Addressing Burnout when you Work for a Non-Profit

Burnout is real. Burnout in non-profit agencies? It’s incredibly real.  While non-profit positions can offer a lot of fulfillment, burnout is incredibly impactful in the social impact space. So, why does burnout occur with such high frequency in the non-profit sphere? This is for a variety of reasons, but the most reoccurring reason that individuals […]

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Burnout is real. Burnout in non-profit agencies? It’s incredibly real. 

While non-profit positions can offer a lot of fulfillment, burnout is incredibly impactful in the social impact space. So, why does burnout occur with such high frequency in the non-profit sphere? This is for a variety of reasons, but the most reoccurring reason that individuals who work for a non-profit, or who found a charity, are often tied to the cause. They believe so firmly in it, that they are willing to give up other aspects which had previously identified them. 

How do you overcome that, though? What makes a non-profit successful with engaged but not burnt out employees? Let’s take a look at some of the ways that a non-profit can succeed while having employees who are engaged, excited about their work, and are interested and motivated in their positions. 

If you are a founder of a non-profit and find that you are exhausted, lacking creatively, and emotionally and physically drained, it’s time to put some of these ideas into place. 


Have a life and an identity outside of work. When you leave your position each day, what do you think about? Are you still thinking about the work that needs to be accomplished? If so, it’s time to recognize that you are more than just the cause you stand for. Your job needs to be treated like a job. You will be able to give more of yourself if you recognize that there are many aspects that make up who you are.

The most successful non-profit founders have escapes outside of work. Whether it’s a sport, social functions, traveling abroad, or reading good books unrelated to your cause, you need to have more than just your work. Without having something outside of your work, you will likelier become exhausted and disillusioned. Your tank will run on empty, and at some point, you’ll simply break down. Non-profit businesses rely on people being able to supply joy and enthusiasm, and when that fails, so does the cause. 


Similarly, self-care can create a world of difference in reminding you how important you are. If you need to know how important self-care is to protect yourself from burnout, check out what self-care can do for your career in an earlier blog. Self-care does not need to be going to the spa every weekend. Do you work for a non-profit for dogs? Go walk a dog or sit beside one and pet one. Self-care might mean sitting outside with a beer after work, watching a documentary, seeing a therapist, or doing meditation, to name a few. Remember you are a person. You are not just your non-profit.

Image by Mabel Amber from Pixabay

In a similar vein, you need to establish boundaries of when you will work and what you are capable and willing to do. Realistically, most non-profit employees live by their calling to the cause, which paves the road to burnout. If you are constantly justifying working overtime without pay, working on days you were supposed to have off, taking phone calls long into the night, all for the “cause,” you are setting yourself up for burnout and failure. Doing whatever it takes to get the job done, regardless of where you stand emotionally, leads to burnout. It just does. You can tell yourself that “this time it will be different,” but if you’ve experienced burnout before, you know the reality is if you do not set boundaries, you will be in the same place you were before. 

Are you a leader or founder at a non-profit? Stop expecting your staff to work as hard as you do. You will lose good employees to less stressful work. Period. It will happen. And you risk losing yourself. Then what happens? The cause has nothing. Boundaries don’t have to be extreme, but they need to be concrete. Turn off your work phone on weekends, and advise staff that if it’s not an extreme scenario, to let it wait until the next workday. It’s not always easy to do this, but in the long run, you and your business will succeed with boundaries. 

Appropriate Pay
Image by Jan Vašek from Pixabay

Jozef Opdeweegh mentioned in a recent article he composed titled Bridging The Gap to Those in Need that “The pool of our talent is limitless,” but it should be noted that talent is only limitless when it is provided the appropriate environment to succeed. Realistically, charitable organizations and non-profits can not offer competitive pay in comparison to other organizations. The money simply isn’t there. However, a non-profit is a business, and if you want top talent, you need to find a way to pay for it. 

If you’re a founder of the non-profit and find that you’re starting to miss deadlines for pay periods, or have stopped taking a salary, step back and analyze what you can do differently. Keeping the best people does not mean finding the cheapest person who’s willing to work for less. In fact, you may find paying the RIGHT person a higher salary does a lot more than paying multiple people lower wages. And, if you are an employee of a non-profit, if you are not being paid in a timely fashion, it’s time to say sayonara. The cause is important but so is your well-being. That can not be overstated. You matter. 

Involvement on the front lines

In an earlier part of his article, Opdenweegh mentions there are a huge number of non-profit organizations, “In the United States there are estimated to be 1.5 million registered non-profit organizations; in the UK around a third of that number.” Because of this, even people who are not involved directly in the non-profit can become jaded by being introduced to the newest and flashiest charitable organization on television, via friends and family, and through social media.  If you’re finding that you are no longer reaching people as easily as you had before, or if your fundraising is floundering, it may be that you’re not finding the same joy you had before in the cause.

An idea that Sandy Rees, founder of Get Fully Funded, an agency which helps non-profits find appropriate funding, is to spend time on the front line of your organization, and less time in the office. What this means is if your cause is about helping kids, animals, feeding those who live in tents, etc, but you’re spending the majority of your time in the office trying to wrangle phone calls, increase fundraising, and just work that extra three hours tonight, it’s time to remind yourself why you were interested in this cause to begin with. Go do the actual work, then be reminded of how important it is to you. 

Image by StartupStockPhotos from Pixabay

Losing sight of the bigger picture is easy when you’re removed from it, or if you’re standing too close to the details. This can absolutely increase your fire for your non-profit, and may spark some joy and creativity in how to be the voice that reachers potential individuals who would be interested in providing financial aid. Burnout does not just affect you as an individual. It affects your relationships and your job and organization.

Burnout in non-profit is real

One of the easiest things to do is to downplay burn-out. If you’re constantly giving of yourself, you need to recognize you will have nothing left to give to those who need it most at some point. And then, what’s left? Refuel yourself in whatever way you need. Read some of those thank you notes that you’ve received from people who have benefited from your organization, set those boundaries, and get on the front lines of your nonprofit to reduce the burn. Your work is important, but so are you.

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