Nonprofit Burnout: What Causes It + How to Avoid It

Burnout is ravaging nonprofit workers to their bones. But unfortunately, it doesn't discriminate whether they are long-tenured employees or entry-level workers. Instead of having a fulfilling career, it causes emotional and mental exhaustion. According to studies, 53% of nonprofit workers says they're likely to stay in their current job.

Almost every nonprofit experiences burnout towards the end of the year, despite achieving positive outcomes. Employees are stressing about maximizing their donations because 35% of all giving happens in the last three months of the year

Burnout is rampant in the nonprofit sector, mainly because of the imbalance between expectations and resources. Though various issues cause nonprofit employee burnout, it impacts every worker. Some are personal, while others relate directly to their work.

Many employees at nonprofits sacrifice their time and neglect individual necessities. But if you ignore the fact that burnout can affect you, you may struggle to manage it.

So the more you acknowledge your symptoms of burnout, the better you are at avoiding it.

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What is burnout?

Burnout is a syndrome of unmanaged chronic work stress. It can make employees feel energy depletion or exhaustion and negativity towards their job, reducing their professionalism. It occurs when workers have long working hours and excessively cascading projects, or the compensation doesn't meet the employee's output.

Don't confuse stress and burnout. Though it has similarities, they're different.

Stress involves working in a demanding environment that requires you to exert a lot of effort, while burnout is when you do your best, but it isn't enough.

When nonprofit employees feel burnt out, they find their lives overwhelming to balance work environments, personal responsibilities, and social expectations. As a result, they lose motivation to exert productive effort for their tasks, and they may even want to quit their jobs.

Symptoms of burnout may include but are not limited to:

  • Chronic exhaustion
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Change in appetite
  • Body aches
  • Self-doubt
  • Lack of motivation
  • Impostor syndrome or feelings of failure
  • Loneliness
  • Social isolation
  • Inability to perform simple tasks
  • Anger towards work

Burnout is a gradual process. It creeps up when you least expect it. The symptoms are subtle initially, but they can worsen if you don't address them sooner.

Each person has different burnout red flags, so paying attention to your triggers is essential to prevent yourself from experiencing nonprofit burnout.

Strict work models

Nonprofits have strict work models for a good reason. Their model is to organize and deploy people and resources to bridge strategy and results. It focuses on "done perfectly the first time" because many people rely on their efforts to get by.

Sometimes nonprofit staff have no room for error because they rely solely on fundraising strategies to operate. So, they must create the best programs and marketing strategies for various demographics and find the right person who can lobby for their mission. In addition, they work on a strict timeframe to meet demands.

However, not every nonprofit employee can conform to a 9-5 working schedule. Especially with the changing times and technology, most employees prefer to work remotely with a flexible schedule. This adjustment allows working parents or students to have work life balance.

As a result, nonprofit employees can prevent burnout while maintaining productivity. Some even adopt hybrid work models to counteract employee needs and organizational requirements.

Employees can be dissatisfied with the lack of benefits

For an organization that prides itself on delivering solutions and basic needs to people, nonprofit employees are dissatisfied with the benefits they receive for working exhaustingly.

Dissatisfied employees may affect team collaboration since a team is more likely to succeed when members contribute to a collective effort

Many nonprofits constantly face dwindling funding which puts pressure on their executive director to tighten budgets. In response, they spend less on salaries to meet expectations.

Nonprofit burnout from lack of benefits affects nonprofit leaders the most. As passionate as they are at inspiring other employees to find the best solutions, it influences their mental and physical health. It may seem that leadership has no time for employee training or skill development, but this is how the company experiences frequent turnovers.

Benefits make employees feel rewarded and appreciated for their work. In addition, it provides support and financial security, which can retain talented nonprofit employees.

Suppose a nonprofit organization lacks the funds to monetize employee benefits. In that case, it can be in the form of career development like nonprofit training courses and workshops, which can benefit the organization in the long run.

Emotional engagement and conflicts can be stressful

The reverse can be valid for a job that's so fulfilling because burnout in the nonprofit sector is real. It influences some employees' ability for self-expression.

Emotions are the driving force of nonprofit employees. Because of emotions, they care enough to develop tangible solutions to social, economic, and environmental issues. They're still willing to work no matter the working conditions and living wage.

Most nonprofit organizations advise their staff to hide their emotions to perform their tasks effectively. But, it could disrupt their well-being if they don't have an outlet. Likewise, too much emotional engagement could cause excessive stress. Because employees deeply believe in the cause, they neglect to separate their feelings from their charity work.

