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Too much work + not enough help = BURNOUT.

It’s a common issue for many nonprofits. Searching for the root causes of nonprofit employee burnout can be tricky but here are three themes that stand out.

Nonprofit Employee Burnout

Over-dedicated theme: Campfire Burnout

Many nonprofit employees are passionate about the cause they represent. Yet, the intensity of that passion inevitably varies from person to person. In addition, some employees may not be passionate at all about the mission. That’s a hard point to accept. Yet, the pure thought of a salary supplemented with adequate benefits, irrespective of cause, are reason enough to attract potential employees in a tough economic climate. Once the wheat is separated from the chaff, it’s easy to see there is usually a small  core group of over-dedicated employees. It’s this group that consistently goes the extra mile. Unfortunately, it is also this group that is most susceptible to burn out. When that happens, we have what I call “campfire burnout”. In this stage, up to several of your best people are at risk.

Cost of Quality theme: House On Fire Burnout

To carry out your mission, you need to offer high quality services. Attaining that quality requires many steps and plenty of fine tuning right? But what about work that has to be redone and rechecked? How about systems that don’t work?  Or work that doesn’t even really need done period?! Excessive absenteeism or duplicating effort doesn’t help either. When these type of issues persist, we have a “house on fire burnout”.  A large chunk of the organization is likely being affected- directly or indirectly- by the wasted time and effort.

Misdirection theme: Wildfire Burnout

When the vision painted by leadership is not crystal clear, confusion results. Most importantly, burnout of the entire organization will ultimately occur. I call this “wildfire burnout”. Persistent misdirection can be a threat to the very existence of a small nonprofit. Ultimately it will tarnish the mission and have a serious negative impact upon all stakeholders.

Typically the burnout problem is “fixed” by adding more staff  or giving a raise to placate one or more employees. Unfortunately, these are weak long-term solutions that don’t address the real issues, have little staying power, result in greater costs and can turn off potential funders. Being aware of the true underlying causes of employee burnout can help you to respond more effectively to this problem and make your organization more resilient in the process.


Check the Pulse of Your Nonprofit!

Here are 2 key questions you can ask your staff (or yourself!) to detect burnout.

How have you been feeling lately about coming to work?

When you have a small group of employees losing sleep and feeling fatigued over work, you may have identified Campfire burnout. If you have widespread absenteeism due to employees wanting to avoid work, it could be the sign of House on Fire burnout. It’s been often said that employees leave their manager- not their job. Do some soul searching about your nonprofit’s management style and make positive changes where necessary before it’s too late.

Are you having difficulty giving honest feedback about how you feel?

When employees feel disregarded, they stop initiating. Some may even shut down completely. They report to work but simply go through the motions. They are clearly checked-out. When lost hope becomes the focal point of the nonprofit culture, Wildfire burnout has taken hold. Look out below!  Begin to empower employees and consider starting an appreciative inquiry process to regroup. 

Move Forward Together Or Else!

Small nonprofits have limited resources. The most important of these is its people. When this valuable resource is squandered away, the mission is placed in jeopardy.

Recovering from burnout requires a foundation of trust, hope and sometimes even forgiveness. Without this basis, your organization will never be free to move forward.

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