Nonprofit Burnout: How to Recognize And Manage It

Did you know that one in four nonprofit employees are experiencing symptoms of nonprofit burnout? Since your employees are your most precious resource, it’s vital to take care of them and prevent burnout. Many different factors can cause nonprofit burnout. This article will help you understand the reasons and provide ideas to manage it effectively.

11 minutes read
Nonprofit Burnout: How to Recognize And Manage It

Burnout is a huge problem in the nonprofit industry, and especially so towards the end of the year. The last three months of the year are stressful and frenzied for most nonprofits, even if the outcomes are rewarding and exciting.

Some factors that cause nonprofit burnout can be personal, while some are directly related to working in the nonprofit industry. This commitment often leads to nonprofit employees sacrificing their personal time and ignoring their own needs and limits. When this happens over an extended period of time, nonprofit burnout happens.

Employees who are burnt out won’t perform as well and this will reflect on the quality of programs delivered, on the relationships with partners, donors, the board, and much more.

This article will help you understand nonprofit burnout, the causes, and ideas to manage it effectively.

Bonus5 Strategies to Beat Seasonal Burnout

*Burnout statistic source: McKinsey

What is Burnout?

Burnout is an emotional, physical, as well as a mental state following a prolonged period of excessive stress. Most times, it is related to job life and can happen when employees are swamped continually for a long time. Employees tend to feel overwhelmed and lose enthusiasm at work and in life. This could very well be one of the reasons why 45% of nonprofit employees are planning to leave their organizations in the next 2 years.

Nonprofit burnout can happen anytime during the year. Heavy workload, demanding grant requirements, under-staffed teams, and strenuous budgets can all take a toll on the well-being of your nonprofit team. Add to this the long hours often required for fundraisers and special events, and the zealous commitment most working in the nonprofit sector have towards a specific cause – and you get the recipe for nonprofit burnout.

For nonprofits, there can be many reasons why employees often experience burnout symptoms. Let’s have a look at them.

Top 4 Reasons for Nonprofit Burnout

1. Emotional engagement and conflicts can be stressful

While emotions are the driving force behind employees opting for a nonprofit, too much emotional involvement and conflicts can cause extreme stress. This particularly becomes a problem when employees are forced to act in a way that they otherwise wouldn’t. Every person has a natural instinct to react to a situation or a person in a certain way. But while working for an organization it may so happen that they’re being advised to hide their personal feelings and instead act the way the organization expects them to. In fact, some reports say that 62% of people who engage in emotional work tend to hide their personal feelings. Experiencing this for a long time can cause fatigue and eventually, burnout.

Interacting with beneficiaries and addressing their issues on a daily basis can also take a toll on your employees’ mental and emotional health. There should always be a balance in the exposure to such experiences to offer employees the space they need and remove burnout.

2. Employees can be dissatisfied with the lack of benefits

Benefits can be of many kinds – professional benefits, career advancement, compensation, and time off. Employees in any sector want to improve their professional skills and go up the ladder of success. Nonprofits are no exception. It may seem to leaders as though they have little time left for employee training and skills advancement but this way, they’re neglecting the needs of their employees. 43% of nonprofit employees feel that they lack the ongoing training to perform their job. It affects their productivity and leaves no room for improvement.

Coming to nonprofit compensation, 47% of employees are dissatisfied with pay ranges. They think their skills and effort deserve better. Other important factors include sick/personal time off, health care coverage, retirement plan, etc. Employees love to feel cared for and secured in a job. As a nonprofit, you need to see how many benefits you can offer your employees as you and they grow. For smaller nonprofits, this can be a struggle. But as you grow, you need to welcome these added responsibilities for increased employee retention and reduced stress.

3. Strict work models

Not all nonprofit employees need to work from the office within a strict 9-5 schedule. With changing times, most employees tend to prefer the flexibility of working remotely and picking a schedule that suits them. This applies especially to working parents and interns but isn’t confined to them. You need to find a workaround for this situation. In this fast-evolving digital world, nonprofits have so many online tools and resources that accommodating remote work, efficient communication, and maintaining productivity are no more a challenge. Some are even adopting the hybrid work model to keep a balance between what their employees want and what the organization needs.