A report shows that 32% of the respondents say that their job requires them to hide their true feelings about a situation. These work conditions take a toll on their staff. Nonprofit organizations should have a debriefing session where employees get to express their sympathies after engaging with their beneficiaries.

Lack of automation and technology at work

Outdated technology, under-performing employees, and burnout is a recipe for failure. Staff members likely spend long hours organizing an effective system which creates traction in their efficiency.

Manual labor takes time and a lot of effort. For that reason, it lessens productivity to concentrate on creating strategic methods that drive funding.

Because of a lack of financial resources, nonprofit organizations find it challenging to acquire new technology to automate work. A five-year study shows that nonprofit staff uses computers in poor conditions that can't track program outcomes due to limited investment.

Investing in technology to automate nonprofit work can alleviate labor pressure and reduce manual effort. However, writing and distributing grants and sending gratitude letters, for instance, can remain physical work. In contrast, maintaining donor database, data gathering, and raising awareness through social media can be automated.

Nonprofits may automate communication, team collaboration, tracking work hours, and filing documents through online software like Slack, Trello, Hubstaff, and Google Workspace.

Nevertheless, nonprofits should realize that automation can work wonders if they train their employees on how to use them.

How to avoid nonprofit burnout

Nonprofit leader of color faces additional challenges, such as lacking funding relationships and inadequate compensation. So, addressing race issues results in burnout and adverse organizational outcomes. These are some challenges that nonprofit leaders of color face.

A nonprofit sector with a healthy organizational culture can ease tension and prevent employee burnout. Whether you know your stress triggers or experiencing an extreme turning point, know when to take a break before you cause further emotional and physical problems.

Take note that burnout is self-inflicted. It's not because of unpleasant managers. Although ineffective leaders can provoke burnout, it's not entirely their fault. But, ideally, it would be on senior leadership to make sure their employees' goals and workload expectations are fair and reasonable.

It's your responsibility to cope with a demanding job. So, many people take the initiative to focus on self-care, seek unbiased advice or speak up about the problem to senior staff members.

Here are ways to avoid nonprofit burnout:

1. Encourage self-care

In an industry that focuses on selflessness and giving, employees mustn't feel selfish for putting their well-being first.

Nonprofit leaders should demonstrate that they uphold the foundation's mission by caring for themselves. Ask yourself, how can you support your cause if you're always tired, exhausted, and overused? How can you care for others if you can't care for yourself?

Your health should be your priority. Hence why self-care is the number 1 solution to preventing burnout.

Self-care is unique to each individual. Your way of rejuvenating yourself may be different from your co-workers. It can be sleeping longer during personal time, reading, yoga, and meditation, personal development, or taking your vacation days. Whatever it may be, keep it in your weekly or monthly routine.

Senior staff members should realize that people who practice self-care have better cognitive ability and productivity. From there, they should incorporate a wellness program for their staff annually. This activity can focus on emotional and mental health and bonding with other colleagues.

2. Utilize your volunteers

Driven by a passion for environmental and social justice with infinite patience and creativity, volunteers are essential to a successful nonprofit.

Allow your volunteers to alleviate some of the added responsibilities of your employees. For example, let them manage your social media awareness campaigns and have them assist during charitable events.

You don't only allow volunteers to experience meaningful work, but you also reduce staff workload. Additionally, accepting volunteers will enable you to branch out because they carry the voice of your mission, spreading awareness within their circle.

Although having volunteers are temporary, it can help avoid burnout.

3. Keep employees connected to your mission

Motivation becomes difficult during tough situations. Employees become disconnected from the organization's mission, and everyday tasks become mundane and obscure. For instance, fundraising may appear like it focuses more on the money and not on individual efforts.

Leaders should make positive changes in their leadership to help their team stay motivated. And effective communication is one of those critical changes. 

Allow organization members to discuss personal concerns to promote work life balance and let them contribute their ideas and opinions to gain a new perspective.

Keeping your human resources connected plays a vital role in achieving your mission. Have your staff have onsite visits and social engagement with beneficiaries and stakeholders. So they can see that their seemingly small role creates a lasting impact on people. Or even mentioning them during evens can make them feel appreciated.

Nonprofit burnout is avoidable when employees have a connection with the organization's mission.

4. Invest in your employees

Most nonprofits often experience employee turnover because they don't invest in their team. If someone works hard for social justice, their compensation should mirror their hard work.

Check in on your team. You can prevent nonprofit burnout by giving your staff a chance to voice their concerns.

Inquire what benefits matter to them the most. It could be as simple as in-office childcare, free doctor visits, in office wellness programs. You may even reach out to a local business to donate healthy meals once a week.

