How Can Nonprofit Leaders Avoid Burnout?


How Can Nonprofit Leaders Avoid Burnout?
by Steve McCoy-Thompson

This article was originally published in Blueavocado.org on March 26, 2024. Blue Avocado is an online magazine with hundreds of articles written by nonprofit leaders, for nonprofit leaders.

Like teachers, social workers, and front-line medical staff (among others), nonprofit leaders are asked to perform minor miracles on a regular basis. However, these miracle workers often don’t get much support themselves. The result is a recipe for burnout — for the leader, their staff, and the organization as a whole.

To demonstrate, let’s look at some data. The Society for Human Resource Management reports nearly a third (30%) of nonprofit employees say they are burned out, and a further 20% are at risk. The voluntary turnover rate for nonprofit organizations is 19%. And with one out of every 10 employees working for a nonprofit, this means a large portion of our nation’s workforce is feeling overworked and under-resourced. If you work at a nonprofit, chances are you’re feeling the effects of this sector-wide problem as well.

Of course, burnout doesn’t just affect the nonprofit sector, especially when it comes to leadership. According to DDI World’s Global Leadership Forecast for 2021, 60% of all leaders report feeling “used up” at the end of the workday. This is not just a community issue, but a national one.

That’s the big question. How can nonprofit leaders avoid burnout?

Maybe the first step is to reframe the question. Instead of asking nonprofit leaders and their organizations to simply do better, we should ask: What do they need?

Seeking answers to this question is part of the work that my nonprofit, Gratitude Network, tries to address. In a nutshell, Gratitude Network offers leadership support through a year-long fellowship program for nonprofit executives as well as shorter courses to tackle specific challenges, like impact measurement and fundraising. In working with more than 200 nonprofits around the world, we have identified three key areas where we can best support nonprofit executives: peer networking, business training, and leadership coaching.

Of course, nonprofits need more than this — including critical resources, appropriate technology, a viable delivery model, and more. However, by focusing on these three areas, we have not only helped leaders stay sane and focused but have led to measurable improvements in organizational performance, efficiency, and, most importantly, outreach and impact with the people they serve.

Let’s take a deeper look at each of these areas to see how we can best support nonprofit leaders!

At its core, peer networking is about showing nonprofit leaders that they are not alone. As Dr. Nyeisha DeWitt, CEO of Oakland Natives Give Back, observes, “Running a nonprofit can be very lonely.”

Throughout our fellowship program, many nonprofit executives share feelings of doubt, distress and low emotional energy — which is concerning for a demanding role that requires deep passion. During one peer networking session, a leader admitted to a 3 out of 100 in emotional capacity. And she was not alone. There are hundreds such stories and just as many ways that this manifests, from imposter syndrome to feelings of isolation.

Part of the importance of peer networking, then, is making sure that nonprofit executives know they are not alone with their negative thoughts or doubts. But peer networking sessions also need direction. When talking with other nonprofit leaders, consider discussing:

Through peer networking, nonprofit leaders find common cause in the shared challenges of their mission. By hearing, often for the first time, how their peers have struggled with resources, volunteers, board, staff and myriad other issues, they find the courage and capacity to make tough decisions. Remember, your problems are most likely not unique to your nonprofit — which also means you might be able to crowdsource shared solutions via best practices!

Peer networking also helps nonprofit leaders learn best practices from others working in the trenches. Such practical peer sharing is viewed as more trustworthy, and thus more effective, than any paid or vendor advice. In one of our sessions, for example, we talk about how it’s okay to not be okay with people who are not a good fit for the organization — including staff and board members. By confiding in their peers, nonprofit executives learn appropriate steps to make practical changes for the better. Again, the more we share our challenges, the more we might find solutions!

Of course, ‘talking it out’ is not enough to address many of the most common issues — like chronic resource constraints — that nonprofits face. Yet sharing with — and learning from — others is critical to success. Here, peer networking is ultimately about creating long-term relationships grounded in mutual trust and respect: people to lean on (and who can lean on you) when the going gets really tough.

Leading a business without basic business skills is like riding a horse without reins or a saddle. It’s possible, but the chances of getting hurt, lost, or thrown off are very high.

According to a Stanford Survey on Leadership and Management in the Nonprofit Sector, while many nonprofit leaders begin with passion, they lack important strategy and execution skills.

In this survey, many nonprofits expressed similar challenges: 56% noted struggling with weak board governance; 52% lacked fundraising skills; 50% struggled with impact evaluation; and 52% felt that their lack of key strategic planning skills prohibits them from scaling their impact.

This means that at any given point, about half of nonprofits face these same four challenges. Let’s take a closer look, along with some steps to take to begin to develop these skills:

During one of our peer networking sessions, a nonprofit leader was surprised to learn that she could remove a board member who was not a good fit. The key to good board governance lies in proactive management strategies. Rather than hastily removing members, it’s important to set clear written expectations for board responsibilities. Then, for each board member old and new, plan an annual meeting to review the expectations. If they can’t agree, for whatever reason, maybe it’s time for another role, such as serving on an Advisory Council – where they remain part of the ‘family’ but with different expectations.

