needed to develop and support her board along with staff who have not received salary increases and who work without competitive benefits. Burnout can be the result of exploiting staff and not fully using the talents of board members. Bottom line: Are you asking your staff to do too much for salaries that are too low, while asking your board to just “show up.”
The costs associated with not treating burnout are high and they impact those we serve and advocate for. For more about burnout rates, their impact on the nonprofit sector, and how to respond, read Avoiding Burnout and Preserving Movement Leadership by Tiloma Jayasinghe in Nonprofit Quarterly
Take time to keep your nonprofit energized, innovative, and on the minds and in the hearts of your constituency. We need you!