4. Lack of automation and technology at work

Automation is the ultimate need for every nonprofit to reduce manual effort, increase productivity, and better perform fundraising and donor management. While writing a grant, copy for a social media post, or sending out thank-you cards to donors will always remain manual efforts, maintaining a donor database, gathering information, sending receipts, and fundraising don’t have to be. They can be done online using online donation tools that automate work. Even your email marketing and integration with utility tools like Slack, Google Sheets, Hubspot, etc. can be automated. If you’re still using your employees to have them done manually, it is natural that the pressure will be high and effectiveness less. The result – nonprofit burnout!

The Common Symptoms of Nonprofit Burnout

Now that you know the top reasons for nonprofit burnout, the next step is to understand the symptoms. Employees often approach leadership asking for help and to voice their issues. Knowing the symptoms can be helpful in giving them the right advice or taking the right step toward positive change.

  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Forgetfulness
  • Increased illness
  • Loss of enjoyment
  • Isolation
  • Pessimism
  • Feelings of apathy/hopelessness
  • Irritability
  • Lack of productivity or poor performance

11 Ideas & Insights to Help Manage Nonprofit Burnout

nonprofit burnout

1. Utilize your volunteers

Volunteers are an invaluable resource for a nonprofit organization. Their commitment, enthusiasm, and time can significantly contribute to your nonprofit’s success. Have your volunteers be in charge of some of the activities that your staff is currently responsible for (e.g. managing social media platforms or calling donors). Utilizing volunteers in this way can really help alleviate some of the staff workloads.

This pays off in many different ways. You’re providing a meaningful and engaging experience for your volunteers, you’re building a community, and you’re creating a cooperative space in which new ideas can be brought forward and everyone can learn from each other. This is especially important if an employee leaves their post (or if they’re let go). Many nonprofits simply distribute the role to other employees – adding to their own workload.

In situations like these, hiring consultants, using volunteers or interns, hiring temporary staff directly or through a third party can help avoid nonprofit burnout.

2. Invest in your employees

‘Employee perks’ are often associated with the for-profit sector. It’s been accepted by many (generally unconsciously) that working in the nonprofit sector means sacrificing salary and benefits. The time has come for this paradigm to change. If someone is working hard to help bring about social change in a sector that doesn’t aim for profit, it shouldn’t mean that their quality of life should suffer. On the contrary, they should be rewarded.

Do your best to provide your employees with appropriate compensation/salaries for their work. The yoga and meditation classes that everyone suggests to help prevent burnout won’t pay for themselves.

Investigate which benefits matter to them (e.g. childcare in the office, laundry in the office, free in-office doctor visits, retirement plans, gym memberships, or education reimbursement). You could get a local company to donate healthy juices for one breakfast per week. You could also invest in your employees’ learning opportunities. Whether you enable them to take relevant courses or attend interesting workshops and conferences, these can really serve as a motivation boost. Ideas are plenty, and there’s a lot of space to innovate.

Investing in benefits like these increases employee happiness, productivity, trust, and loyalty.

3. Keep employees connected to your mission

When things get hard, staying motivated and inspired becomes difficult. The “why” behind everyday actions and mundane tasks become obscure. Just keeping up with the everyday reality of the role becomes burdensome. For example, fundraising can become tiresome and appear to be about the money. This is why keeping connected to the source of the work is incredibly important.

What this means is that it’s important for everyone at the nonprofit to be able to see and experience first-hand the impact of your organization’s programs on the beneficiaries. There are many ways in which you can go about accomplishing this. You can organize events where staff, beneficiaries, and other stakeholders meet. You can organize on-site visits or have your beneficiaries write letters to your team that they can pull out and read whenever they feel burnt out and when they feel like what they do has no meaning.

It’s very important that every employee sees how their position fits into the larger purpose of the organization. Work with your employees to set goals for their work so that they clearly see how they will contribute to your collective mission.

