Nonprofit Leaders – Five Ways We’ve Been Doing It All Wrong

Sunday October 2, 2016 by Anonymous (not verified)

This year, at the age of 35, something snapped.

I have worked in nonprofits for 15 years–longer if you count volunteering throughout high school and college–so the obvious assessment would be “burnout.” Yet I’ve been powering through burnout with full awareness my entire career.

This time was different. This time literally caused me to stop working. And with the stopping, a feeling rushed to fill the void: The panic-filled realization that I–we–have been doing it all wrong.

Nonprofit publications, HR departments, and conferences are brimming with tips on avoiding burnout. Among the usual advice I’ve read (Take your vacation time. Set boundaries. Let go of the need to do it all.), this jumped out:

Know when to leave. Recognize burnout creep.

Burnout can easily creep up on us, says a long-time nonprofit administrator and volunteer. “One day you realize you’re standing in the middle of the room screaming about something minor,” this arts advocate, and now board member/producer/fundraiser, admits. “I strongly believe nonprofit volunteers and board members should set a firm end date for their work with any one organization, and stick to it.” This avoids burnout, brings in new ideas, and fuels the organization with new energy, says this volunteer. “This gives volunteers and board members the option of returning to the organization after a break refreshed, rested, and with your own new ideas, without burning any bridges during the separation.

I have careened through just this–what I call the “burnout/re-ignition” cycle–all my working life. And I believe it is at the heart of why nonprofits do not retain staff and maintain a healthy culture. We as nonprofits expect and enable the cycle. We see it as part and parcel of mission-centric work.

The burnout/re-ignition cycle goes a little something like this: You find an organization with whom you deeply connect. The mission is amazing and so in line with your values! The staff seems engaged and committed to the work! They’re totally changing the world! Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, you jump on board, heart open, mind and body ready to work tirelessly to “fulfill the mission.”

Then, the creep happens: the hours are long, the pay is mediocre, the leadership is not as tuned-in as you’d hoped, the career ladder seems non-existent. To top it all off, you feel like it’s expected you won’t last at the organization beyond two or so years.

So, you search for the fulfillment that once lit a fire under you. You find another organization with whom you deeply connect: The mission is amazing and so in line with your values! The staff seems engaged and committed to the work! They’re totally changing the world!

You exit one non-profit, disenchanted and exhausted, and enter another, full of hope for the mission and the promise of social change. Thus continues the cycle, again and again.

This cycle does not only affect early-career employees; I’ve seen it happen at every age and stage of careers. Nonprofits themselves embrace the cycle as inevitable. Countless are the meetings where I’ve heard referenced, with a collective sigh, the “2.5 year lifespan” of the nonprofit employee.

Non-profit leaders, when faced with the challenge of employee retention, only throw up their hands: “We can’t keep staff. Disillusionment is bound to happen. All we can do is get the best out of them while they’re here–and they’ll get great experience for their next job.” I say this as a nonprofit leader guilty of it myself, who threw up my hands when a beloved staff member left the team for a higher paying, boring but cushy job.

I experienced this on the receiving end as an employee early in my career. Now on the flipside, I’m surprised to find myself resistant to challenging the status quo. So, I’m starting with a “myth list,” a list of those beliefs that perpetuate the burnout/re–ignition cycle throughout nonprofits.

1. We believe money won’t make a big difference.

Heads up, it will. Yes, our employees are in it for the mission first and foremost. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be putting in the hours to meet with clients, plan fundraising galas, and design yet another marketing eblast.

But when it comes down to it, this is a job, not a volunteering opportunity.

Our staff are skilled, experienced, and hired because of their talent. They also pay rent, student debt, bills, and those aren’t free yoga classes we keep saying will help with self-care. So, let’s prioritize paying our staff what they are worth and paying them well.

While we are often at the bidding of government and private funders that certainly don’t prize overhead costs, there are bold efforts, such as CalNonProfits’ Overhead Project, to change the mentality around salaries. We can participate in this space to advocate and prioritize the people who make up our organizations–and who ultimately make our missions successful

2. We think health and wellness means more yoga classes.

When we think self-care, we think of add-ons–meditation, yoga, and countless other “wellbeing” activities. Not to deny these are important, but beyond the obvious, how can organizations contribute to employee wellness? We need to get common-sense and creative.

In Work Rules, Laszlo Block offers insightful reflections on the philosophy behind Google’s unique workplace, including how it values employees’ personal needs. One of his rules is simple: “Make life easier for employees.”

Yes, Block admits, there is an element to making life simpler that’s about encouraging staff to work as many hours as needed (it’s harder to leave when there’s all that free food!). But Google is also communicating, “We get it. This job is hard. Let’s try to make it easier on you by helping out with some of your personal stress.”

It doesn’t have to cost a great deal or anything at all. A local dry cleaners that will pick up and drop off employees’ clothing. A bakery willing to donate breakfast once a week or once a month. We’re so creative when it comes to resources for our programs; let’s extend that innovation to resources for our staff.

3. We prioritize external over internal communications.

As a communications professional, I spend hours strategizing how to connect with audiences and communicate with them about our work. Whether an eblast, donor letter, or social media post, every interaction is an opportunity to engage with an individual about the mission. Each communication is carefully planned, executed, and analyzed.

How often do we extend that same time and attention to engaging with our employees? Could we approach a company-wide email as we would a communication to donors? We don’t, but we should.

Our employees carry our brand, our message, and our mission. They are our greatest advocates and potentially our greatest detractors. I envision an organization that resources its HR team as it does its development team, and cultivates its staff as much as its donors. Internal communications is not an after-thought. It requires the same strategy, planning, and execution that go into external communications.

4. We conflate colleagues with family.

This might be one of the most harmful myths in the nonprofit world: that everyone at a company is a “family.” To be fair, not every organization I have worked for has this philosophy. But I’ve heard it enough times to think, “My family is already dysfunctional [aren’t they all?]. I don’t want that at work, too!”

Nonprofit employees are professionals (see #1). The complex and highly demanding work gets done because of their experience and talent.  It’s fine to feel like a “family” when we’re all bouncing along happily towards reaching our annual goals, but when difficulties arise–say, letting someone go–it’s not a comfortable nor comforting space.

The clear distinction between professional and personal life is paramount to a nonprofit’s health and the health of its employees. That means understanding that commitment to a mission–no matter the emotional investment–is, at the end of the day, still work.

5. We underestimate our power as leaders.

In an effort to remain non-corporate (see #4), nonprofit leaders can underestimate and underplay the influence they have on junior staff. Whether it’s never taking a sick day or dashing off emails at 10:00 p.m., we believe this is just how the work gets done. But our employees are watching and absorbing; they’re left thinking that this work ethic, and this work ethic alone, will “fulfill the mission”.

The most effective leaders in the nonprofit space are deeply mindful of how they move through the workplace and among their colleagues. They recognize the power they hold and embrace their role as setting the example and setting the tone.

For all our talk of self-care, we have to walk the walk even and especially when it feels uncomfortable. While this doesn’t mean suddenly slacking off, it could mean not answering that late-night email, stepping away from the desk, and taking a well-deserved break.

Some nonprofits are chipping away at these myths, but they are few and far between.

There is a pervasive fear among the field that focusing inwardly–on our staff, on our leadership, even on our own salaries–will take away from achieving our missions.

We must, as leaders, be willing to take risks and challenge these myths. In not doing so, we are risking so much more–a highly talented, passionate, and committed workforce that is cycling through rather than rising up.

Author anonymous