Strategic planning can seem both vague and overwhelming. A key element of our fellowship program is an operational-level “scaling up” curriculum that tries to break down longer term planning into essential, achievable parts. By breaking down loftier goals into smaller, more achievable objectives, the nonprofit learns to build from core strengths (their true value proposition) toward realistic goal setting, KPIs, and team execution. We learn to work towards achieving the vague or abstract by simplifying the process.

Revenue generation is the lifeblood of any nonprofit — yet most leaders don’t enter the field because they have a passion for raising money. The key, here, is setting priorities, and we do this by asking questions. Do you focus on small-dollar or large-dollar donations? Do you seek corporate, foundation, or earned revenue income? Most importantly, are your fundraising approaches aligned with your overall strategy?

These are key questions that many nonprofit leaders have not sufficiently considered because they’ve not been properly supported to even ask.

If there is one common struggle of early-stage nonprofits, it’s impact measurement — alongside the effective communication of that impact to donors. For example, a common reason nonprofits are not selected for our fellowship program — and miss out on many grants — is their failure to demonstrate impact. Accordingly, we offer a short course on impact measurement that encourages leaders to seek training and support for this critical area.

At the same time, training must be institutionalized to be successful. We’ve all gone to great day- and week-long training sessions and leave inspired for change! Yet, within a week, we are Overtaken by Events (OBE) and our best intentions lay under long To-Do lists. For this reason, we believe a full year of regular lessons and check-ins, involving the entire leadership team, is the best way to ensure best intentions become best practices.

Many nonprofit leaders enter the field to address a daunting challenge, like homelessness, child poverty, or climate change. To be successful, they must lead strategy definition, team building, board development, budgeting, fundraising, impact measurement, compelling communication, and, oh yes, service delivery. As such, a nonprofit executive must lead their organization in a variety of different directions, often all at once.

And yet, most leaders receive no coaching in how to be effective leaders. According to the Concord Leadership Group1, most nonprofit leaders want ongoing leadership coaching and mentoring, but only one third have access. This is despite the fact that most nonprofit leaders and foundation funders are in favor of executive coaching to promote leadership development.

Moreover, nonprofit leaders face the challenges of the world with very limited resources. This means that the resources they do have are rarely devoted to leadership development.

The result? See the previous burnout statistics.

Over the years, we’ve discovered that the best approach is to meet the leaders where they are. And they are in many different places. Some leaders, for example, are fragmented and overwhelmed by work. In such cases, the coach may help with delegation strategies. Alternately, some struggle with time management and may need help setting priorities. In this case, a coaching strategy might simply be listing and ranking responsibilities to help create a set activity to accomplish each day.

And of course, sometimes a leader just needs a well-tuned ear (and some cheerleading). Sitting in a position of “isolated responsibility” can be exhausting, and more often than not, nonprofit leaders just want to be heard. They want to have someone who knows the field who can affirm that they are doing the best that they can and remind them that they are providing a meaningful service to the community — especially when this feels impossible.

At Gratitude Network, we believe the best way to ensure long-term impact is to work locally, in the communities where the needs are greatest. And the best way to scale and sustain this impact is to support the nonprofits who work in these communities — now and for the long term — by helping them make a lasting impact that goes beyond the direct annual donations they receive. In other words, it’s important to not only identify the fishers and teach them to catch more fish, but to work with them to build a better fishpond for generational impact.

Fortunately, there is growing recognition that capacity-building should go hand in hand with grant funding. To foster a lasting return on grant investment (ROGI), the grantor also should invest in capacity building. As such, a number of large foundations, such as Tipping Point and Skoll Foundation, have begun to integrate leadership and organizational support into their grant giving.

And at the global level, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) localization program pledged to shift more than $1 billion in funding from global contractors to local, community-based organizations. This funding will include some capacity building — from leadership development to grant management and impact measurement — to ensure that these grant dollars have lasting impact.

Following these examples, smaller community and family foundations would do well to set aside funds to ensure their grant investment has sustained impact after the grant ends. In other words, funders need to build in ROGI to their grant programs. In this way, we can best support the nonprofit leaders who give so much of themselves to their communities. We all must work together to ensure we have both fishers and fishponds for the generations to come.

Steve McCoy-Thompson
Executive Director, Gratitude Network

*Steve McCoy-Thompson has worked over 30 years at the nexus of business, government and the nonprofit sector – as a management consultant to and with Fortune 100 companies and government ministries and as executive director of nonprofits and a community foundation. He is currently the Executive Director of Gratitude Network, which helps nonprofits apply best practices and business principles to reach over 40 million children worldwide.

1. See page 27, https://concordleadershipgroup.com/!WakeUpCall_Report.pdf