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Burnout draining sector’s leadership

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By Julie L. Rogers

Relentless fundraising pressure, weak boards of directors, low salaries, and lack of management support are causing many nonprofit executive directors – especially those of small-to-mid-sized nonprofit organizations – to leave their jobs.

This drain of leadership talent, at a time when the Baby Boom generation is reaching retirement and competition for employees is increasing, is a challenge the nonprofit sector can’t afford to ignore.

In Daring to Lead 2006, a study based on a survey of nearly 2,000 executive directors released earlier this year, the Meyer Foundation and CompassPoint Nonprofit Services reported that three out of four nonprofit executive directors say they are likely to leave their jobs within the next five years.

Some of this turnover is unavoidable, since a majority of the respondents were over 50 and many were over 60. However, retirement accounted for only a small percentage of the planned departures.

Executives’ attitudes about their boards of directors and satisfaction with their compensation, not their age, were the two factors most strongly linked to imminent turnover.

Fundraising concerns also play a role. Overall, executives cited fundraising as the thing they disliked most about their jobs and the area in which they most needed improved board performance.

In focus groups, executives repeatedly mentioned funders, including foundations and government, as ongoing sources of frustration and fatigue.

In short, Daring to Lead suggests that anxiety over their organizations’ finances, along with the challenges and aggravations that come with funding, are driving nonprofit executive directors out of their jobs at a time when we can’t afford to lose them.

What the sector has done in recent decades to build the pipeline of leaders, such as the establishment of nonprofit management programs at dozens of universities and the creation of leadership development programs that support a few executives, are valuable – but don’t really address issues at the heart of executive burnout.

Stemming the loss of leadership will require more players to act on a larger scale.

Grantmakers, for example, need to consider how all their practices – including policies about multi-year support, general operating support, and evaluation – make life challenging for many nonprofit executives.

Boards need to help raise money to offer reasonable salaries and develop senior management teams to share the executive’s workload.

And executives themselves should consider what steps they’re taking to avoid burnout and make their job look doable to the next generation of leaders.

Talented and visionary nonprofit leaders are essential for effective organizations.

Supporting those leaders – and keeping them in place whenever possible – should be a priority for everyone who cares about nonprofit organizations and the people and communities they serve.


 Julie L. Rogers is president of the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation in Washington, D.C.

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