4. Teach them to prioritize

When working at a nonprofit, everything feels important. And everything is. Many decisions at nonprofits directly impact the lives of others. When you’re in the business of ‘saving the world’, it becomes hard to adjust and prioritize. Burnout can easily happen when employees (and leaders alike) cannot distinguish between the real emergencies and things that really can wait until next week.

This is where the influence of nonprofit leadership becomes very evident. Employees across the board often look up to senior leaders, especially at the start of their careers. If the senior leadership never takes a day off and treats everything as an emergency, this is what will set the tone for the rest of the organization.

Not everything needs to be done immediately—or even at all. Take the time to really look through the tasks on your staff members’ to-do lists. See what can be moved off their plate, what responsibilities can be shuffled, and what deadlines can be moved.

This might sound counterintuitive (with moving deadlines and all), but this allows for focusing on what’s really important instead. This way, you’ll find that your team will accomplish much more—and they will feel better about it.

5. Talk about it, the more the better

Create a space in your nonprofit organization where issues like burnout are openly discussed. Have regular check-ins with your team both individually and in groups (as much as resources allow). During these check-ins, everyone can get a better idea of where everyone else is at and generate ideas about how to reduce burnout. Make commitments as a team and ‘appoint’ someone to keep track of them. Without conversations, nothing can happen.

Burnout first needs to be seen, recognized, acknowledged, and talked about before it can be solved. And managing burnout should become a part of the organizational culture.

6. Appreciate efforts and celebrate Success

To avoid burnout, it’s very important to recognize the efforts of your staff members or colleagues. It’s helpful to notice the big and little successes that happen every day in organizations. Don’t forget to recognize and celebrate your own and your team’s successes and accomplishments. It’s easy to keep paying attention to things that are not going so well. However, there are so many things that do work out every day and are taken for granted (someone thanking your organization, obtaining a new donor, recruiting a new volunteer, landing a big sponsorship meeting, etc).

If employees frequently remember that they are helping the nonprofit keep its doors open and that they are accomplishing a lot all the time – they are less likely to feel like they’re stressed and failing. Celebrate milestones and achievements, in whichever ways work best for your nonprofit, and remind your team of all the good they’re doing.

7. Encourage self-care

nonprofit job burnout

How self-care is seen and exercised differs significantly from one person to another. Whatever the definition, it is crucial that nonprofit leaders encourage self-care. Some in the industry even call for radical self-care.

The principle is, in essence, simple: You can’t pour out of an empty cup.

In an industry that is based on giving and where employees are often led by a fervor to serve and persist in the face of challenges – it’s essential that your team’s ‘cups are full’. How can nonprofit employees take care of others without taking care of themselves? And this is a difficult paradigm to break. Self-care is seen as something indulgent and selfish by many nonprofit professionals.

In order to prevent nonprofit burnout, we need to break this paradigm. The nonprofit sector professionals need to see how taking care of themselves means taking care of their nonprofit’s mission. Self-care activities can be anything from getting enough sleep, reading, meditation, and investing in hobbies to spa days and vacations. Whatever self-care means for you and your nonprofit, encourage it.

Pro tip: Have a wellness program for all employees at your nonprofit. This includes promoting physical, mental, and emotional health of all. At the same time, have conversations with them to see what will particularly charge up their work-life. Will they appreciate something like a monthly potluck with team members, a team outing every once in a while, or maybe an extra vacation day for overworked employees?

8. Automate work and reduce workload through technology

Some of the nonprofit office work can be highly automated. Even the donor management and fundraising part. This ensures your employees can focus on other important work and better manage data on the automation/online tools. There are online donation tools available for nonprofits that offer advanced features at affordable pricing. Choose one that offers you plenty of options to manage your donors online, boost communication efforts, integrate with your existing systems, and help you fundraise better through crowdfunding, peer-to-peer fundraising, event ticketing, memberships, and more.

