Nonprofit burnout smoldering

By Mary Teresa Bitti

They say it’s lonely at the top.

That’s particularly true among leaders in the nonprofit sector, experts say, where the hand-to-mouth existence of many groups can make leadership a struggle.

Executive burnout has become a front-and-center issue for nonprofits, with rising turnover and an uncertain pipeline of new leaders.

Three in four nonprofit executive directors say they plan to leave their jobs within five years, and little is being done to prepare others to step up, says “Daring to Lead,” a survey of nonprofit leaders conducted by CompassPoint Nonprofit Services and the Meyer Foundation.

If that prediction plays out, “it means organizations will fail and people who need help won’t get it,” says Richard Moyers, program officer of the nonprofit sector fund of the Meyer Foundation, based in Washington, D.C.

But that may not be much different from pressures in the for-profit industry, some say.

“The fact is you’d be hard-pressed to find leaders, regardless of industry, who will say they plan to be in their current job for decades,” says Jeanne Bell, associate director of CompassPoint, a California-based nonprofit consultancy. “It’s the nature of the workplace. So we shouldn’t be afraid of that.”


When you unpack the survey data, 17 percent of people who say they plan to leave are retiring, and the vast majority of the rest want to stay in the sector, although not as executive directors.

“Nonprofits are operating in a broken-capital market,” says Bell. “An inefficient grantmaking process means executive directors whose organizations may be doing great work feel as though they have to reinvent the wheel to get funding. It’s insulting.”

Fundraising is also time-consuming, particularly when you are understaffed and buried in day-to-day management tasks, says Linda Wood, senior program officer of the Evelyn & Walter Haas Jr. Fund in San Francisco.

“Executive directors carry too much of the leadership burden,” she says. “There is enormous talent out there, but we can’t build a vibrant sector on the willingness of people to do jobs that aren’t manageable.”


The challenge is to make the job of executive director do-able, and that means addressing the relationship between institutional funders and nonprofits, says Moyers.

Currently, many funders pay only after the service has been provided and the grantee can produce a receipt, he says.

“This doesn’t work for nonprofits because they are starved for working capital and often can’t carry on for two months until the money comes in,” he says.

The Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem, N.C., offers multiyear operating grants.

“We don’t want organizations that are doing good work to feel as if they have to develop a new project just to attract funds,” says Tom Ross, executive director.

The foundation also sponsors a sabbatical program for executive directors, both to recognize their efforts and to give them a chance to re-energize and, hopefully, recommit to their jobs.


The sector also has to normalize transition, says CompassPoint’s Jeanne Bell.

“There has to be more focus on building leadership within organizations so when the inevitable change at the top happens, the transition is not catastrophic to the organization,” she says.

There have been positive developments, she says, noting that more organizations are moving away from the notion of the heroic single leader to building leadership teams.

Preparing for and managing through the transition of a leader has become a significant part of CompassPoint’s practice over the past several years.

The Haas Fund also is devoting time and resources to the issue.

“Executive transition can be a real opportunity for the organization if they define their future and hire for it,” says Linda Wood. “Philanthropy and others in the sector need to think about what we can do to support the leaders out there and not leave their success to chance.”

The Fund is investing heavily in leadership programs to help address the root causes of burnout.

“We are helping them build senior teams, board leadership and helping them figure out what a more shared leadership model looks like,” says Wood.

At the same time, the growing number of degree programs in nonprofit management mean that younger people are approaching the job differently, and that’s promising, says Bell.

“We are going to see the handoff of leadership over the next 10 years,” she says. “It won’t be the same, but it doesn’t need to be a bad thing.”

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