Taking care of your staff can also be in the form of workshops that focuses on mental and emotional health. And personal development courses that can enhance their leadership skills. Lastly, pay attention to training your new employees. They're likely to see their potential and are sure to stay with the organization.

5. Have an open discussion

When organization members feel unheard, it causes internal problems in a foundation. It doesn't give them the confidence to bring up issues and doesn't foster idea-sharing, problem-solving, and collaboration.

Nonprofit leaders should exhibit concern toward their employees. Create a safe space for employees to speak up in your organization. You can perform weekly staff self audits to assess personal performance and mental health. This strategy allows everyone in the organization to grow together.

Have regular check-ins during the first and last day of the week to see how your team is doing. This small, kind gesture is an effective method of reducing stress and burnout.

6. Teach them to prioritize

Since most decisions in nonprofit impacts the lives of others, every task seems essential. As a result, it becomes challenging to know what to prioritize. On top of that, employees are prone to burnout when they can't distinguish between urgent and least urgent tasks.

The influence of nonprofit leadership becomes evident as employees look up to senior leaders on how they perform in the office. For instance, suppose to them, work is spending long hours trying to finish everything in one day. In that case, everyone in the organization will try to emulate the same work habits.

Explain to every team member that everything has its time and place. Every week, you may take some time to go through your team's to-do lists. Or assign a team leader to assess and categorize staff responsibilities from urgent, important, and least concern. But, make sure to set conservative deadlines to offset any delays.

7. Build a solid collective community

When an organization doesn't foster community participation, employees may find it difficult to work together. In addition, it elevates the risk of poor mental health and nonprofit burnout.

Consider adding personal wins to your team's weekly meetings. It can boost network support and communication, alleviate burnout, and creates trust among staff members. You may even organize monthly cookouts to encourage team bonding. However, if you have staff doing remote work, allow them to participate via video calls.

8. Update your technology to automate and reduce workload

Old technology decreases worker productivity. It creates employee frustration because they can't meet deadlines because of a lagging computer system. And it's not the employees' fault when their outdated computer crashes.

Online automation tools like Google Ad Grants help nonprofits attract more sponsors, donors, and volunteers through the internet. Choose an application with the most effective way to manage donors, and streamline communication.

Now is the best time to invest in technology to automate and reduce your staff's workload. But understandably, resources are tight to spend on a new computer. However, you may organize a specific fundraising event to fund a new operating system. Or you may even ask for volunteers to create a unique application tailored to your organization's needs.

9. Promote mindfulness and well-being

Yoga and meditation can reduce stress. It promotes mindfulness and brings awareness to everyday life.

As a nonprofit leader, you may incorporate yoga and meditation into your team-building activities. And to increase mindfulness in the office, designate a quiet room so your team can relax and stretch out when they feel any signs of burnout. Additionally, Make sure that everyone in the organization observes boundaries. In particular, don't force your employees to reply to messages after work or during their time off.

10. Appreciate efforts and celebrate success

Some staff members don't only appreciate better benefits, but they also want to feel valued. Ignoring your staff's efforts can make them dislike their job.

People desire validation. Taking a small fraction of your time to appreciate your team's time and energy can increase job satisfaction. Studies show that even volunteers are happy to continue devoting their time without compensation.

You may find it helpful to include employees' small wins during your weekly meetings to encourage continued success. Or thank them during event ceremonies for the endeavors they put in the foundation.

It's essential to acknowledge employee and colleague efforts to reduce nonprofit burnout.

11. Advocate for time off

Employees are more prone to burnout, depression, and chronic stress due to interrupted rest.

Urge your staff to know when to take a break, especially when they feel at any point that they're experiencing work pressure. You may want to teach the Pomodoro technique to help your staff manage their time and relieves tension from working nonstop.

Taking care of your team means respecting their time. Allowing your staff time to take care of personal responsibilities encourages them to perform better without experiencing burnout.


Working in the nonprofit industry takes a toll on your health. With tight budgets, pressure from various stakeholders, and maintaining relationships with donors and board members, it gives little space for self care. Ultimately, your exhaustion can lead to long-term health problems like burnout.

Lead your team by example. Implement some of the strategies above to avoid nonprofit burnout.

If you're still planning our charity organization, it would be best to educate yourself on how to create an excellent nonprofit business plan. It allows you to streamline management processes like handling funds and managing staff and volunteers.

But if you already have an existing foundation, you may take some nonprofit training courses to solidify your current abilities. And to set the tone in your organizational culture.

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