Donorbox is an all-in-one fundraising solution that intends to make fundraising and donor management a breeze for nonprofits. Our features are simple to use, customizable, and affordable. We help you reduce the workload on your staff by helping gather donor information, add communication notes, get important “moments” notifications, segment donor records, integrate with tools like Salesforce, Zapier, MailChimp, etc. Our recurring donation forms are easy to set up, embeddable, and take less than just a few minutes. You can sign up for free and get started without any hassle for documentation.

9. Advocate for time off

Although time off could be considered a form of self-care (see above), when it comes to nonprofit burnout – time off is a significant contributing factor. Time off is very important for mental and physical health. Encourage your employees to actually take their days off (and take them yourself). Regular and planned days off will help you and your team achieve your goals and get closer to achieving your nonprofit mission without experiencing burnout.

Therefore, advocating for regular and uninterrupted periods of rest (whether it’s encouraging a break every hour of work, encouraging a mindful lunch not spent at the desk in front of a computer, or it’s advocating for email-free holidays) is one of the keys to successfully managing nonprofit employee burnout. It’s also very important for nonprofit leaders to actively provide coverage for the employee’s responsibilities when they take time off so that they may take a ‘real’ break.

10. Build a community

The culture at work – particularly how employees are with each other – has a big impact on nonprofit burnout. Investing in creating a community at the workplace can have a significant positive impact on employee happiness and productivity (therefore reducing the chances of burnout).

Consider creating weekly rituals for your staff members. Perhaps you could organize weekly breakfasts during which everyone shares what they’re grateful for, what brings them joy, or which colleague they particularly appreciated that week. You could organize communal meals once per week when even your remote staff members join in via Skype or Google Hangout.

This doesn’t mean that you have to push for the dreaded ‘mandatory fun’, but creating spaces where a more human approach can be created and where genuine relationships between co-workers can blossom is a sure way to help prevent and reduce nonprofit burnout.

11. Promote mindfulness and well-being

Although sometimes deemed as ‘just trends’, activities like yoga and meditation – which promote mindfulness and well-being – are increasingly shown to reduce stress. To practice mindfulness in your workplace, you could introduce mindful coffee breaks or meditation sessions to your team. When it comes to well-being, potential practices are many. Strongly discourage your employees from sending e-mails after work or during holidays. Ensure easy access to healthy food and drinks in the office and put out reminders around the office for your employees to stay hydrated, stand up, or stretch.

Support the physical fitness of your employees by paying for their gym memberships, personal trainers, or at least a couple of free classes per month when a yoga teacher comes into the office and delivers a class.

Bonus Resource – 5 Strategies to Beat Seasonal Burnout

You wouldn’t want to lose your most committed team members and volunteers owing to excess seasonal stress and workload. This is especially true for the giving season that demands the most action and energy from your team.

Here are 5 strategies to help you manage burnout during these times. Take just 5 minutes and listen to our nonprofit expert Jena Lynch in this podcast episode!


Working in the nonprofit sector can be exhausting. Deadlines, pressure from a variety of stakeholders, leading staff and volunteers, maintaining relationships with Board and donors, doing good – all of that leaves little space for anything else. Ultimately, however noble the zest and long working hours may seem, we know from experience (and research) that in the long-term, employee burnout will have a negative effect.

However, nonprofit burnout doesn’t have to be the norm. As a nonprofit leader, it is essential that you lead by example. Applying some of the ideas outlined above yourself can make all the difference for your organization. This is why it’s important to take nonprofit burnout seriously and to put in place systems and practices to prevent it from happening in the first place.

The ideas suggested above are a starting point for cultivating a work culture against burnout. While there is a lot of research demonstrating the benefits of the above-outlined activities, there’s only one way to know what works for your organization, and that is to experiment until you find your own way.

Check out what Donorbox can do to help you automate your donation and donor management at your nonprofit and help reduce the workload of your staff members. It is one of the most affordable and promising options available out there, having helped 50,000+ nonprofits across 40 countries already.

Check out our nonprofit blog for more nonprofit resources and tips.

Ilma Ibrisevic is a content creator and nonprofit writer. She’s passionate about meaningful work, sustainability, and social movements. If she’s not working, she’s obsessing over coffee or cooking. You can connect with her on Linkedin.

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